Bryan Taylor

Ugly Mugs: How Flawed Prototypes Lead to Good Design

Not every lesson learned in school is taught with the help of a textbook. Sometimes, we learn lessons more indirectly, through the actual experience of learning — lessons that are sometimes not even related to the subject matter at all. That’s what happened to me in my fifth-grade art class with Mrs. Allen.

We had been given three class periods to make our very own mugs out of lumps of clay. I only needed one. I watched the instruction and then dove right in, excited to roll out the clay, cut shapes with a wooden knife, work the seams together, decorate, paint, and fire. I got a C+. My enthusiasm had fast-tracked a fairly ugly mug that I was quickly disappointed with. I had overworked the top while trying to smooth it out, and I had struggled with the handle seams, which required a lot of pressure to fix, which caused all sorts of other adjustments. And suddenly, the effort was all over and I had two more class periods to sulk in my disappointment. 

Chad Laws, however, was a procrastinator, and I noticed about 10 minutes into the third and final class period that he still hadn’t started. He was overwhelmed, didn’t remember the instruction, and I was eager for a little redemption — so I did it for him. I rolled, cut, and seamed just as I had done before, but this time I did not touch the top of the mug once it was assembled, and I used less water when starting the seams, and the mug came out so much better. I didn’t add the dumb edge decoration I had thoughtlessly carved on my version, opting instead for a very simple and clean presentation, painted the exact same colors of my own mug, yet everything about this mug was much more refined. Chad Laws got an A. 

In the British grading system, a C+ is considered third-rate work, and that’s about how I viewed my mug. In various U.S. systems, a C+ is described as “developing,” “mediocre,” and “needs improvement” — all of which were true of my work. And all of this has proven to be a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since: We learn how to do things by first making mediocre mugs. 

The mediocre mug in all of its lesson-giving glory.

What I love about Drawn is that we have created a makerspace that has carved out a process with enough room to make mediocre mugs before we perfect the final product. We move through a process that involves first understanding why we are making mugs, then it’s on to exploring materials, to drafting ideas, testing their limits, discussing alternatives, refining prototypes, and then building beautiful mugs that are ready for scale. 

What comes out of this process might appear to be a simple mug, but it is not the right size by accident. It is not tapered by chance. The handle doesn’t naturally fit the average hand because of luck. When we take the time to go through the whole process — which can feel slow and elongated at times, and perhaps unnecessary at others — and come out with the beautiful mug that is simple and elegant and refined in all the right ways, we might be tempted to wonder if that whole process was really necessary.

Let’s imagine,

for a moment, that you are going to host a brunch. And you want to have the right mugs to leave a memorable impression on your guests. You want them to almost wish that they could take the mug home afterward because they were sincerely drawn to their own mug — and so you set out to buy the perfect mug for each guest.

The first store you walk into boasts of having the most popular mugs in town. The reviews look good. There are plenty of mugs from which to choose, ranging from classic to downright silly. You know your guests well enough to know that Maya loves music and Ray loves the rodeo, but these guests are also subtle and cultured and buying a saxophone-shaped mug isn’t really going to leave the type of impression on Maya that you hope for. A store clerk approaches and offers to share which mugs have been trending, but you leave the store to see what else is out there.

The second store you enter is smaller, but very nice. Sections of the store are labeled in themes: Traditional, Artisan, Imported, Contemporary, Outdoor. You notice as you walk from category to category that they all look fairly similar. There aren’t considerable differences between artisan and outdoor because there is a clear style that this store has established. The style is distinct, and nice, but more reflective of the store’s style than the guests for which you are trying to create this memorable experience. A potter emerges to ask if you want a custom design for your brunch, but somehow you feel like they’ll just end up looking like every other mug on the wall.

The third store that you walk into is not what you expect. You actually step back outside and look at the sign to make sure you’re in the right place. It feels more like you walked into the back of the store than the front; more of a workshop than a retail space. You find some wet clay in one corner, a few tools and brushes in another. Sketches are pinned up on the walls. You can see a variety of mugs on a display shelf, none of which look similar, and none of which are for sale. These mugs had been made as artist’s proofs for previous customers of the store. You notice someone standing at a workbench, studying the patterns on leaves with a magnifying glass. You describe your brunch to this craftsman and your desire to create a memorable experience, at which point, the maker sets down the leaves, opens a notebook, and asks you to describe each guest.

This is how we approach our work.

Over the years, our work has begun to build a reputation for one mug or another. Some call us up asking us to do for them what we did for someone else. Sometimes, they want the same experience we created for someone else, but they want a quicker version of the experience — a more transactional version — that you might find in the first or second store. They want something a little more predictable, not acknowledging that the thing which so captured their attention — the thing that they want us to replicate — was not built quickly or predictably. We had to make some mediocre mugs before the real gems could be found. 

While this may sound slow and laborious (and expensive) to partner with a workshop rather than to shop at a store, we have found it to be the most efficient and effective path to proper scale. The first store can’t create anything of substance, or personality. It simply chases the trends and shuffles inventory. The second store sounds like it wants to get to know you and customize your mugs, but you kinda know the results won’t be too different from every other mug that the store has made. The Drawn shop takes a little time to get through that early process, but once we’ve dialed in all of the details, the intentionality of every decision, all of the nuances — including cost and production — it is actually one of the most efficient ways to test a unique idea that will deliver a unique experience. We organically become primed to scale with something that we know will resonate with the guests at your brunch, and will also resonate with numerous guests at future brunches everywhere.