Christopher Simmons is a designer, writer and educator. He spends his days at the San Francisco design office MINE™ and serves on the AIGA’s National Board of Directors. He has been eating hamburgers all over the Bay Area (and beyond) and writing about them. Simmons parses design insights hidden inside the burgers or the dining experience and shares them on his blog, The Message is Medium Rare. His palatable work has been noticed by Fast Company, Smithsonian Magazine, and New York Magazine, among others.
Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down together at Mission Bowling Club for two of their “Mission Burgers,” which came with pickles and easy conversation about side projects, work, life, and what it takes to “find wisdom between two buns.” On his blog, Simmons writes, “People often ask me where to find inspiration, how to stay creative, and how to get ‘unstuck.’ What I’ve found is that, if you look at the world both critically and with wonder, there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Every object, experience, relationship, environment, phrase—everything—has locked inside it an insight it wants to share.” Below we get into the recipe Simmons used for bringing those insights to light and his hopes for the future of the project.
How did you come up with this idea? Have you always been a burger guy?
I don’t know if I am a “burger guy.” I started taking the office to lunch once a week. As designers, we tend to be critical of the world around us, even when we’re just at lunch. Somehow we ended up getting burgers a few times in a row, and I started to think about them. I’m always interested in the essence of things—about their true nature. If a burger is on an English muffin instead of a regular bun, is it still a burger? What if it’s pork belly instead of ground beef? The more I thought about it, the more I found parallels to design and creativity in general. I started writing these thoughts down, thinking I might organize them into an article. Then I thought about making a book. I committed to writing a little each week. That meant eating a burger a week. After two or three weeks it was clear that I was essentially writing a blog, but not publishing it.
So I came into the office one morning and said I wanted to launch it as its own site. We named, designed and built it on Squarespace that day, and launched it the next.
How do you decide what to order?
Generally, I get whatever the house burger is, or whatever they’re known for. Often that’s a basic hamburger but it can also range to the more exotic. Yesterday I had a wild boar burger, for example.
It was dormant for a while. Why did you stop?
Why do you stop working out? Why do you stop reading? Or painting? Things that require time often require dedicated time. When you allow yourself to do something else instead it’s difficult to reestablish your routine. So you make these promises to yourself, “I missed a week of writing, but next week I’ll write twice as much.” Then the next week it’s twice as hard, and so it goes.
In my case I was fortunate that the project received a lot of positive attention early. The month it launched we had 30,000 unique visitors. The next month it was 40,000. But then you miss a week and you lose some of your audience. Then some more. Suddenly you’re squandering a good thing.
Is that why you picked it up again?
I picked it up again because I needed to. As long as the reward is intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic it works. The whole point of doing a side project is because it fulfills something in you. If you’re doing it because it’s an assignment for school or you’re trying to get attention, you’re being extrinsically motivated. Honestly, I’m writing for me only. Maybe a little bit for my mom. I know she reads them all, and she’s a writer. Even so, it can be challenging to sustain. I think that’s why you see a lot of 100 day projects; it’s a manageable timeframe that still sounds ambitious.
I know people who haven’t finished their 100 day projects.
Of course. It’s not that it’s too hard to do, it’s that it is too easy to do something else. There’s always someone who calls and says, “Lets go out.” There is always a project that’s paying you that needs some attention. A client you need to have lunch with…everyone has pressures and demands on their time.
What doubts do you have about The Message is Medium Rare?
I wonder if I can really find fifty or a hundred different things to say about a hamburger! It’s actually getting hard. One way to address that is to experiment more with different forms of writing. I want to do a review that’s just a poem. I want to do one that’s an interview with a chef. Maybe this interview could be part of it?
How does motivation differ from the client projects to side projects?
Risk. With clients, the creative risks you think you’re taking are actually their risks. It’s their money and their reputation you’re putting on the line. Perhaps it’s a shared risk, but there is a bit of a safety net, even if it’s just as subtle as them giving you permission to take that risk versus having to give yourself permission. There’s a whole different dynamic there.
I appreciate the accessibility of the burger as a frame. In theory, a non-design person has access to the design insights, because the vehicle is a burger, America’s favorite food.
We can assume that everybody has eaten a hamburger and the words to describe it are not out of reach of common vocabulary. My initial intention was not accessibility, however, I chose burgers rather by chance.
May I ask you a question…what do you think of your burger?
I think it’s really good. I think the pickles are great. and I wonder if they are homemade. The pickles, the sauce, and the salt are the three things that stand out to me.
You notice the salt right away. The bun is great, too. A good bun is like good typography, it’s invisible. It does its job really effectively, holding the burger so it doesn’t slide out the back. It’s keeping all the juices in. It’s perfect. I like the onions, they’re caramelized and they add a subtle sweetness to each bite.
What do you see as a relationship between the burger initiative and client work?
Very little. I don’t do it with the intent of it helping my work; side projects should be side projects. I know the answer people want to hear is something more like, “I gain all these insights and I get creatively stimulated or inspired by doing side projects, and here are the ways it influences my client work.” I think the truth is that the client work is much more influential. If we’re struggling on a project, inevitably I’ll find an analog to that struggle in the form of a hamburger. Occasionally there’s some passive-aggressive subtext to the insights. That’s me venting frustration.
If you did approach a side project like the Message is Medium Rare with the intention of bettering your other work, would that make it less effective?
I suspect it might be less fun and it might suffer from the burden of expectations. For example, if I had to bring some sort of outcome from it into a meeting the next day. Once it starts being structured like client work, it may as well be.
What is the relationship between the stuff that we’re naturally interested in and being a designer?
Hopefully being a designer is about being naturally interested in anything or everything in life. I’m always looking at a situation and asking, “What is the metaphor here?” Design often speaks in metaphors—so the relationship is a natural one.
If you’re going to give advice to someone about side projects how do you start?
A breakdown of the three deliverables from The Message is Medium Rare:
- The Burger
The portrait. Here’s the burger, here’s actually what it looks like. There’s no environment there’s really very little styling. I’m trying to faithfully and intimately capture the personality of each burger. Make it big, make it clear, make it unambiguous. It’s a burger, end of story.
- The Review
Then there’s the review. The goal here is to recreate the experience. Usually I focus on taste. Sometimes it’s the service or the environment. It really depends on what makes the strongest impression on me.
- The Leap
The other one is a huge leap. Here’s what I think this needs or it could need. That is the “design insight” or take-away.
What have you found surprising about the project?
One thing I really like about the blog is that many readers don’t know immediately that it’s about design. I saw a Yelp review the other day, someone went to Shake Shack and commented that they first learned about it from the Message is Medium Rare! There are people who read it for the burger reviews as well as those looking for creative insight.
Another thing I like is the construct. In some ways it’s completely arbitrary. In many ways it’s absurd. But forcing yourself to look at creativity through the lens of ground beef and buns presents an interesting constraint. I had a drawing instructor in college who asked us to bring in an object that was meaningful to us, to draw. I drew it for an entire three hour session. Then he said, “You’re going to draw this for the next three weeks.” It was devastating. I drew it from different angles, I drew it with different materials. At some point, I exhausted everything I knew. Of course, that was the point. He was trying to get us to flush out the familiar to make room for something new. So then I drew it with a six-foot willow branch. I drew it by erasing it. I stopped drawing what I saw and started drawing how it made me feel. Et cetera. I think I’m nearing the point with the blog where I’m running out of familiar ways of writing and will have to start experimenting more. I’m looking forward to that.
Do you consider a project a success if you get to this point of exploring new territory?
I think so. Everyone defines success differently. It’s validating to see lots of likes and shares. I feel a vain rush of self importance when a restaurant or chef emails me asking if I’ll review their burger. When the blog was featured in a TV ad during the World Series it felt almost as good as seeing the Giants win. Squarespace and Creative Mornings and Media Temple and HOW Magazine have cited it as a source of inspiration. I admire all of those companies and to be admired back means a lot. Cool Hunting said some really nice things. I was interviewed in New York Magazine, I’m honored to be talking with you. I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy all that attention. But those are all byproducts of success. It’s important not to confuse extrinsic rewards with intrinsic ones. Side projects are labors of love. So loving it is the only metric that matters.