The Value of Curation

I am a big fan of restaurants. Good restaurants. I love the event of going out to eat, the atmosphere, the busyness (or lack there of), seeing other people being out, talking with servers, having my plates taken away, having my water topped up, and great conversation around a table. Not to mention the actual food itself.

THE FOOD. Delicious. Adventurous. Comforting. An old favourite. A new must-have. Great food paired with a great experience is a pretty amazing thing. Yet, so often, what do you hear in restaurants from other diners? “I could make it myself, at home, for less”.

Let the sheer stupidity of that sentence wash over you. Take away the fact that the restaurant is a business, whose major motivation is making a profit. Ignore the costs of leasing or owning the real estate, and utilities. Don’t think about the restaurant staff – servers, bussers, chefs, hosts/hostesses, dishwashers – that all need to get paid. Forget about how someone else did the cooking, and the rushing, and the clean-up after. I think any of those, by themselves, are reason enough to make the “I could do it for cheaper” argument null and void. I have even generously assumed that the complaint lodger is, in fact, a fantastic chef – perfectly capable of reproducing whatever meal they’ve just consumed. However, even discounting all three obvious points of value the dining customer receives for their money (service, venue, taste), I still think that there is an often overlooked aspect to eating out that, in itself, is worth all the markup of a decent restaurant. Curation.

There are a lot of decisions that go into making a menu. Once you’ve narrowed down the type of restaurant (Italian, Asian, Greek, Fusion, you name it), the feel of the place (casual, upscale, family, pub), and the clientele that you will be serving, you actually need to settle on some dishes to serve, that reflect all those earlier decisions. Too many options, and your customers won’t be able to make a decision – and your kitchen will be inefficient, food will be wasted, etc… – but too few and your menu will boring, with a lot of guest desires going unserved. For the dishes you do choose, can you and your staff make them in volume, and to order – or are they TOO complicated? Or worse, not complicated enough!

You’ve picked your dishes! Just the right number. Great choices, really. These recipes are going to impress a LOT of people. But where will you get the food? Will it be okay to use frozen chicken, or do you need fresh farm chickens? Can the farmer commit to filling your orders consistently, especially with the demand? For how much you are willing to charge, will the better meat still fit into your budget? How about produce? Is the local stuff that much better than the Sysco stuff, for the money? Can you get the right quantities regularly? Too much and your costs will skyrocket with waste. Do you need to source from multiple vendors? Is it worth getting this one ingredient, even though you only use it in one dish? Does the dish that needs that one ingredient need to go, and be replaced with something simpler?

You can see how the questions spiral out of control pretty quickly. And these are questions that need decisions – you can’t ignore them. Choices NEED to made. Every one of these decisions is critical to the quality of the food you will serve in your restaurant – the quality of experience you will offer. And every one of those choices stands on the shoulders of a dozen other ones that got you to that point. The location. The staff. The paint colour. The dinnerware. The cutlery. The music. The doorknobs. The style of sign on the bathroom door (it’s important!). You are literally the gatekeeper of your restaurant – you are in charge of everything that comes in to, and out of, it.

In building, and refining, and re-refining the vision for your restaurant, you have been carving it, out of infinite possibility, into existence – each choice either a measured, focusing cut, or a mistake. You patrons might not ever be aware of all but a fraction of the decisions you made, but they benefit (or suffer) from every one. When a guest has a great experience, and raves to their friends about what an amazing new place they ate at, they are responding to curation done correctly. Everything worked. There was nothing unnecessary, nothing out of place. Experiences that good don’t happen by mistake, and experiences that good are valuable and worth paying for – if solely to reward, to recognize, the mind-numbing number of decisions that went into making it that good.

That was just a restaurant. Curation is all around us. It’s a band taking thirty good songs, and making an amazing 12-song album. An editor whittling down a stack of articles to one perfectly cohesive issue of a magazine. A director cutting hundreds of shots, for the perfect movie. A homeowner picking just the right decor for their home, without cluttering it. And (forgive the obvious inclusion) a gallery curator, choosing the right pieces to complement and contrast each other, to make an experience out of disparate pieces.

The thing with curation, as I’ve come to understand it, is that what you say no to is just as important to what you choose to include. An undisciplined chef will mix too many flavours, have too many dishes. An unfocused presenter will throw every piece of data, and way too many graphs, at their audience, and bury the point. A product designer will include every feature under the sun, and overwhelm users.

One of my favourite quotes from Steve Jobs, speaks so strongly to this:

And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

He goes on:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.

People ask me a lot why I am SO fond of Apple products. I can honestly say that a big part of it is the curation behind it. Apple really focuses on core experience, and is willing to drop or exclude things that don’t make the cut. Think about when deciding not to ship the iPhone or iPad with Flash support – critics and competitors, and ADOBE, all decried the lack of Flash as a huge mistake, an insult to users, and a technical disadvantage. Pressure seemed to continue to mount against Apple, but rather than give in, Steve published his “Thoughts About Flash” letter on, and spelled out every reason why it was bad for their device, platform, and users. And they were right. Flash ended up getting dropped from almost every mobile device, and it never was anywhere close to a good experience. Saying yes to that feature would have been a mistake, and the iPhone was a better product because someone had the guts and taste to say no.

As I see it, throwing every feature at a product (looking at you, Samsung, among many others) is tasteless design. It’s not whittling down a vision to it’s most essential, most refined. It’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that results in too many features, poorly integrated, that detract from the product – and the experience of using that product.

I know a lot of people scoff at Apple products because they are so restricted – you can’t install Flash, you can’t download a torrent app, you can’t install a different keyboard – and see those restrictions as a loss, as a product weakness. I see the opposite. I see a product made better because of what it both does, and doesn’t do – and designers with a strong vision of the product they want to make, the experience they want to deliver. Anyone can just do everything and never say no to anything, because it’s easy. It’s easy to not make tough decisions – but that’s how we end up with restaurants trying to serve us upscale casual traditional italian fast food BBQ. Or news broadcasts that spend 30 seconds on every story, but never an hour on one important one. Or phones that are bigger than our hands, that can play a video on top of whatever else you are doing. These things aren’t better because they do more, they are worse. Anytime I see something with too much, I see fear – fear from the creators of making a bad decision, which manifests itself in never making the right decisions. And why the hell would I want to spend my money on that?

So the next time you are in a restaurant, or using a phone, or reading a magazine – next time you are consuming any experience or product – try to see all the choices that resulted in that thing you’re considering. Those decisions should be valued – if they resulted in a better experience – and they should increase the perceived worth of the experience, or dramatically lower it.

I will always be willing to pay more for taste, for conscious decision, than its absence. And if you can honestly look at something, after taking all the manifest decisions into account, and still think you could do better, become a curator of something. Make a dent in this universe. Make something better. Your decisions will be rewarded.