The spiral of refinement

Aug 26, 2023  |  2 min
 |  Craft

Summary: Like a spiral, drawing closer but never reaching the center, creative work involves iteration and refinement.

I repeat myself a lot. For instance, when exploring the research on peak aesthetic experiences, I wrote about optimal difference, the idea that there's an ideal point between too familiar and too strange at which our reward systems are maximally engaged. Then, when writing about the rule of three, I stumbled back into the same discussion and wrote about optimal difference again.

I worry about being too repetitive in these notes. Will it be boring or off-putting to you, dear reader?

On the other hand, I feel that there’s an unavoidable element of repetition that happens in any creative process. Musicians sometimes circle around melodic themes across multiple songs or even albums (sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly). Fiction authors can end up using similar character archetypes and tropes. (I found in my own writing that the romantic interest subplots for two unpublished novels had some striking similarities.)

Where does this repetition come from?

I think it emerges naturally from the process of iterating and refining. In my work as a designer, I often need to iterate through multiple attempts at a solution. We develop a concept about the problem we are trying to solve or a solution to a problem that we’ve identified and then we test it out. Like a carpenter building a bench, we observe it from different angles, “sit in it” to see if it’s comfortable.

Inevitably, the first few attempts will have obvious things wrong with them. But they weren’t obvious until we made the attempt. Only in making the thing and observing it — in taking it out of our heads and putting it in the world — are we able to see the holes in our concept.

We must go back, fix the problems, and try again.

I see this sort of like a “creative spiral of refinement” in which we are circling around a solution, gradually getting closer, but never quite reaching the perfect center.

In my writing, I see this process play out all the time. I often have an idea in my mind that I want to express. But before I write:

  • I don’t know all of the implications of the idea.
  • I don’t know the right structure and metaphors to best express the idea.
  • And — which feel I struggle with the most right now — I don’t know what is the best context into which to embed the idea. How best to “approach” the idea and show how it relates to other ideas.

Discovering all that takes iteration and refinement. I must build several “benches” before I get one that’s comfortable.

I’m committed to “working with the garage door up” in these notes. Fortunately or unfortunately, part of what that means is that this repetition will be on display. You, dear reader, will be invited to sit on many benches that aren’t yet comfortable, many ideas that aren’t yet perfectly clear.

One benefit that does provide is that you can have input into my writing. Ideas are more malleable when they aren’t fully formed. So if something strikes you, let me know. (

Let’s build some benches together.

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