What Two Cooking Shows Taught Me About Design Thinking

I love geeking out on the creative process. I love seeing the connections I experience in teaching, in writing, in developing web platforms, and in making sketchy videos. However, I also enjoy thinking through creativity in a context that’s foreign to me.

See, I’m not much of a cook. I can make an insanely good salsa and a pretty good marinara sauce. However, I don’t understand the art or the science of all things culinary. And yet . . . I’ve always enjoyed watching cooking shows in the same way that I enjoy watching a baseball game or a home renovation show. I love seeing how other people make things.

So, I’ve been thinking about two cooking shows that differ sharply in their creative process.

The first show is Chopped. Here, three contestants face off in a timed event to win the prize as the best chef. It’s sort-of a tamer, faster version of Survivor – one where nobody is eating bugs. Contestants must use the items in their baskets to create a recipe in a short amount of time.  

When I watch Chopped, I am reminded of the power of creative constraint. The chefs are stuck using select items and they’re forced to develop a recipe in a matter of minutes. The end result is often a creative fusion of flavors that they might not have attempted if they had spent days developing the recipe.

However, there’s a dark side to this creative approach. The pressure from the time constraint and the competition often lead to ridiculous mistakes. Suddenly, an accomplished chef forgets to close the freezer door and the entire dessert fails miserably.

Enter America’s Test Kitchen. Here, the approach is the complete opposite. Instead of creating brand new recipes, they take failed recipes and fix them. Instead of being forced to use specific ingredients, they test out tons of different ingredients, saying essentially, “Why not? It wouldn’t hurt to try.” Rather than testing out a recipe in a matter of minutes, they spend weeks perfecting one specific recipe. And, unlike the cutthroat competition of Chopped, their cooks work collaboratively.

Both shows incorporate design thinking in different ways. The first uses active prototyping, but still begins with empathy and moves into ideating, prototyping, revising, and ultimately launching (a phase that’s rarely included in design thinking diagrams but is still a critical part of the process). The second is a much more comprehensive, slower design thinking approach that incorporates more research and deeper revision. The first is more about creating something entirely new from scratch. The second is all about revising and refining.

So, it has me thinking about these two approaches to creativity and design thinking. Chopped is all about constraint and the America’s Test Kitchen is about slack. I think they’re both necessary in design projects. Sometimes, creative work involves embracing limited resources, limited options, and limited time in order to create something unique. Other times, creative work thrives in a loose atmosphere with a slow, systematic process of experimentation.

In fact, there’s a time and a place for using both approaches on the same project. NaNoWriMo is sort-of a Chopped approach to writing a first draft. And it works. However, authors often “leave the freezer open” in the initial push to create something within that deadline. So, at that point, they can embrace an America’s Test Kitchen approach to revision.

It has me thinking about how I use design thinking in the classroom. We often do a single-day or even a one-hour design challenge to get students thinking about the design process. In these moments, I want them moving quickly into prototyping. However, students might spend another three or four weeks on a longer, more deliberate design project that involves every part of the cycle.

Both approaches work and both approaches are necessary.

So, what are some ways you’ve used either constraint or slack to boost creativity in your own work?

Note: If you’re interested in using design thinking in your own classroom, you might find my book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students  to be a helpful starting place.


Here are some free design thinking resources I’ve developed that you might find helpful:

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