Like many others in my field, my path to becoming a designer was anything but typical. I’ve had a lot of strange jobs in my life, from being a bounty hunter to working in stocks, and even as a record store clerk. But I truly believe every job I’ve had has molded my brain to think like a designer. However, the gig that made the biggest impact was the six years I spent as a Sushi Chef in a Japanese kitchen.
It wasn’t until a few years into my design career that I came to appreciate the many parallels between sushi and design. While raw fish doesn’t always ring a bell with digital media, they are both born on the foundations of efficiency and design thinking. If I’ve learned anything from my time as a designer, it’s that design thinking can come from anywhere and everywhere —even a plate of Nigiri.
Roll With the Flow
Like many artistic trades, there are countless ways to approach both design and making sushi. Whether you’re stepping into the kitchen or behind the screen, what you learn almost immediately is that developing the best workflow usually gets the fastest and most consistent results. Seems like common sense, but let’s dive in deeper.
The first time I witnessed this concept in person was with a simple avocado. I remember slicing small pieces of avocado out of the rhine with a butter knife and placing them on top of a ‘Rolls Royce’ roll. A chef came over to me and said cryptically, “No wasted movements,” to which I replied, “Whhhaaa?” He took the untouched side of the avocado, spooned it out of the rhine in full, and then began slicing each piece of the avocado in place while retaining its original shape.
After preparing the slices, he fanned them out with one swift movement of his hand and used his knife to lift the pieces and place them all on the roll at once. The lesson was that my work could be cut in half if I found a way to efficiently group tasks instead of taking baby steps.
This concept stuck with me as I transitioned into design. As both myself and fellow designers started working with programs like Sketch and Illustrator, I recognized similar habits. For instance, if I find myself placing and masking multiple images into my grid one at a time, that tells me I need to find a way to move them all at once.
In the example above, integrating plugins and shortcuts like Craft (or any other image content generator) improves efficiency and saves the time I would have spent on the smaller parts of a design to focus on the larger aspects of it instead. Striving for efficiency and grouping of tasks will save you grief not only as a designer, but in any position.
More Than a Pretty Plate
No matter where you go, sushi is meant to look visually appealing. Even grocery store sushi has some form of symmetry and consistency. I always loved plating the individual pieces and giving life to them. Much like digital assets, the ‘fish assets’ must be multi-purposed. Turns out, a beautiful plate of sushi also follows many of the same rules as well-designed site; It can’t just be pretty, it has to be functional.
While working my way up to the ‘privilege’ of crafting actual sushi, my job was to prepare the plates for serving. I cut bamboo leaves, elevated pieces of sushi onto tiny platforms, artfully placed leaf-shaped wasabi, and organized the nigiri in symmetrical rows.
One day, while halfway into plating a large ticket, my sushi sensei came up to me and asked, “Are we serving left-handed customers?” He handed me a pair of chopsticks and said, “Eat a piece of nigiri.” Being right-handed, I attempted to pick one up using the placement I created, but had to maneuver my wrist 180 degrees to grab the desired piece. It was then that I understood what he meant.
Considering most people are right-handed and read from left to right, it was important to place sushi in the order that allowed for natural flow. That ‘top-left to bottom-right’ principle made me think about the experience from the customer’s perspective, and from that moment on I strived to make even the movement of picking up a piece of fish completely seamless.
Nothing should interrupt an expensive dining experience, just like nothing should distract or mislead the user from a great web experience.
As designers, we can make something beautiful, but it also needs to be easily digestible to the average user. Sometimes adding clues or leading the eye with well-timed animation can make navigating a site feel seamless. It’s those micro details that matter.
It’s safe to assume a lot of people have had a tuna roll at least once in their lives. It’s one of the most frequently ordered rolls (save the California) in sushi restaurants around the world. It’s a simple recipe—nori, rice,tuna and green onion. This combo is classic, the green onions having a mild bite that pairs well with the neutrality of tuna.
There are two reasons to pair ingredients, flavor and texture. When using a lighter choice of fish, you need something stronger and more aromatic to compensate, such as cilantro on hamachi. On the other hand, salmon is a strong-tasting fish and can stand on its own, so the experience is elevated by adding cucumber with a mild flavor and crunchy texture.
This same concept applies to pairing typography. If you pick a bold or striking headline font like a Sentinel Bold, you can support it with a simple San-serif that is easy to read and doesn’t steal the show. You wouldn’t put a piece of raw tuna on top of a steak, would you? Typography is aligned, scaled, kerned, and placed around a composition, either acting as texture, visual cue, or as an anchor to support the rest of the interface and guide the user through the site; Just like a spiral of sauce leads the eye to the center of a well-plated meal, providing garnish and emphasis while supporting the “flavor” of the dish.
As an intern who transitioned to a UI and Motion Designer at PRPL, I’ve learned that—much like in my sushi apprenticeship—you have to start small and move up. While I was still fresh to the kitchen, my responsibilities were cutting vegetables and making rice. Similarly, when I started in design, I began by creating email templates, small print materials, and presentation decks.
After months of hard work, I was given the opportunity to design wearable interfaces for global brands, and have since been able to carve my own path in UI and motion design. But in both instances, it was only after I proved my capabilities with the smaller tasks that I was able to graduate to larger assignments, building on the lessons learned from before.
When I designed my first big project, it felt like the first time I was able to cut fish in front of customers.
Understanding the process for the seemingly menial tasks—whether it be making rice or vectoring icons—is the only way to know how everything will contribute to the big picture. From my humble beginnings, both in the sushi kitchen and the production floor here at PRPL, I’ve learned above all else that you must walk before you run.
A World of Inspiration
As a designer, you get used to finding inspiration anywhere and everywhere, and usually in the most unexpected places. As it turns out, my design mentor was a former sushi chef as well, which helped me find some common ground when stepping into this new career. I am thankful to my talented and patient mentors from both worlds who have made me who I am today.
The lesson for you is to always keep your eye out for new ideas, and adapt your knowledge to the situation at hand. You never know when those skills from your old grind will come in handy.
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