Leonardo’s Kitchen Nightmare

“It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo lookin suave

Some of Leonardo’s projects failed because of their execution. The strange tale of Leonardo’s “Kitchen Nightmare” plays out like a Shakespearean “comedy of errors” where a visionary designer’s experiments all work perfectly to extremely disastrous results.

In an article for the Big Design blog, I wrote about the Five Sketching Secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci, where it seemed like everything Leonardo did was successful. This, however, is not the case.

Once upon a time, the Duke of Milan asked Leonardo Da Vinci to help his kitchen staff prepare an extravagant meal for a large dinner party [1]. Leonardo was well known for his dietary practices (he was a strict vegetarian) and his many inventions (parachutes, tanks, gliders). So, Leonardo set about to see how he could innovate in the kitchen.

Seeing several opportunities before him, Leonardo created several new innovations:

  • Developed a series of conveyor belts in the kitchen to bring food to cooks faster
  • Created a large oven to cook food at higher temperatures than normal (at the time)
  • Designed a sprinkler system for safety, in case a fire broke out
  • Invited local artists to carve individual entrees into works of art for guests to eat

As you can guess, it was Leonardo’s “kitchen nightmare.”

When Works As Designed Still Fails

Imagine this scene in your own kitchen.

A designer comes over to “help” you cook dinner. He creates a conveyor belt in an already crowded kitchen. You have never seen or used the new oven that cooks faster than what you have been using for years. The designer installs a sprinkler system, which further crowds the kitchen. Finally, the designer invites 50 or so artists to build edible art for the guests. Your kitchen is super crowded. You feel impending doom at the chaos that has invaded your kitchen.

Disaster strikes!

The comedy of errors begins with the conveyor belts running too slow. With a quick adjustment by Leonardo, the belts run faster. Soon, the food piles up. The belt needs another adjustment.

Next, the new oven works as designed, but the cooks burn the food, using this unfamiliar oven. Besides burning the food, the new oven causes a small fire. Naturally, the sprinkler system is used. The sprinklers works perfectly, but it ruins most of the food.

Finally, the artisans carving the food are too slow. The guests, who were promised an extravagant dinner, are starving. Most of the guests go away hungry.

The Duke, of course, was embarrassed and angry. Leonardo was publicly humiliated.

Three Lessons for Designers

Leonardo’s “Kitchen Nightmare” offers several lessons for designers. I will talk about three lessons here:

  1. Do not be afraid to fail
  2. Use positive judgment to explore the value and benefit of ideas
  3. Do not underestimate the importance of executing your ideas

1. Do not be afraid to fail

First, do not be afraid to fail. Da Vinci was using conveyor belts long before the Industrial Revolution. He was experimenting with higher temperature for cooking, developing his own oven, and using artists to improve the presentation of food. Leonardo developed a sprinkler system, which contains the fundamental design still used today.

When faced with a task of preparing an extravagant meal for the Duke of Milan, Leonardo was inspired to improve the current state of technology in the kitchens of the day. He was not afraid to fail. Leonardo was no “Iron Chef.” And, he failed in a spectacular way. Again, do not be afraid to fail. Leonardo was not.

The fear of failure is a great barrier to creative thinking. You learn from your failures. Leonardo puts it best:

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Fear of failure stifles your thinking. Fear of failure keeps you thinking inside the box. You can learn from failures. You can think creatively.

2. Use positive judgement to explore the value and benefit of ideas

Second, use positive judgment to explore the value and benefit of ideas. Consider yourself as the Duke of Milan, who was just publicly humiliated by Leonardo’s “innovations”.

  • Would you take the time to notice the value and benefit of conveyor belts, new ovens, and sprinkler systems?
  • Would you think about the creative concept of using edible art designed by local artisans for your guests?

The answers to both questions is, most likely, no.

When faced with new ideas or failure, we are quick to judge things negatively. We fail to explore lessons learned. We fail to see the benefits and values within new concepts. We do know the Duke publicly humiliated Leonardo for his “kitchen nightmare.” Ironically, the Duke’s own army could have used the same technology (conveyor belts, ovens, and sprinklers) to build more weapons faster. Instead, the Duke scoffed at these new innovations because he was embarrassed.

When you are faced with a new idea in the future, use positive judgment first by asking your “self” a few basic questions.

  1. What are the benefits and values of this new idea?
  2. In what ways can this new idea work?

As designers and UX professionals, you want stakeholders to consider the value, benefits, and novelty of ideas before quickly dismissing them. Using positive judgment first when a new idea is introduced leads you to explore potential ideas and consider alternatives. You do not quickly jump to the most common design solution, newest technology, or known design pattern.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions” is a famous quote from Leonardo Da Vinci. In this lesson, Leonardo want us to consider the novelty of new ideas rather than our initial, negative reaction, where we judge all the reasons an idea will fail. When you use positive judgment first, you balance your tendency to quickly react to new ideas.


3. Do not underestimate the importance of execution

Third, do not underestimate the importance of executing your ideas. Leonardo made significant inventions for one dinner party. The inventions did work as designed. The conveyor belts moved the food. The oven cooked at a higher temperature. The sprinklers put out the fire. The cooks (ie users) were not ready to have three different inventions at the same time. When you add 50 or so artisans, the kitchen gets very crowded, very fast.

Execution is critical.

Leonardo’s Kitchen Nightmare was brought upon by Da Vinci not following his own advice:

“Experience does not err. Only your judgments err by expecting from her what is not in her power.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

First, consider how the story of Leonardo’s Kitchen Nightmare might be affected by just following modern UX best practices. Leonardo could have started with the 5Hs and W to get better understanding of his design problem. He could have developed personas for the cooks, artisans, servers, the host, and the dinner party attendees. Leonardo could have done some usability testing with the cooks and artisans, where he could have tested out his assumptions with real users.

Second, consider how Leonardo’s execution was seemingly affected by some poor project management practices. Leonardo introduced three new inventions (conveyor belts, sprinking system, and new ovens), as well as new people (the artisans) doing additional activities (carving food). Leonardo was a poor project manager. He added new features and tweaked existing ones, which only added to scope creep. Clearly, Leonardo had planned on doing too much with his project.

Finally, consider how the execution of these kitchen ideas were affected by Leonardo himself. Leonardo was famous for procrastination. For example, it took him many years to complete “The Last Supper”. When you look at the body of his art work, you will discover only a small set of completed masterpieces. From an execution perspective, we see only one resource (Leonardo) for all these ideas. Leonardo was overthinking and underdelivering on his promises, which is a nightmare on any project.

Conclusions

Leonardo Da Vinci did not always succeed. When he failed, it was a spectacular failure. It was a living nightmare. Leonardo may have said it best:

“It has long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

His failures still show us lessons from Leonardo.

Do not be afraid to fail, as you learn the most from your attempts. Judge new ideas with a positive viewpoint to explore the value and benefit of potential ideas. The execution of a new idea can be as important as thinking it up.

You can design like Da Vinci.

1 Gelb, Michael. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. Dell, 2001.

Posted in Design Principles | 3 Comments »

3 Comments

  • Sally P

    March 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Nicely done. Thanks for reminding us how important it is to look at our failures positively so we can learn from them. Also, “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci” is an awesome book! Everyone should read it every day. (I like what you named the image, too – still looking suave, even when facing failure.)

  • Corrinne Hills

    April 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    A reluctance to face failure is a reluctance to learn. Avoiding failure is avoiding the opportunity to learn.
    We can all stay in our safe places but wouldn’t it be boring. Failing and learning from our mistakes is how we become better, and it provides some of the most interesting and exciting parts of our lives.

    I am all for ‘failing’ but failing in order to learn, not ‘failing to learn’.

  • David C Dunkle

    April 20, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    I take away a different lesson from Leonardo’s nightmare.

    Perhaps he was not afraid to fail in the kitchen, but without him having very much domain experience, one could have predicted that he would fantastically fail, as he did. His design may have been futuristic, but failed in the realm of basic usability. Why did the food burn? Because the cooks couldn’t use the new oven correctly. Why did the conveyor belt fail? Because the task completion times were not properly integrated into the design. Basically, if Leonardo had done a better job planning and designing, his plan and design would have executed fine.

    We all see things like this happening every day in industry. A brave proponent fearlessly pushed his design forward, assuring all with his confidence that it will work wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it becomes easy to see why it failed. Yes, we can learn from failures, but what about not failing in the first place? Being afraid to fail does have its place- it makes us recheck, retest and rethink ideas before execution, so failure may be averted. Had Leonardo had a little more fear of failure, to replace his visions of grandeur, the event might now be known as “Leonardo’s Great Feast” rather than his nightmare.

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