If you’ve ever made ice cream, you know it’s a pretty basic recipe that’s difficult to mess up: cream, eggs, milk, sugar, and whatever flavors strike your fancy. With the exception of the “healthy” ice cream I once attempted to make for my toddler (pro tip: prune juice does not make an acceptable replacement for cane sugar), I’ve always been successful in my amateur attempts with my Cuisinart ice cream maker.
But nothing I’ve produced comes even close to the ice cream I tried at Ballabeni in Munich. The visit to the parlor was one of the highlights of my trip as an inaugural traveler during the first Design Exchange. And it was through making ice cream that I was reminded of the role craft can have in our design work. I’ll explain.
Great design begins with craft
InVision sent five of us—professional designers by day, but adventure-seekers by night—to Munich for a week to experience inspiring people and places, like the impeccable design studio at IBM, a museum filled with street art, and class presentations with students at a local design school.
All of these places embraced craft in their own way: IBM with data and business, the museum with spray paint and canvas, and the students with typefaces and letterpress machines. These venues offered a diverse way to interpret craft in the world of art and design; however, our stop at Ballabeni was a delicious reminder that the importance of craft is universal.
Ballabeni’s creamy textures and explosive flavors can’t be captured with words. I saw the artisans at Ballabeni combine ingredients with my own eyes—a simple cream base with a dash of familiar flavors like mint, chocolate, and ginger, or hazelnut—then watched as that batter was transformed by master craftspeople into an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
When it comes to creative work, craft is an invisible ingredient, a certain je ne sais quoi, that’s especially obvious when it’s missing.
Opening doors with the right tools
In one sense, design is very egalitarian. A person can start sketching their ideas with pencil and paper, and anyone with access to a computer can use a free trial of the software du jour. However, our toolset is about more than the pixels we put on a screen.
Our toolbox should include everything from understanding how pixels will translate to code, to knowing how our work can be accessible to people who use screen readers, to prototyping methods that bring our static ideas to life.
“Well-executed design runs much deeper than visual polish.”
For designers working in the service realm, we must also know how to prototype physical experiences and spaces, to bring our ideas to life in the real world. Knowing how to piece together buttons and other components from a design system—itself a critical tool for teams—is a good start, but it will never be enough to craft world-class products.
Ballabeni has invested in its ice-cream-making tools, a fact that’s hard to miss as soon as you step foot inside their store. Their state-of-the-art machines freeze ice cream right in the countertop, meaning that they can mix the ingredients, freeze them almost instantly with ultra-cold liquid nitrogen, and serve them to customers all in the same place. This method allows a level of execution that would not be possible with your run-of-the-mill freezing techniques.
Theirs aren’t the only machines in the world that use liquid nitrogen for freezing; in fact, this method is becoming increasingly common in finer establishments. However, Ballabeni’s machine doesn’t just whip up a batch as fast as it can; it has a proprietary computer system that can track how the ice cream is freezing and adjust the temperature and stirring speed on-the-fly.
There is nothing haphazard about the way these folks transform their batter into ice cream.
“Craft is an invisible ingredient, a certain je ne sais quoi, that’s especially obvious when it’s missing.”
Creating a masterpiece requires more than just good tools, just as a Stradivarius violin in the wrong hands will still sound awful. The magic of good tools, though, is that they unlock potential, just as having a bow unlocks the potential to play the violin in a way you never could by just plucking the strings.
Human connection is essential to the process
The nitty-gritty of design processes excites me.
Two sets of mockups may superficially look identical, just as two scoops of chocolate ice cream might look the same to a casual observer; but the steps taken to arrive at the end product—like research, prototyping, and iterating—are what you’ll find in the details.
Your process is baked into your design and inextricably linked to its success. Even though it seems invisible, your users can taste the love that goes into creating your work.
Flourishes like witty copy, tasteful GIFs, and polished microinteractions only resonate when you understand how your product fits into your users’ daily lives.
As we all know, an important part of the design process is finding ways to deliver the unexpected in a way that our users appreciate. “Surprise and delight” is an overused concept these days, but one it’s the best way to describe how Ballabeni connects with its patrons.
“Your process is baked into your design and inextricably linked to its success. Even though it seems invisible, your users can taste the love that goes into creating your work.”
An example for inspiration: During hot summer months, the shop will leave one of its ice cream wells empty. When the inevitable group of hot parents stops by with strollers full of small children and appetites worked up at a nearby park, the ice cream specialists offer to make a fresh batch of a flavor not typically on the menu, like rose.
Though the parents would be happy to eat the regular flavors, they are especially delighted to have something made just for them. Bellabini realizes that it is selling these overheated parents more than ice cream; it is selling respite on a hot day and delivering it in the form of comprehensive experience.
When we’re down in the weeds of designing a specific feature, it’s easy to forget that people are encountering our work in the context their own personal story. Staying connected with those people helps us deliver the well-crafted products and services that make sense in the context of their lives. Well-executed design runs much deeper than visual polish.
“An important part of the design process is finding ways to deliver the unexpected in a way that our users appreciate.”
Visitor feedback informs the menu at Ballabeni, a constant work-in-progress. For instance, despite a penchant for the fiery taste of ginger, the owner has toned down the amount in their signature chocolate ginger flavor to better suit the German palettes of their customers (incidentally, it’s a must-try for anyone stopping by the shop!).
Like any good designer taking time to understand the people who use their products, Ballabeni takes the time to engage with their customers and deliver a thoughtful experience. They understand how their product fits into the larger fabric of people’s lives and find small ways to bring happiness to their visit.
Preserve your vision; take a stand for what you believe in
Imagine my surprise when, after a full tour of their state-of-the-art freezing machines, Ballabeni explained that they don’t believe in ice cream cones. A place that cares about every detail but doesn’t serve their ice cream in cones? It’s like a grilled cheese restaurant that doesn’t use bread.
My shock and dismay turned to respect, however, as they spoke about honoring the purity of the ice cream. When I tasted that ice cream, I realized they were right; their product was so creamy and intense that it stood on its own just fine. Some decisions must come from the core beliefs of the craftsperson, even if doesn’t align with what users say they want.
After surveying the menu, I also noticed an obvious gap in their flavors: vanilla.
The mystery was solved when the owner started talking about the importance of sourcing ingredients. He wants them to be as local as possible, and always sourced ethically. I live in California, land of Alice Waters and people who like to know the name of the chicken who laid the eggs in their breakfast omelet. When I think of sourcing my food, proximity and animal welfare are usually as far as it goes.
Ballabeni goes even further. I didn’t catch all of the details due to language barriers, but it was clear that vanilla wasn’t on the menu because there was no way to source it that fit the founders’ ethical model. While I, as a visitor, may have pined for a fresh cone or a scoop of classic vanilla, I respect that Ballabeni took a stand and didn’t offer those items for reasons that are important to them.
The magic of craft
Craft gets a lot of lip service in the design world, often as a shorthand for products perfectly-pushed pixels.
But true craft runs much deeper than aesthetics. It’s about the process behind the work, the way it connects with users and meets their needs, and the way it evolves over time.
Craft is not static.
Well-crafted products are not always superficially beautiful, but they are always deeply satisfying. Craft existed long before it became the domain of designers, and it will exist long after today’s hot companies fade into the history books. We designers have many lessons we can learn from the craftspeople at Ballabeni.