In order to make something great you only need to change the existing layer by 3%.

I think most people are held back by the fear of not producing something completely original. Nothing is so good that it can’t be made better. Many of the most innovative companies of our generation have been made from tweaking an existing layer by 3% and then building upon that.

Yesterday, Snap was named the world’s most innovative company of 2020. When it started in 2011, Snapchat was not a completely novel idea. We already had the ability to send messages and photos through SMS and other various apps. Snapchat tweaked the existing layer of communication on the internet by adding ephemerality.

Obviously Snap has grown to do more than ephemeral messaging, but the core product philosophy remains the same. Reinvent the camera to improve the way people live and communicate. They tweaked the existing idea of communicating through photos by adding a set time limit and kept innovating from there.

Virgil Abloh coined the 3% approach in his personal design language when he gave a talk at Harvard in 2017. He spoke about how he applies this rule to fashion by minimally tweaking an existing piece in order to create a more beautiful product. Virgil applies the 3% approach to fashion, but the same thesis translates to product design.

Intentional creation means taking into account everything that’s been done before and modifying the experience to make it better. Creation for the sake of creation is wasteful. If you’re designing something that’s completely novel, but not useful or elevated, you’re wasting time.

As designers, we should be able to pull from experiences that have already been created and modify existing patterns to better fit the needs of the people we’re building for. Sometimes this means crafting an entirely new experience, sometimes it means keeping the experience exactly the same.

Don’t the let the fear of not building something completely unique keep you from building anything at all. True innovation comes over time and sometimes the most unique experiences start by tweaking an existing idea by only 3%.


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