As a UX designer, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my design chops in order to reach my full potential. Similarly, during my years as a bike racer, I was constantly looking for ways to gain an edge on the competition. Along the way, I encountered the philosophy of marginal gains – a method of achieving high performance through “the aggregation of incremental improvements.

This approach was made famous by David Brailsford, the Performance Director of British Cycling. During the London 2012 Summer Olympics, he led Team GB Track Cycling to a record seven gold medals (or 70% of the gold medals available for track cycling events). Clearly he was doing something right. So, I thought that finding a way to apply his philosophy of marginal gains to my work could help me to become a better designer. But first, I needed to examine exactly how Brailsford did it.

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“Marginal gains is more than a process, it’s a mentality.” – David Brailsford

In order to find out where they were lacking, Team GB examined every aspect of their performance in order to find where they could extract small advantages. All of these would “collectively add up to a decisive winning margin.” They began with optimizing the obvious stuff like the nutrition of their riders, their training regimen, weight and ergonomics of equipment, etc. But what really set them apart is that they went above and beyond the obvious.

They searched for marginal (1%) improvements in small areas that other teams had overlooked: They searched for a pillow that would offer athletes the most restful sleep, then took it with them wherever they traveled. They taught their athletes the most effective way to wash their hands so they got sick less often. One athlete even brought an espresso machine with him to events around the world so that he could always have a perfect cup of espresso before racing.

History of Marginal Gains

Brailsford wasn’t the first to utilize marginal gains to reap great performance benefits; many sports have used this principle in the past. Perhaps the sport that has been most greatly dominated by marginal gains is Formula 1 (F1) racing, where incremental improvements in technology are key to gaining a competitive advantage over the competition. F1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), rules F1 with a strict set of regulations which forces their teams to seek out every sort of marginal gain they can. This has taken the form of great advances in carbon fiber technology (weight reduction and aerodynamics), kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), and cars that produce mind-boggling amounts of downforce.

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While modern-day sports embrace this idea, the theory of marginal gains can actually be tracked back to the 19th century. Back in 1886, Wilhelm Steinitz became the first official world chess champion. He accomplished this by being one of the first people in recorded history to apply a methodical system of marginal gains in competition. His approach came to be known as the Steinitz Accumulation Theory, or the Steinitz System. It required the player to analyze and understand the position of pieces to accumulate advantages to gain dominance against an opponent – in short, Steinitz’s thinking lay the foundation for modern chess theory.

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Marginal Gains in Design

With it’s broad history of use in such disparate fields as chess and bicycle racing, it’s easy to see how marginal gains can be applied to the work of a designer. Essentially, designers should be deliberately taking small steps to improve their skills on a daily basis. The difficulty is that it’s hard to see the effects of small changes over a short period of time. Most people find meaning in change only if there’s a large, easily quantifiable outcome associated with it. So, how can designers actually apply this? We need to focus on consciously improving a little bit everyday.

Here are a few ways you can go about doing that:

Practice, Practice, Practice

Try your hand at workbooks like The Artist’s Way and Unfolding the Napkin to provide some structure. Or pick your own theme and iterate over time. With just a few minutes of designing every day your technique will become better, leaving you with more brainpower to solve problems instead of just push pixels.

Keep A Keen Eye on Your Productivity

Monitor your daily internet habits with apps like RescueTime. This “fitbit for your digital day” will help you become unbelievably aware of how often you may wander off task. Check out our productivity tips for designers to find more time in your day and work efficiently by applying these 50 photoshop tricks to become a design ninja.

Learn to Code

Understanding the limitations of web design can open doors for the creative process. Print designers understand inks, bleeds, papers, and so on. Why shouldn’t you learn the basics of how a web page works? There’s a lot to be said for the acqueous production process of a unicorn.

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As Brailsford illustrates, we must always be looking for the best way of doing things, even if it’s not the way we’re used to. We need to be humble about not knowing what we don’t know. By being receptive to new ways of doing our work better, we continuously improve ourselves as designers.

Clearly, marginal gains have done wonders for the British Cycling team. What incremental changes do you make to become a better designer?

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