The Art of Deconstruction — How to Reverse Engineer Success

What do you want to do? It’s very important to identify your goal before you start anything. (I talk all about this in another article]) This will help you hyper-focus, save time, and give you a clear filter to help you evaluate your efforts.

Here are a few examples of goals:

  • Take great portrait photos
  • Paint like an Impressionist
  • Remodel my home office
  • Give a presentation

Find the top performers or best examples on a subject and particular platform.

  • Who else has done this before?
  • What do you like?
  • What does everyone else like?
  • What metrics are valuable to measure?

Once you’ve done a deep dive and can pick up on trends and patterns, select the cream of the crop. Pick the top 3–5 examples and include at least one anomaly — the example that performs as well as the rest, but breaks the common threads that link the others together. Anomalies will help to challenge the conclusions you might have from your findings to help you form a better hypothesis moving forward.

If you’ve gone to art school, you might be familiar with the “masterwork copy” assignment. You take a popular piece of art and simply copy it. Stroke by stroke. Color to color. The purpose is to help students develop their skills quickly by understanding how the masters made such great pieces of art. Through this process, they train their eyes on how to see and their hands how to make. Students add new tools to their toolbox as they solve the challenges of their own work.

Whenever I seek to understand the success of something, I ask myself a few questions:

  • What are the main components and ingredients that make this up?
  • What specific attributes make it effective?
  • How did the person make it?
  • How would you go about making that?

Self-Portrait, September 1889. Musée d’Orsay, Paris via Wikipedia.

If we were to apply this line of questioning to a Van Gogh painting, you might analyze it this way:

  • The main components that make this up: the subject, Van Gogh, slightly off-center of the frame. He’s facing us 3/4 and is lit with a single key light.
  • What makes it effective (beautiful): its organized rhythmic brush strokes, subtle muted split-complementary color palette, and high contrast at its focal point: his eyes and expression.
  • How did he make it: Using oil paints, Van Gogh created his self-portrait using repeating patterns of brushstrokes that follow the contours of the shapes of the subject.

Become a Reverse Engineer

Being able to reverse engineer something is one of the most effective ways to understand how great things are made and why they work. This is The Art of Deconstruction and can be applied to anything:

  • A dish from a Michelin star restaurant can be broken down into raw ingredients, seasoning, and cooking techniques.
  • When studying a successful business, you can research their industry, the need they fill for their consumers, and their perceived brand in the marketplace.
  • With a beautiful website, you can take note of the colors, typography, and hierarchy. You can even open the page source, and see every line of code it took to build it.
  • When watching a film, you can break down the story arc, its characters, themes, cinematography, visual effects, and editing style.
  • For comedy, you can analyze a standup artist’s jokes: their stories, cadence, and method of delivery.

When you can decode the ingredients that makeup something great, you demystify its genius into elements you can understand. From there, you can begin to emulate and adopt these pieces into your own work.

To fully understand how something works, try to copy it. Just like the Masterwork assignment I mentioned, use each ingredient and follow each step until you’ve recreated one part or all of the work you’re studying. Based on the learning retention pyramid, this method of active learning will help you cement the information for you to use later.

“Isn’t that stealing?” — Every Creative Person

At this point, some of you might feel a little apprehensive towards this. Watch “Everything is a Remix”, then I’ll meet you back here.

Don’t just take from culture; contribute to it. The last step of this process is to apply your newfound knowledge towards the goal you’ve identified in step 1. Take the most relevant elements of the best things you’ve consumed and improve upon them. Combine them together. Make something new built off of what came before you.

Here are a couple of ways to do that:

  • Add your POV. What’s your unique perspective on the subject matter? What can you add to the conversation?
  • Remix it. “This meets that”. “It’s the Uber for…”
  • Go more in-depth. If you’ve found an article that’s 2000 words on how to tidy up, then write an article that’s 5000 words and get into the nuances of organizing and color-coding your shirts.
  • Find the white space. What aren’t they doing?

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