The Egg-laying Wool-Milk Pig

Last week, I wrote about two recent projects of mine that serve as cautionary tales in keeping projects simple — you probably can’t simplify everything, so it’s worth the time to find out which simplifications have the most bang for the buck. This week, I’d like to share a tale of lack of design focus.

German has the eierlegende Wollmilchsau: a mystical animal that lays eggs, while producing wool, milk, and meat to boot. It’s a little bit like the English “jack of all trades, master of none” except that the eierlegende Wollmilchsau doesn’t do each job badly, it plainly can’t exist. This is obviously a bad way to start a design.

The first surfboard that I made by myself was supposed to be an eierlegende Wollmilchsau. It was going to be a longboard, because we had months with smaller waves that just weren’t all that suitable for shortboarding, but it was also going to turn sharply off the rails like a shortboard. To help it turn, it was going to have tons of camber (bend like a banana), and small fins. And along the way, I thought I’d make it thin to cut through the water.

Of course what I ended up with, not helped by my heavy fiberglassing hand, was a plow that dug into the water, would turn unexpectedly when you managed to get it onto the rails, and couldn’t pick up a small wave to save its life due to the camber and aforementioned plowing. I surfed it anyway, as a matter of pride, but I had no illusions of it being anything but the the worst board I owned. And that’s comparing it to the $30 used rasta-graphic plank that had been taking on water for at least five years, unrepaired, and was rotting out from the inside. At least it had design focus.

My surfboard didn’t suffer from feature creep, where you start piling on features until the project crumbles from overload, but rather from wanting to have my cake and eat it too. Or from failing to realize that certain design goals were necessarily tradeoffs. The “raily” behavior that I wanted when it was in bigger waves was necessarily “diggy” in small waves. Good boards trade off these features, and getting the balance between them is the art of shaping a board.

So when you start up a new project, think about which facets of your design are jointly achievable, and which are necessarily tradeoffs. Ignoring tradeoffs is a recipe for disaster, designing an eierlegende Wollmilchsau. But viewed constructively, it’s exactly these nuanced decisions that separates the simply possible from the truly marvelous. May you identify your trades, and make them well!