What makes a great bike? The basic design hasn’t changed much in a century. The "double triangle" of the frame still strings together two wheels. In truth, a bike is a collection of brands and functional components that work together in a specific way, united by a basic idea. When they work beautifully together, you get a really great cycling experience — a "great bike."
The parts work beautifully together because each individual component gets slightly fine-tuned, year after year after year. Scan the history books and you’ll see there have been some grand gestures at changing the fundamental design, but they rarely stick — slow, steady, incremental improvements have gotten us to where we are today.
This kind of evolution is called "marginal gains."
Marginal Gains is also a great way for normal humans to achieve superhuman feats. It’s how Sir Dave Brailsford led the British Track Cycling team to Olympic glory in 2008. Brailsford took a team of good riders, not amazing riders, and won 70% of the gold medals — something no one had ever done.
His secret? Over four years, Brailsford extracted small, 1% improvements in every single aspect of the riders’ performance: mental preparation, physical preparation, training plans, nutrition, bike position, the weight of the tires, the shape of the chain rings, even the pillows they slept on.
He called his revolutionary training philosophy "The Aggregation Of Marginal Gains." It changed cycling forever. And it’s catching on elsewhere — in other sports, in education, and in any place where "improvement" is the name of the game.
Now, you'd think the world of brand marketing would be quick to catch on — but there's a problem. Creatives and designers of all stripes are scarcely able to tap into the power of marginal gains, and the brands and businesses they work for are missing out as a result. The reason? Transformational change is often credited to a defining decision or moment.
In contrast, a 1% philosophy is barely noticeable. And we live in a time where impatience and skepticism demand immediate, impressive results, especially in digital design. A marginal gains approach takes time.
There are other barriers, too. Disposability, for instance. "Design" itself often gets churned out fast and tossed aside — something immediately useful but quickly replaced in search of change. There is no "double triangle" to hold up our iterative improvements over time.
Our process (i.e., methodology) can be another barrier. We idealize an "agile" way of working and "getting it built at speed." While agile has a lot of similarities to marginal gains, it’s ultimately about a single delivery, with a single deadline.
Marginal gains works differently when applied to experience design. It’s about breaking an experience down to a series of components and applying time and patience to make each part, and thus the whole, best-in-class. It’s about a long-term investment. It’s about lasting partnerships and working toward a shared, long-term goal.
And it’s about time we did more of it.
If marginal gains contradicts the pressures and business-as-usual of the marketing industry (especially its digital territories), then how do we convince our clients to invest in an agency, not a single "project" or an idea? Will they buy a series of small wins that will eventually compound to the big win for the brand over time?
The answer is yes, but the change needs to begin with us — the designers.
To begin with, we can stop contributing to a myopic status quo. We can stop rushing to the biggest quick win possible to prove our value, and we can stop grasping for the "grenade" to blow up extant design and start again.
Instead, we can start imagining a foundation of design that we can iterate upon week over week, month over month. And we can start scoping differently, staffing differently, thinking differently. We can lean into the fact that a marginal-gains approach can be a driver of true collaboration between brands and design agencies. It represents a chance to start a dialogue about investing in a true partnership and a longer path to results, with the brand itself as the ultimate product.
For us, redesigning the process should be as important as the design. And the payoff will be huge. Besides, tiny 1% improvements might get you to great things faster than you think.
Conor Brady is the CCO of Critical Mass.