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What Can Spaghetti and Marshmallow Teach Us About Design?

Every so often we gather our team together over a few beers and catch up on what’s been happening in the studio, in the industry, with our clients and with each other. Sometimes, on a day-to-day basis, we are buried so deep in code / site maps / design solutions we need the opportunity to take a deep breath and look around us at the bigger picture. And eat chips and dip.

So we gathered last week to do just that. But our Head of Project Management, Janine Johnston, had other ideas.

It was time for the Marshmallow Challenge!

Contrary to my first impression (and yes I’ll admit, slight disappointment), this did not involve eating as many marshmallows as possible. This was a team building exercise, and marshmallow consumption is a strictly solo sport.

Instead we were split into six groups groups of four – each group contained a diverse range of talents – and presented with a kit containing the following:

  • 20 sticks of dried spaghetti
  • One metre of tape
  • One metre of string
  • One marshmallow

Each team was challenged to build the highest free-standing structure possible using only these materials, ensuring the marshmallow sat on the top of the structure. We had 18 minutes to do this.

No problem!

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A delicate process ...


18 minutes later and half the teams (three) had standing towers. With due gravitas, our adjudicator measured each standing tower and announced a winning group (83cm, for the record).

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... but does it have to look good, too?


So, what is the main difference between success and failure in this challenge? Turns out, it’s all about iteration and prototyping.  The teams who worked on the basis of “build the structure as high as possible and then put the marshmallow on top” experienced the most failure – they did not refine their design throughout the process, instead settling on one plan and executing it at the last minute, resulting in marshmallow overload and a felled spaghetti tower – or the “Uh-Oh” moment.

Those teams who experience the most success are prone to iteration. Their design is prototyped and refined throughout the process, more usually resulting in a “Ta-Da!” moment at the point the marshmallow is introduced.

Tom Wujec’s TED Talk on the subject explains which groups are successful here, which groups are not, and why. You may be surprised to learn which demographic has the biggest success rate and why!

Why not run your own marshmallow challenge? We'd love to hear how you got on.

 (Ahem, my team won. Just saying).

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