Process vs. Product: the Sizzle or the Steak?

We all love shortcuts. From dishwashers to washing machines, from cars to planes, from texting to email, from Google to apps for anything you can imagine, the modern world is all about convenience and finding the easiest and fastest way to do something.

But that’s not how creativity usually works.

It was tough convincing students of this. Especially because they got caught up in the final product. And the final grade.

Typical student questions:

“Is this good enough to hand in?”
“Can I just skip that step?”
“Will I get an A on this?”
Or “How come I didn’t get an A?”

Typical teacher answers:

“The process is more important than the product.”
And . . .
“The grade doesn’t matter as much as what you’ve learned.”

Typical student response: “Huh?”

I wanted students to embrace the process and enjoy the full journey. That’s why I graded the steps and effort along the way. Not just the end-product.

owenfreeman & Sean McMenemy on Visual hunt

I hung a motivational sign on the art room bulletin board, a variation on a theme:

Creating a Product without the Process
is like having the Sizzle without the Steak

In marketing, it’s been said to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” That is, focus on presenting the benefits to the customer, not just the features.

In other words, go for the emotional impact. Not just the facts.

It can be summarized in the axiom: “Features tell, benefits sell.”

In marketing, the steak is the product info: features, materials, technique, specifications, and various attributes.

The sizzle is the benefits. The customer wants to know “How will this product make me feel? What experience does this provide? Does it reflect my feelings or beliefs?”

Perfect examples of this are recent Super Bowl ads.

  • Image of a baby born with stumps for legs. Odds of winning a Gold Medal? 1 in 977,500,000. The numbers go down as this child grows up with prosthetics, skis, ballet, work-outs, and more. Until the number is reduced to 1 in 1. Lauren Woolstencroft. The voice over: “When we’re free to move, anything is possible.” Powerful! So touching. The product? No car was shown, but it was Toyota.
5518 Designs on
  • We hear Martin Luther King, Jr. making his speech from exactly 40 years earlier, Feb. 4, 1968. If you want to be great, be a servant. Anybody can be great. Images galore show people of all ages working and serving. The product? The Dodge Ram, shown working, too. “Built to Serve.”

Though some viewers were angry about using MLK’s speech to sell cars, these ads touch your heart. And the company knows it. They’re reaching you with the Sizzle.

  • Budweiser featured no beer or Clydesdales, but showed their plant producing 3 million cans of water for disaster relief.
  • Verizon played recorded phone calls of previous disaster victims later calling their first responders to thank them.
  • Hyundai showed car buyers meeting survivors of pediatric cancer whom the company had supported for years. But no car appeared.

So how does this relate to creating art?

I’ve actually turned this Steak-Sizzle concept upside down. I marketed a different idea in my classroom. Again, my sign:

“Creating a Product without the Process
is like having the Sizzle without the Steak.”

You might disagree, but this analogy works for me and for what I wanted to convey to students.

In my sign, I liken the Sizzle to the finished work of art—the Product. This Product is what we want to see. (Yes, I know, even though sizzle is a sound word.) This is what the student is proud of at the end. This is what they take home and show off. This is what parents see, too.

But I consider that the Process is actually the Steak. Because the process is crucial to learning and problem-solving while creating. The steak is the Substance. Like the process. In fact, I cared more about that than what the final product looked like.

The Process—the Steak in my illustration—is where the real nourishment is. Without the Process, we have nothing but a Sizzle left. The smell and the sound, but nothing substantial to eat.

Think of what blueprints mean to a house under construction.

Todd Ehlers on VisualHunt

I expected students to make thumbnail sketches, consider placement of positive and negative space, relationships of shapes, and the impact of color combinations. For starters. It depended on the project.

Any decent art student with the ability to draw could whip out a product, even copy someone else’s work, and have everyone ooh and ah over it.

But I wanted my students to embrace the steps throughout the creative process. To experiment, to explore, to integrate the criteria and do problem solving before deciding on the final product’s appearance. Therein lies the thinking and learning.

San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives; L’art au présent; Naomi Chung’s Daydream Art on Visual Hunt

This is also why art instruction in the school curriculum is not just fluff.

Here’s another way to put it.

“He who has imagination without learning
has wings and no feet.”
-Joseph Joubert,
French essayist & philosopher, 1754-1824

So . . .

Imagination=Product & vision=Wings=the Sizzle of an Idea

Learning=Process=Feet & hard work=Steak=the Substance

In other words, the Process (Steak) is the substance, where the rubber meets the road. The end is the Product. The tangible result of our Imagination/vision. Sizzling with the pride of a job well done (no pun intended).

But whether you call something Sizzle or Steak doesn’t matter.

The main thing is . . . the learning process is the way to give our imagination hands and feet. So it can take flight.

What shortcuts do you take when you shouldn’t? Where can you benefit by focusing more on the process than the product?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


P.S. Next time: a journalist/food columnist/crafter/Mom who creates and captures memories for friends and family . . . She says YES to Mess & Mayhem, and engages her kids in the PROCESS . . .

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15 thoughts on “Process vs. Product: the Sizzle or the Steak?

  1. Marlene will take an hour, sometimes more, to write a TU note or a greeting card… get well, birthday,graduation etc. She hand writes everything. (Everyone compliments her beautiful handwriting.) She will construct the note on a piece of paper, choose just the right, hand-picked, Bible verses(s) to match the occasion. It definitely has evidence of “the personal touch.” Once settled, she will then write it on the card. All e-mails go through the same process… first hand written on paper, then transferred to the computer. With her, nothing is done “on the fly!” She is very careful as to the choice of each and every word. She is always behind on her TU’s and cards because of the daunting process of doing each one. When received, I’m sure the recipient has no clue as to the effort that went into the process prior to putting it in the mail. AND… she is a prolific “card” person… One time, many years ago I made a very bad, huge, mistake with great repercussions that only a husband can get himself into. I decided I would try to figure out what she spent in cards and postage (and when postage was probably half the cost of what it is today) over the year!!! Not a good idea to bring up in this home!!!

    1. Wow, what a labor of love she goes through for each person who is blessed to receive a card from her! You’re right . . . you can’t put a price on that!

  2. What a fascinating way to teach art! It seems this could apply across the board to learning—instead of just teaching to the test, or outcome-based learning (I’m not sure if I am using that term correctly). It’s so wonderful when learning comes by the process of investigation and research and application of logic. It makes the “right answer” the flower with deep and lasting roots. Thanks for the unique perspective!

    1. I would think math is the same way. Isn’t that why math teachers always wanted us to show our work? They needed to see our thought process for getting to the answer. And my husband, a social studies teacher, puts more weight on the thought and reasoning skills than the “answer” for arriving at a conclusion in an essay or in discussion.

  3. I heard Yo Yo Ma, the world-renowned cellist, once say that when he was learning a new piece of music and made a mistake, he would go back to the beginning again and play it over and over again making sure to get all of the detail and correcting all the errors. Only until that was fulfilled would he move on to the piece. I’ve thought about that and my own desire to learn a new piano piece. I can remember wanting to to be just perfect without going through the processes it takes to perform quality music! Thankfully, I had a piano teacher who insisted I practiced scales, counted out loud, learned some basic music theory, etc. What I have learned, is that if you get the processes right, then the outcomes will take care of themselves!

    1. Ah, yes, scales, counting, and music theory! I had 2 piano teachers–one who required those things, and one who didn’t. Guess which one I benefitted from the most?

      Same thing with tennis. There’s more to the game than just getting the ball over the net. There’s technique and strategy that, in the long run, brings greater gain. That makes it tough when you do it your own way at first (such as swinging a tennis racket), then have to re-learn it the right way.

      1. That is so true about tennis. I recently got back on the court with my son in law after several years of idleness, and it took awhile to get used to the proper techniques. After awhile I was quite proud of this old man who had that twenty something year old running all over the court!!!!

        1. What do you mean by old man? Isn’t age a state of mind? Especially for the young at heart. I’d say you’re a 30-something. 🙂 Anyhow, good job keeping your son-in-law on his toes with your great tennis technique!

  4. I had a professor who would agree with you. She taught speech. For our first presentation, she didn’t grade us. Just gave us comments. For the next speech, we had to implement her comments. Our grade was based on our improvement. So if my speech was ehhh the first time but I used her comments to grow, I’d get an A. However, if I gave a fantastic speech the first time but didn’t grow for the next time, my grade would be lower. Each subsequent speech built on her comments from the last one and how we used them.
    That incredible teacher took this girl who could barely stand up in front of a room full of 25 and helped her blossom into a woman who has frequently spoken in front of 500.
    Why is the process important? Because it allows you to grow whether you’re great or horrible the first time. Besides, while the sizzle sounds great, the steak is what’s going to fill you up. You can’t eat a sound. And after all the hype, you could look in the pan and find all that sizzle is just coming from a piece of bologna! 😉

    1. Well put, Elizabeth. Your prof sounds like a wise teacher–showing there’s always room for improvement, no matter how good you are to start with. And affirming the efforts of the little guy who’s just starting to bud.

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