Do I need to invent a sandwich or improve the sandwich?

Those are two questions I use to help me focus my thinking at the start of a project or when I’m at some crossroads.

Inventing* a sandwich is about two perspectives. On one side it’s a good way to get less precious about your creative process. You spend time using it just for using it, which is fun practice, and you sharpen it by getting more specific with your visualizing. You just imagine for the sake of imagining.

It’s also a mnemonic device to remind me that there are hidden options in every situation. Both inside the project and in the creative process. Basically: keep your senses open.

Improving a sandwich is about problem solving. It’s an easy way to change the language you use to approach problems.

Both types of “sandwiching” really just train two things: visualisation and examination. As far as I explain it here I don’t really sit down and think of only sandwiches when the time comes. These are just convenient ways to remind myself of processes I think are important to me. I also am reminded of that every time I see a sandwich. (Cheaper therapy.)

I like using food metaphors because they’re an easy way people can discuss complex problems without getting too elaborate. Everyone eats. We also talk about food, and are encouraged to, in ways that involve all the senses. We can just use that same vocabulary to tease out subtleties in how we create and relate to our own art and music.

When you bite into a sandwich you take all of the components and smash them all together to give you a full experience, all five senses. If you wanted to make it taste better you could change the sandwich. Or the presentation. Or the environment. Depending on what the issue actually is.

To fully understand all the interplay of the layers you have to commit.

That’s why I love sandwiches as a metaphor and a visualization. In the end you have to bring the pieces back together in your mouth to see how the parts work as one. You have to taste it to see how it really is.

In short: One of the best ways to get past mental blocks is to start focusing on your other senses to see what they could offer to your situation. (And giving it some time to see where it goes before you judge it.)


Inventing a sandwich

This is an exercise that’s about expectation and visualisation. You start with something simple and add elements to it to test how far you can stretch your concentration. It’s not really about building memory palaces or that kind of thing.

Start with a sandwich you can picture well. How about peanut butter? How well can you picture it in your mind? If you close your eyes can you picture it so well that you can smell it? How well can you reproduce the experience?


Now can you picture the same sandwich but now have it smell like coffee? Or gasoline? Can you make this new visualisation feel as real as the “real one”? Can you take something you know and superimpose something else into it?

Switch out one sense from something and try to continue to visualize it clearly. Maybe the bread just smells totally wrong. The peanut butter is blue. The jelly is salty. The goal is building clarity in your visualisations.

How real can you make it?


Bending in all directions: volume, dimensions, texture, and time. Inflate it. Make it into a column. Make it plausible or implausible but remember to take it slowly and examine what happens. How well can you visualize options and transformations. What happens when you burn it? How does it rot? How does it rot in the desert? How does it rot on Mars?

How many elements can you change or add? Does it have a sound? Does it float? If I slice it or pull it apart what happens? Can you picture it made out of fur or foam? What if it glows? You get the idea.

Nothing edible or realistic. What’s the fun in that?


What happens when you bite something? I can imagine what a PBJ tastes and smells like because I’ve had them many times. I’ve also had canned tuna many times. Can I combine these two ingredients in a sandwich and imagine the flavor, smell, and texture?

There’s no limit. What if I add soy sauce, cotton candy, pickles, and bones? I’m just trying to get involved with more than one sense. What does it feel like? Sound like? Make yourself barf why not?

Fixing the sandwich

Need salt? Breaking down a problem into its priorities is like building a sandwich. No problems exist entirely on their own. You can have a great sandwich ruined or depleted by one bad element.

Looking at something really is like chewing it. Everything goes in at the same time and your brain sorts it out. You see the world in a focused way but create a big picture through your relationship with all the senses. We live in a very visual world but we don’t have to restrict our thinking that way.

We can break down a problem into layers ad infinitum. It can get very confusing when we’re talking about art and design. By approaching it with a sandwich analogy helps you keep the interplay of each piece in mind while you sort and test new elements.*

For argument’s sake the simplest sandwich needs four elements.


The setting is stuff you can’t change at the moment. You’re at lunch. You can’t rebuild the room at the moment. This could be a client, due date, or a condition; the stuff you recognize but can’t focus on right now.


What is your bread: what is the overall concept or idea and does it carry through? Does the work reflect this intention? When I pick it up do I know this is part of “the sandwich” or have I accidentally left out something? Did it get mushy? Can I toast it if it’s not the right bread anymore?

Most importantly: is the bread appropriate for the sandwich in hand?! If the bread is not working it will need to be changed, altered or supported. Without it there is no sandwich.


My bread feels like it’s good and substantive. Is my main component lacking? I have a message but is it being delivered? Does the bread work with the meat or are they fighting? Are there competing narratives? How is the composition? Does the meat of the thing deliver or is it just a nice thought? If it doesn’t deliver, why not? (Is it D’Giornio?)


Sauce can change everything. Is it the color? Are my materials the right ones to use? Are they too cheap? Too fancy? Too colorful? Not colorful enough? Do they add to the meat and the bread or is it just about the special sauce? Am I okay with that? Is this just one of those things that’s entirely about the sauce?

You can take either analogies as far as you want provided you spend more time working with them and not on them. Today’s sandwiches are tomorrow’s compost whether you eat them or not.

Bonus Recipe

Fried Tortellini Sandwich

I made this sandwich up in high school and it’s really, really delicious provided you are really, really high and have no shame. I’ll have to credit my dad for pan frying penne crispy as one of the best alternatives to french frieds ever since they hold so much ketchup. The same goes for this sandwich: you can pack a lot of garbage into it.


  • Prepackaged tortellini (any filling)
  • Sandwich bread
  • Oil
  • Condiments

Boil the pasta according to the package instructions but take them out el dente. Dry them off. Pan fry them in oil until they are crispy on both sides. Pile them into a layer on one slice of bread. Put condiments on them. Put the other bread on top. Die happy.

*I like the term “invent” as opposed to “imagine” or “create” because “invent” infers direction and newness. It implies studiousness as well as exploration and I like that attitude quite a bit.