Mine, Refine, Shine

How mining sapphires shaped and still informs my design process

Jason Lee

I was three and a half years old when I took my first trip to Montana with my parents and grandfather. The goal: wrestle beautiful sapphires from the earth. This was hard, dirty work under a scorching sun, our only protection a couple of large tarps strung over the dig site. As a young child I was mostly an observer, foregoing the pick axe for some tweezers; swooping in at the end of the process to claim the glory.

There are some simple steps to extracting hidden gems from the earth, and these steps translate rather well to my design process.


Step 1: MINE
to extract coal, ore, or the like, from a mine / draw useful or valuable material from

Finding sapphires is not terribly complicated, but it does take work. You plan, organize your tools, set up your site, and “draw useful or valuable material.” About 99.9999 percent of the raw material is useless (my grandfather referred to this material as “throwite”). However, you never knew if the next bucket of dirt will yield the biggest gem, so you’d muscle through.

This is true for design as well. From pulling together inspiration, researching, and sketching, the raw ideas are gathered and ready to be sifted. Good ideas come from anywhere and more ideas = better ideas. The more material you have to work with, the better because your first idea is rarely your best. That means muscling through and sketching as many ideas as you can.

Takeaways: research, sketch, play, no fear (good ideas come from anywhere)


Step 2: REFINE
to make or become free from impurities, sediment, or other foreign matter; purify

After gathering your raw material, you shovel it into a screen box and sift it through water, slowly ridding the lode of larger material. The final sift is through a screen box with a fine mesh, which allows only the good stuff to pass through.

At this point in the design process, evaluate what you have, draw interesting connections between ideas, and sift the ideas to the ones that seem interesting to explore. Now the sketches provide that easy reference, allowing you to go through your initial ideas with a more discerning eye.

Takeaways: sift ideas, modify, problem solve (make decisions)


Step 3: SHINE
to give forth or glow with light; shed or cast light / to excel or be conspicuous

With sapphires, that last sift in the box gets flipped over onto the ground. If you’ve done your job, the gems are found sitting right on top, ready for the picking. The hard work is done and has paid off.

Here is where your design gets final detail, some of which most people won’t even notice. The original ideas have been tested, tweaked, reworked, and the gem that you’ve discovered is now confidently sent into the world to gleam.

Takeaways: polish, detail, good to great, reveal the hidden gem (put it to work)


I think it’s helpful to consider the design process in these three simple parts. Design is something that you are creating, not something that you wait to have happen to you. So dig. Risk a bit of ”throwite,” which you can always sift for other projects, and the next two steps will surely produce some real gems.


Jason Lee

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