In Pursuit of Perfection

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

Dali was on to something there. Perfection in design is like an exquisitely beautiful and delicate bird that flits away just as we reach to grasp it. Even the most obsessed-over products in the world (yes, I’m thinking of you, Apple) aren’t really quite perfect, are they? Yes, they’re close, oh so close, but yet…

In my experience, the design process often consists of a flash of insight followed by a series of iterative loops that bring us closer and closer to a perfect version of that insight. You know how it goes — you’ve been kicking a problem around for a while, looking at it from every angle, turning it over and over, and then what seems like a really great idea pops into your head. But you quickly realize that the concept you’ve visualized has some flaw, or doesn’t answer some aspect of the brief fully. So you work it just a little bit more to address those issues, and the process of iterative improvement begins, a looping action of adjustment and assessment. On average, for argument’s sake, let’s say that each loop will close half the distance between where the design is now to theoretical perfection. The first loop or two will dramatically improve the concept, rounding off the obvious rough corners and gangly bits. The mathematically inclined will recognize that after just a few of these iterations, the gains become smaller and smaller quite quickly. They will also realize that no matter how many times we do the loop, we never quite reach the nirvana of perfection.

The trick is to know where to stop, where that sweet spot is that best balances effort and results. Experience is a great guide with this, and I think the success or failure of many a freelance designer has hinged on their ability to make good judgements about how much is enough. As a freelancer, your financial viability is very much dependent on your ability to manage that most valuable resource of all — time. If we assume each iterative loop takes a similar amount of time, the return on effort becomes less and less each trip around. Picking the right point to stop looping and declare that the design is “done” is key to success as a designer, and an important determinant of value for clients. Too many loops invokes the law of diminishing returns – the cost of continuing to invest more and more time to develop the design outweighs any potential benefits.

How to find the balance? I’ve thought about this quite a bit lately, and I think that for me, the judgements are very subconscious, but ultimately based on two factors: permanence and risk.

Permanence – Like many freelance designers, I work on a fairly wide variety of projects. They can range from commemorations and memorials through to simple signage projects for a festival or event. If I’m working on the former, I know it’s something that is meant to endure for a long time. I’m more apt to spend (and budget for) additional design time to push much further toward perfection than I might otherwise. The cost of failure here is much higher, and any oversights will be staring me in the face for a long time to come. If I’m working on a more ephemeral project such as festival signage, the stakes are low. This is the place to take creative risks with little fear of repercussions — if I blow it somehow, the evidence will soon be gone.

Risk – I don’t like surprises when it comes to design fabrication. I really work on managing this risk to ensure that what I get is what I wanted. I’ll gladly take another trip around the perfection-seeking loop to ensure that my detailing is tight enough to anticipate and prevent as many of the ways a project can go off the rails as possible. This is of course balanced against permanence in a kind of seat-of-the-pants calculus about how much or how little time to spend. The other aspect of risk that factors in is safety. For obvious reasons, if I’m working on something that could harm or kill someone if it fails, I’m going to spend the time it takes to ensure safety. I’m also going to hire an Engineer to verify that.

The pursuit of perfection is a real paradox — we all want it, and will strive hard to get it, but ultimately none of us can quite have it. The real art of design becomes knowing when we have approached the perfect just close enough for the task at hand, but no closer. Frustrating isn’t it?

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  • […] and that can become a burden. For me, the burden began to feel very, very heavy. Perfection can never be attained, yet with seemingly unlimited in-house resources at your disposal, it’s often tempting to […]

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