Designing for Perfection

Hello, 24 ways readers. I hope you’re having a nice run up to Christmas. This holiday season I thought I’d share a few things with you that have been particularly meaningful in my work over the last year or so. They may not make you wet your santa pants with new-idea-excitement, but in the context of 24 ways I think they may serve as a nice lesson and a useful seasonal reminder going into the New Year. Enjoy!

Story

Despite being a largely scruffy individual for most of my life, I had some interesting experiences regarding kitchen tidiness during my third year at university.

As a kid, my room had always been pretty tidy, and as a teenager I used to enjoy reordering my CDs regularly (by artist, label, colour of spine – you get the picture); but by the time I was twenty I’d left most of these traits behind me, mainly due to a fear that I was turning into my mother. The one remaining anally retentive part of me that remained however, lived in the kitchen. For some reason, I couldn’t let all the pots and crockery be strewn across the surfaces after cooking. I didn’t care if they were washed up or not, I just needed them tidied. The surfaces needed to be continually free of grated cheese, breadcrumbs and ketchup spills. Also, the sink always needed to be clear. Always. Even a lone teabag, discarded casually into the sink hours previously, would give me what I used to refer to as “kitchen rage”.

Whilst this behaviour didn’t cause any direct conflicts, it did often create weirdness. We would be happily enjoying a few pre-night out beverages (Jack Daniels and Red Bull – nice) when I’d notice the state of the kitchen following our round of customized 49p Tesco pizzas. Kitchen rage would ensue, and I’d have to blitz the kitchen, which usually resulted in me having to catch everyone up at the bar afterwards.

One evening as we were just about to go out, I was stood there, in front of the shithole that was our kitchen with the intention of cleaning it all up, when a realization popped into my head. In hindsight, it was a pretty obvious one, but it went along the lines of “What the fuck are you doing? Sort your life out”. I sodded the washing up, rolled out with my friends, and had a badass evening of partying.

After this point, whenever I got the urge to clean the kitchen, I repeated that same realization in my head. My tidy kitchen obsession strived for a level of perfection that my housemates just didn’t share, so it was ultimately pointless. It didn’t make me feel that good, either; it was like having a cigarette after months of restraint – initially joyous but soon slightly shameful.

Lesson

Now, around seven years later, I’m a designer on the web and my life is chaotic. It features no planning for significant events, no day-to-day routine or structure, no thought about anything remotely long-term, and I like to think I do precisely what I want. It seems my days at striving for something ordered and tidy, in most parts of my life, are long gone.

For much of my time as a designer, though, it’s been a different story. I relished industry-standard terms such as ‘pixel perfection’ and ‘polished PSDs’, taking them into my stride as I strove to design everything that was put on my plate perfectly. Even down to grids and guidelines, all design elements would be painstakingly aligned to a five-pixel grid. There were no seven-pixel margins or gutters to be found in my design work, that’s for sure. I put too much pride and, inadvertently, too much ego into my work. Things took too long to create, and because of the amount of effort put into the work, significant changes, based on client feedback for example, were more difficult to stomach.

Over the last eighteen months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I approach designing for the web. Working on applications has probably helped with this; they seem to have a more organic development than rigid content-based websites. Mostly though, a realization similar to my kitchen rage one came about when I had to make significant changes to a painstakingly crafted Photoshop document I had created. The changes shouldn’t have been difficult or time-consuming to implement, but they were turning out to be. One day, frustrated with how long it was taking, the refrain “What the fuck are you doing? Sort your life out” again entered my head. I blazed the rest of the work, not rushing or doing scruffy work, but just not adhering to the insane levels of perfection I had previously set for myself. When the changes were presented, everything went down swimmingly. The client in this case (and I’d argue most cases) cared more about the ideas than the perfect way in which they had been implemented. I had taken myself and my ego out of the creative side of the work, and it had been easier to succeed.

Argument

I know many other designers who work on the web share such aspirations to perfection. I think it’s a common part of the designer DNA, but I’m not sure it really has a place when designing for the web.

First, there’s the environment. The landscape in which we work is continually shifting and evolving. The inherent imperfection of the medium itself makes attempts to create perfect work for it redundant. Whether you consider it a positive or negative point, the products we make are never complete. They’re always scaling and changing.

Like many aspects of web design, this striving for perfection in our design work is a way of thinking borrowed from other design industries where it’s more suited. A physical product cannot be as easily altered or developed after it has been manufactured, so the need to achieve perfection when designing is more apt.

Designers who can relate to anything I’ve talked about can easily let go of that anal retentiveness if given the right reasons to do so. Striving for perfection isn’t a bad thing, but I simply don’t think it can be achieved in such a fast-moving, unique industry. I think design for the web works better when it begins with quick and simple, followed by iteration and polish over time.

To let go of ego and to publish something that you’re not completely happy with is perhaps the most difficult part of the job for designers like us, but it’s followed by a satisfaction of knowing your product is alive and breathing, whereas others (possibly even competitors) may still be sitting in Photoshop, agonizing over whether a margin should be twenty or forty pixels.

I keep telling myself to stop sitting on those two hundred ideas that are all half-finished. Publish them, clean them up and iterate over time. I’ve been telling myself this for months and, hopefully, writing this article will give me the kick in the arse I need. Hopefully, it will also give someone else the same kick.

About the author

Greg Wood is a designer based in Nottingham, England. He specialises in designing websites and online applications. He has a journal thing, which hasn’t been updated in almost a year. He’ll get back round to it one day. He is currently working on some nifty stuff, including an ambitious music application and the New Adventures in Web Design conference.

More articles by Greg

Comments