Just about every designer and design agency these days proclaims something to this effect: “we’re passionate about perfection!”. As if anything short of perfection just doesn’t cut it. And we’ve become so used to hearing this that it doesn’t even strike us as strange. I believe that this unbridled pursuit of perfection is misguided. Here’s why.
“…this unbridled pursuit of perfection is misguided.”
Don’t worry, this isn’t an article about glorifying lazy or bad design. That’s part of the problem: we automatically assume that something that isn’t perfect is somehow inadequate.
Let’s imagine a design project where time and budget aren’t factors to consider. We have infinite resources and we can develop the thing indefinitely. Do you think there would come a time when we’d say, ‘This thing is good enough. Let’s stop’? Probably not. There would always be some little thing to tweak here and something else to adjust there. And then some wonderful new material would be discovered that works even better, so we’d go ahead and add that, too. And so on. Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum (but mostly nauseum). The thing could be refined forever.
“…we automatically assume that something that isn’t perfect is somehow inadequate.”
So, where does this relentless pursuit of perfection come from?
I’m going to blame rampant consumerism. This perfection fetishism seems to be some kind of manifestation of the excess which characterises the ‘developed’ world today. Another way of putting it, which might make more sense in this context, is to describe it as a lack of any notion of ‘sufficiency’. The word ‘enough’ has become a word-shaped doorstop. We eat too much, we buy too much, we mine too much. You know the story.
Sufficiency and design
How does the notion of ’sufficiency’ relate to the development of a design solution, you ask? For this discussion we’ll talk about ‘design’ as a problem solving exercise. First, there are a ton of problems in the world. Second, we have a limited number of resources available to solve those problems (money, competent designers, and the rest of it). To solve one of those problems we have to use up some of our available resources. Our limited resources means that we can only solve a limited number of problems at one time.
“…we spend excessive resources on developing solutions for problems beyond the point of sufficiency.”
I’m arguing that we spend excessive resources on developing solutions for problems beyond the point of sufficiency. It’s a problem that the word ‘sufficiency’ has a sour taste attached to it. By definition, it means ‘good enough’. Why do we need something better than good enough? While we have the dictionary open, I’ll remind you that the definition of ‘excess’ is ‘beyond what is necessary’. Beyond ‘sufficiency’.
Think about smartphones with meticulously tooled finishes perfected down to the micrometer.
Let’s move on
We spend so much time perfecting things, when we could be spending just enough time to make the thing ‘good enough’, and then move on to the next problem that needs solving. This way we would have more solutions to more problems. Somewhere along the creative process we should get to a point where we decide to stop. Where we acknowledge that the thing is good enough for its intended purpose instead of relentlessly obsessing about making the thing ‘perfect’.
Don’t get me wrong; ‘perfection’ is a useful concept. It’s a good thing to aim for. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we inevitably don’t get there. We shouldn’t abandon the notion of perfection, we should change the way we think about it. We need to stop using it as a way of measuring the quality of design solutions. Instead of thinking of it as a destination to be reached or a target to be hit, we should think of it as a guide. Like when we follow north on a compass or when we navigate with the stars.
“We shouldn’t abandon the notion of perfection, we should change the way we think about it.”
Who even decides what perfection looks like? How would we know if we got there? All we have right now are different levels of ‘good enough’. We already always have to decide when to stop somewhere during the creative process. The reason we stop, however, is usually linked to the constraints I removed in our hypothetical design project at the beginning of this article: time and money.
I’m not saying that ‘perfect’ solutions don’t exist. I’m merely saying that a perfect solution isn’t the same as a ‘good’ (or even ‘great’) solution. Development is a game of diminishing rewards. After a certain point, the rewards you gain after every refinement recede into insignificance. It becomes a senseless pursuit fuelled by vanity and ego.
Let’s stop chasing cars
Healthy design seems to live somewhere in the tension between the urgency of the problem demanding that the solution be released and the need to push the solution closer and closer to perfection. It’s the quality of the solution on the one hand, and the quantity of solutions on the other. Release a solution too early, and it’ll invariably have been a wasted exercise because it won’t be good enough to solve the problem anyway. Work on the solution for too long, and either the problem evolves into something completely different — leaving you with a useless (but perfect) solution to a vanished problem — or, at the very least, we waste a whole heap of resources that could have been spent on the next problem. Extend this latter case decades into the future, and we end up with a growing army of unsolved problems facing a well adorned army with over-thought solutions. Kind of like the face-off we have today.
We mindlessly chase perfection the way dogs run after cars. In the same way, I’m not sure we’d know what to do with it if we ever actually caught what we were chasing. Let’s stop this madness. Let’s stop chasing cars.