Scratching the Perfectionist’s Itch
Most of you probably know that feeling towards the end of a project — that nagging, incessant "itch" — telling you to change something in your design even though, for all intents and purposes, you’ve accomplished everything that was on the project brief. I like to call that the "perfectionist’s itch." It is one of the most potent killers of creativity known to man — and a feeling I know all too well.
It’s one thing to want to do really good work, but to succumb to the allure of perfection is a whole different scenario. The desire to do good work is built into the souls of any self-respecting creative professional (or at least, it should be).
On the other hand, wanting perfection is just downright absurd and, to an extent, irresponsible. Not only does seeking perfection in your work prevent you from seeing the things you do well, it also endangers your ability to manage your time and deliver on deadlines, which directly affects your relationships with your clients.
Since this is a problem I struggle with on a daily basis, I thought I’d figure out where the problem might be coming from so that I can work better. Here’s what I came up with.
You Have to Start with a Clear Idea
Take your time with this phase of the project. However, don’t overanalyze. Don’t preempt problems that your think "might" come later. Just give yourself a direction, a vision of where you want to take your design. It has been my experience that having a clear idea at the beginning of a project will pay off in the end, not only with time that you save, but also with an overall sense of satisfaction.
Just like on a road trip, when you know where you’re going, it’s much easier to get there. And even though you may be tempted to veer off course to explore various ridiculous sights along the way (like the world’s biggest fiddle) getting back on track is much easier when you know exactly where you’re going. Think of your "clear idea" as your GPS navigation system. Even if you make a wrong turn, there’s always that soothing voice telling you how to get back on track, thus allowing you to proceed with your journey.
Simple is Better
More often than not, a factor in having that itch for perfection is that we get too ambitious with what we want to achieve. I believe it’s an old Martian proverb that states that the simplest solution is often the correct one (it’s actually a simplification of Occam’s Razor). It’s true.
The more you obsess about what you could do with a design, the less focus you have on what you should do. If you’ve laid out a solid idea from the start, the solution to your design problem should be simple and as clear as day. If you’re tackling a design problem and are having trouble with it, it probably means you’re not thinking clearly — and that vagueness translates into your work.
We have to remember that design is a profession built on purpose. And the less clear about what that purpose is, the harder it will be to satisfy.
Take It One Step at a Time
I don’t know about you, but personally, when I’m making progress on a design, I get excited and I start thinking I can ride the momentum until I’m done. When this happens, I start feeling invincible and incapable of making mistakes, which is ironic because this is really when I make most of my mistakes. Complacency sets in and I’m not as discerning of the design choices I make. Needless to say, this ends in agony.
I’ve found that the best way to stave off that "itch" at the end of your project is to be deliberate about the choices you make in your design. There’s no point in riding the momentum if it will only take you in the wrong direction.
Have Someone Else Look at Your Work
Often, as designers, we work alone, having to consult others only when we absolutely must. However, being in such a closed-off environment also closes you off to the much-needed critiques of your work that are necessary for your growth as a designer. That’s why it’s only when you’re done with a design and you’re able to see it as a whole, and from a bird’s eye view, that you find the things wrong with it.
Have someone else look at your work as you’re working on it and ask them to point out where the design is lacking. Ask them to be honest. Welcome their ideas. They might see something that you haven’t yet.
At its core, design is about communication. I remember when I was in the third grade; we were asked to draw a monster or a creature from our imagination. After we were done, we were asked to partner up with one of our classmates and describe our creature to them. Your partner would then have to draw your creature on another piece of paper without looking at your drawing, and whichever team was successful in drawing the other person’s creature won a prize.
Although this was an innocent enough exercise (conducted in the elementary school) I reflect upon what our teacher was trying to teach us: She was trying to demonstrate the importance of clarity of communication.
Being able to communicate your designs is extremely important. Not only does it force you to see your design choices through the purpose that you meant them for, but also, it forces you to see your designs as your audience might see them. As I said earlier, design is deliberate, and if you can’t even talk about why your design choices make sense to you, how will these design choices make sense to someone else?
So, if you’re looking at a design and are tempted to scratch the perfectionist’s itch, explain to yourself what value it gives the design project. How does it move the purpose forward? If you can’t verbalize the significance of the change you want to do, don’t do it.
Don’t Aim for a Perfect Design
You shouldn’t aim for the perfect design. It doesn’t exist. It can’t. However, you could aim to work perfectly and efficiently.
The best designs are the products of years of learning from mistakes and getting better. You can’t achieve truly great designs if you expect perfection every time. You’ll never get it done.
At the end of the day, the "perfectionist’s itch" is really just telling you that you want to be better as a designer. It is telling you that your design isn’t good enough. Really, it’s the most honest impulse you can have as a designer. It may not be the most helpful in terms of getting stuff done, but having that kind of honesty with yourself is paramount to being a sucessful designer.