Does Design Perfection Exist, and How Can You Achieve It?
A few weeks ago, my business partner and I were sat round a table with a prospect. For context, we had created work in their sector and we were sat around their table because of that work. Just so you know what particular dialect of Design-ese I am talking in, this was a full brand and visual identity programme, with applications across everything, from signage to digital, to good old fashioned — touch it, feel it, smell it (ahh!) — print.
They asked all the usual questions. ‘What does your process look like? When can you start? How long will it take?’ (Yawn.)
Their last question however, somewhat caught me off guard. It was a perfectly reasonable question, but they asked ‘what would you do better next time round?’
Of course, I am not going to say the job we did was perfect—it was good, but not that good!
Wait! But — here’s the but! — in the context of the constraining factors of the original project, when put on the spot, when I had to scramble my memory, I couldn’t find fault with the project. Therefore, it must have been perfect. How can it both be perfect and imperfect at the same time?
Confused yet? Well, read on…
What is perfection anyway?
Perfect (adjective) /ˈpəːfɪkt/
Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
Well, there’s our dictionary definition: as good as it is possible to be. This question got me tied up in knots for weeks. It was perfect, and yet it was imperfect—because surely, it has to be—at the same time.
I even asked the client what she thought, and in her eyes we had exceeded expectations. Woo hoo! Nice, but that didn’t help either.
When I broke perfection down—against all the steps in the design process—it helped me compile a handy little checklist in the quest for perfection. Who knows, it may help you too?
Of course, we can measure and manage all those objective things like making sure all your spellings are correct, or – my pet hate – weed out all the footmarks from client copy and replace them with proper quote marks, or optimise your website for speed! But you do that anyway, don’t you!?
So, time to blow the whistle, and let the games commence!
Perfection 0–0 Imperfection
Who, and what, is involved?
When looking at design through the lens of perfection you cannot just look at the outcome, and the outcome alone. We all do it though. Uggghhh! That new logo for (insert re-brand here) is hideous!
Fine. If you just measure what’s in front of you, it might be. There are, however, other ingredients in a design project: human beings (obviously), and all their complexities; constraining factors, like the brief and the project length; and of course, our good old friend, money.
It’s a short list, but let’s start with ‘human beings’. In that camp, we have the design agency, the client and the person who should be at the centre of everyone’s attention, the end user, or end users.
Let’s assume our design agency is good (like really, really good). They listen intently, fully interrogate the brief and remind the stakeholder group that while the client has business goals and objectives (like all businesses do), the client’s business still solves a problem for others, and they are designing for them, not the stakeholder group.
Our mythical design agency measures design effectiveness over anything else and won’t let their egos get in the way, because that, right there, would be a war on perfection.
We wouldn’t want our design agency to rustle up something inappropriate, would we? Rather than answer the brief, they got carried away with latest design trend they saw on Muzli or Dribble. (No offence Muzli or Dribble.)
No siree, we don’t do that! User centric design front and centre for us!
Perfection checklist #1: keep your audience in mind at all times when dissecting the brief, meeting the stakeholder group and starting the work.
Perfection 0–0 Imperfection
Opinion and subjectivity
Here comes the first hurdle to overcome in the quest for perfection. The end user sometimes gets forgotten about, because when measuring what good design is we fall back on good old opinion and subjectivity.
This is inherent if the budget just isn’t there for focus groups or user testing. That, or we simply want to avoid design by committee. Lord knows, we’ve all been there. Get everyone’s opinion on the table and soon enough we reach stalemate, and the project grinds to a halt.
So, if we are wise, we keep the stakeholder group lean and mean to make those all important decisions. Be wary of a decision that sails through though! The introvert in the room just didn’t have the nerve to challenge the design in front of you. They voice their opinion once you have gone, and soon enough groupthink takes over and the design is rubbished. Let the stakeholder group take their time and allow room for questioning.
Or, sometimes the highest paid person in the room just doesn’t like serif fonts, for whatever rational or irrational reason he or she has, so sans serif it is. Even though the tonal values of the brand are screaming out for rigour, authority and intelligence, which that beautiful set of serif italics has in spades.
When faced with a battle, no matter how many different ways you construct a rational argument, sometimes you have to admit defeat and move on. Dumbass client. What do they know anyway? Life is too short.
Perfection checklist #2: remind everyone of the collective goals and measure design against those goals and be prepared to have an argument. Let the group take their time and please, I beg you, allow everyone to contribute. No one wants the seagull of death to swoop in last minute and shit all over the project.
Darn it! You lost the argument, or lost the will to live. Goal to the opposite side.
Perfection 0–1 Imperfection
Commerce and art
Here’s the thing though. Design lives in that murky world between commerce and art. Let us not forget our ancestors, who slaved over drawing boards with rulers, pens, scalpel blades and glue. Our bespectacled waistcoated brethren had ‘Commercial Artist’ inscribed above the door. So even though we call it branding, or UX design, or product design, it’s still commercial art. We are leveraging creativity for the commercial gain of others.
I am the first to admit though, I am no artist. I love constraints. I love problems to solve. Without those I am rudderless, and I suspect most designers reading this are too. So our art is commercial and therefore logical. Isn’t it?
But, I also believe I am creative. There is some magical process that I still find hard to understand, even after twenty years. What lead me, or you, to be able to place a piece of type on the page, or screen, and make it look beautiful is one of the mysteries of the universe.
So this is why design can be so hard to assess against the key performance indicators established in the brief. Will Pantone 297 perform harder than Pantone 298? Who knows? We don’t have the resources Google has to split test 41 shades of blue!
Darn it! Back to good old gut instinct, subjectivity and — dare I say it? — taste.
Perfection 0–2 Imperfection
But know this; gut instinct has a huge part to play in the design process. Designers and their clients have relied on gut instinct, and will continue to do so, for years to come.
And, you know what? It works. Think of a Formula 1 team with millions of pounds at their disposal. The engineers, the radar, the predictive software running back at HQ, computing hundreds, if not thousands, of outcomes every second. Wow! Perfection, surely?
It only takes one person trackside to stick their head out of the window, smell the change in the air, feel the cold breeze, and say ‘do you know what? It’s going to rain. We need to change tactics, fast!’
Hmmm… playing field levelled in our favour a touch there.
Perfection checklist #3: in the absence of focus groups or user testing, sometimes we are going to have to rely on gut instinct. Remind everyone of the journey that lead them to this point, rather than just provide the fork in the road ahead. (It will lead to panic.) By giving a little history lesson you can measure your decision against the original objectives, and this should put you in good stead.
Perfection 1–2 Imperfection
(Come on! You give me that one, right?)
Time and money: the big constraint
This is the key constraining factor set out right at the very start of the project: time and money. Often the two come hand-in-hand.
Since a design agency is much like a consultancy — they sell time, not outcomes — a client’s budget dictates how much time they can spend on any given single task. Clearly, the more budget there is, the more time there is for research, design, design refinement, production and testing.
This is why measuring outcomes alone isn’t a level playing field. Of course a piece of design that has a budget of £100,000 is going to be better than a piece of design that has a budget of £10,000. Whether it is ten times better is debatable, but that isn’t the point. The point is, the design has to be measured against the constraining factors that were set out in the first place. Without those constraining factors in plain sight, this is why we have blogs all over the internet with The 20 worst logo re-designs of 2019 for designers to vent their ire and how they could do a better job.
Unless you run a charity, you have to constantly remind yourself, and the client, that there is a finite resource and we have to maximise that resource. (We could veer off into an entirely new article about being confident around the subject of money. But let’s not. We’ve got this.)
Perfection checklist #4: do not be afraid to talk about the constraining factors of time and money. After all, they are, by and large, set by the client, not designers, so we must make the most of them and measure our output against them. Be honest right up front that they may well underperform if there isn’t enough of that resource in the first place. Let’s bake success into the project from the get-go! Not failure.
A last minute goal
Let’s also be honest about what we do though. (When I say we, I mean the industry as whole.) We always go the extra mile. Don’t we? Of course we do. As individuals we care about what we put out into the world. Even though it is commerical, our creations come from deep within. That little part of us that is called the soul. And as an agency, you are, and we are, only ever judged on the last job we did.
Our copywriters create a stellar tone of voice, always mop up those extra few pages that got lost in the brief, and our photographers capture five days worth of imagery in four. They share the same values you do, because they go the extra mile too!
So, you know what? When looking back at the original project—against all the odds—of having human beings involved, a limited budget, not to mention the logistics of running a photo shoot when nobody was around, the outcome was perfect.
It was — to borrow from the dictionary — as good as it was possible to be.
Perfection 2–2 Imperfection