It took me at least 15 years to finally understand – being a perfectionist is not a badge of honour. On the contrary, it is self-indulgent, and a hindrance to growth.
In the many years of running design studios, one of the hardest lessons to learn is letting go of the urge to be perfect.
The natural instincts of a designer are always to amplify flaws, and to find ways to improve – either in crafting details or introducing different thinking to the work in progress. As one takes on the responsibility to lead, automatically the person takes on the role to scrutinise and critique the works of subordinates, demanding more and more revisions before releasing “that” draft version to the clients.
“Did anyone actually notice, I spent hours kerning all the subheads?”
We’ve been there. We’ve burned the midnight oil replacing all 10-point Helvetica with 10-point Univers, replacing #5c5c5c with #6c6c6c, obsessively aligning images to gridlines, etc etc. We overthink and over-debate the pixel counts for a favicon. We pride ourselves on being OCD perfectionists. We proudly make t-shirts for ourselves with the slogan “I KERN.” We do all these, to make a perfect Draft version 2 of a project.
I started my first design studio at the young age of 24, without much work experience. As an inexperienced leader, I used to drive my team mad with ridiculous requests such as “rotate the image by 2 degrees”– with the intention of achieving perfection. It took years to get over this obnoxious leadership behaviour.
The simple learning here? Replace perfection with discernment.
We know at the end, as professionals, we always want to deliver work of exceptional quality – well thought through, well crafted, and well executed. That is non-negotiable.
However, a typical project has multiple checkpoints before reaching the end. This is where the iterative process is more important to move things forward – adopting the mindset of allowing things to fail and to fall apart, to be rejected, and probably to be restarted a few times.
The act of discernment allows decisions to be made at each checkpoint – “is this a deal breaker that has to be dealt with, at this point, at this very moment?” “Is this something we can live with, for now, attached with a note to the client stating that we have identified areas for improvement and will be incorporated in the next version?” In fact, what is of more importance here – delivering on time, or a delayed but better version (and better by whose definition)? “Can we allow this to be released – despite knowing that the yellow could be richer, transitions could be smoother, and loading could be faster?”
But practising discernment is tough. I had to learn to refrain from picking flaws which have no significant impact on the project, and instead, pick the right moment for this OCD-level review i.e. only after the work has been sent off. A review is usually delivered with the option of “you could choose to implement this in the next round or you can choose to ignore my nitpicking because chances are, only a handful of humans on earth can spot that difference. As long as you remember this when you start on the next project.”
Apply this to project meetings. There will always be a lot of information being passed on, and a lot of action points being discussed. There will always be the one perfectionist-OCD attendee who will interject (hijack), overthink, and question an insignificant item which is probably 1% of the entire project. (My partner says this is simply the behaviour of a person who’s making oneself feel like they are in control when the world has moved on.)
I sit through meetings, making mental notes of things. I select crucial points to discuss, put aside debatable points for some other time, and map “too-early-to-act-on” information to the calendar for the right time to revisit it. It really is an exercise in discernment.
I can’t speak for others, but I am perfectly happy if someone who works with me says, “This is the current WIP version. There are a few things I want to fix, for example… Let’s incorporate them in the next round, but could you let the client know we are working on these areas?”
I would be very grateful if someone told me 20 years ago to say, “There are some refinements needed, but it’s alright. Let’s roll with this version. It is OK if it’s imperfect. We learn. We will do better in the next version.”
It is really ok to let go.