The problem with perfectionism: Why creatives need to redefine perfect.
I was once asked in an interview what my biggest weakness was. "I'm a perfectionist," I said, knowing full well that no one really believed that was a weakness. I knew what they were thinking: Oh, you poor dear, how incredibly annoying that you lose sleep over badly kerned letters and poorly chosen fonts; what a bind that you can match today's sky with a specific pantone colour; what an embarrassment that your work is too perfect.
Of course, we all know my work, along with anyone elses, isn't perfect (and I definitely couldn't tell you what today's weather pantone is*). We essentially define perfectionists as people who strive to do things better. And what's not to like about that? Okay, so maybe perfectionists can be slightly anal when it comes to jobs, but isn't that secretly what everyone wants in a designer? Someone who notices when things aren't lined up properly or someone who checks everything twice over? Isn't perfectionism ultimately a good thing?
You may or may not think your a perfectionist, but if you've ever found yourself nervous before an exam, ever felt underdressed for an event, or ever been scared to admit a mistake**, then we can safely conclude that you have been part of the perfectionist club at some stage in your life.
So what's the problem? After all, perfectionism isn't altogether a bad thing - you know - that drive to do things well. But could it be that the problem is not actually with being perfect, but with what our definition of it is? Do we actually know what it is we're striving for? More accuracy? More flamboyance? More awards?
If you're a designer you'll probably have experienced someone who has stood over your shoulder whilst you work, instructing you to move something one millimetre to the left, or to knock the colour back by 2%. Annoying, isn't it? Designers are a critical bunch. It's what we're paid to be, after all. But when this isn't coupled with an open mind: a willingness to be wrong or to try new things, we simply create a culture where being a good designer is merely about being good at doing as we're told.
So what makes a good creative? Is it someone who can pay close attention to guidelines or someone who pushes boundaries? Is it someone who holds fast to the rules or someone who risks making mistakes? Is it someone who can cast a critical eye, or is it someone who is open minded as to what visual solutions might fulfil a brief?
Perhaps the real definition of a good creative is someone who can do all of the above; someone who has discernment to know when to keep pushing boundaries and when to stop. Perhaps it's someone who strives less for perfect but more for good and thoughtful work. After all, design is subjective - how can anything that provokes such a wide range of opinion ever have hope of being perfect? It can't. It's impossible. Because what is perfect to one client will not be perfect to another.
There have been a lot of articles published recently about the need to fail and make mistakes in order to produce better work. Maybe that gives us an indication of just how deep rooted perfectionism is in our society. But are we missing the point? Because how can we just keep telling everyone to embrace mistakes without also endorsing solving problems well? How can we encourage experimentation without also expressing the need to understand current trends and competition? We may be able to think outside the box, but the box is there all the same. We need a framework to work within or outside of. A client may give you an open brief, but unless you've fully understood their requirements (and yes, with that comes limitations), the outcome is unlikely to be successful.
"Without law in some form, and also without butting up against the law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. The rebellions of two-year olds and teenagers are in our hardwiring, and we have to have a worthy opponent against which we test our mettle."
Striving to be better needs a framework, albeit an imperfect one. And, as with most things, it's all about moderation: space to push boundaries whilst being respectful of client specifications; creating time to invest in experimentation whilst juggling deadlines. It's about knowing when to start and when to stop. It's about embracing mistakes and problem solving them. And it's about being at ease when all of the above goes to pot and simply picking yourself up and carrying on.
Perfection is relative. There's no one size fits all when it comes to creative work, which is both the joy and the pain of it. But let's not make life hard for ourselves by striving to be something that is impossible: perfect. It's the trap a lot of designers, including myself, have fallen into - losing all hope of being truly creative for fear of failure or disapproval. As commercial artists, we need to be precise and follow guidelines, but how incredibly dull if that's all we ever did.
* who am I kidding, it's Pantone cool grey 1
**or if you spotted the deliberate grammatical mistake in this paragraph. Bloody perfectionist.