Scratching the Perfectionist's Itch

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.

You Have to Start with a Clear Idea

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.

Simple is Better

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.

Explain Yourself

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.

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  • Peter Kann

    You’ve answered alot of question that’s been bothering me recently about my designs. Great article.

  • Sydney Miles

    I appreciate your clarity of thoughts, wonderful choices of words; the content offers very practical tips which we can follow not only in designing but also in the way we live our lives. Awesome!

  • feriferari

    It happens to me many times. Know how to handle it now.. Thanks for sharing. Awesome writing..

  • Great article. You’ve made some really valid points.

    I’ve always had a problem with this, in all that I do. As a kid, it got so bad that I’d literally throw a temper tantrum if I started to lose at a game. Thankfully, I smartened up and outgrew the over-the-top side of perfectionism, but it still lingers in a lot of my work.

    I think that one of the worst things we can do that feeds the perfectionist issue (not the good, productive side of it, but the bad unproductive one) is when we try to compare our work to others. In some areas, like coding or basic layout, this may be okay. However, if it crosses over into our actual creative touches, it can be bad. We’re all different and see things through different eyes. Our strengths and weaknesses are different. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself feeling like something isn’t “good enough” because I don’t think it looks as good as another person’s which might have some similarities. Instead of testing it to see if it’s good by my own standards, I try to see if it’s good by someone else’s.

  • Sarah,

    Exactly. When I was first starting out, I kept buying these magazines and I kept reading these blogs about design and seeing what other people have been doing. I would work on my own designs/illustrations and I’d look at other people’s work that have been in this industry and have much more experience than me. When I compare my work to theirs, I’d actually get down on myself for not being as good as them. Which is obviously an unhealthy way of looking at your work.

    I think the most honest truth you can tell yourself is admitting that you’re not as good as you want to be yet. Admitting that you have a lot more to learn forces you to actually learn those things, and that’s really the only way to get better.

  • Natasha

    Beautiful and succinct advice, thank you very much for writing this article.

  • I struggle with getting down on myself when my work isn’t as good as people who have been at it for years.

    I constantly have to remind myself that what I am doing is good, and I will continue to improve.

  • arnold

    thanks nice article , very helpful.
    it reminded me of K.I.S.S

  • Great post, thank you.

  • Norber

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  • Lisa

    My design education required that I not start a project until I could answer the questions of basic methodology: who, what, when, where and why. Then, there had better be a reason (a good reason) for every element in the design – positioning, color, images, etc. If you had all that sorted out, then the nagging question of “should I, or shouldn’t I?” is already answered. Don’t add or take away unless doing supports the concept that was in place before the design process even began. KNOW when the design is complete – this comes with experience…and, I might add, age! That said, do I always get it “right”? Nope.

  • I completely agree! You have to know the direction at the beginning. You have to be able to answer: who, what, when, where, and why right at the outset. I’ve come to realize that design as a discipline is purposeful. It isn’t just art for art’s sake. It’s not even really art. The existence of design is contingent upon a need for it and if you don’t know what that need is, then your design will be in vain.

    And good point about experience! If you like what you do and take it seriously, then there’s no reason your choices won’t get better as you move from project to project.

    Although, with regards to age, that topic is somewhat of a murky subject if I’m being honest because there are plenty of truly great designers out in the world who’s ages may surprise you given their level of expertise and experience (both younger and older than one would think). If anything, I would think the only thing one’s age determines is one’s design sensibility and level of maturity not one’s overall skill or judgement. What do you think? 🙂

    CHEERS! Thanks for your comment!

  • Lisa

    The age comment was more a weak attempt at self-deprecating humor…well, because I’m old! ;0) Talent is talent, no matter how many years you’ve spent on the planet.

  • Great and useful article! “I think the most honest truth you can tell yourself is admitting that you’re not as good as you want to be yet.” – so very true!

  • Amy

    Thanks so much for those words of wisdom. It’s the one trap I seem to fall into over and over. I’m going to print it out and tape it to my monitor!