Practice & Fear
There’s a fundamental flaw in the phrase “Practice makes Perfect”, particularly when it comes to the web. “Perfect” implies too much subjectivity. It also implies a static target. The fact is, on the web, at least, there are no static targets. Web designers have a great advantage over those in print; we can’t afford to stand still. There’s very little risk of us being “left behind” because if we stop, it’s for good. The designers still using tables for layout have either died out, or are new to the game and will soon realise they need to evolve or quit.
“Perfect” is also a little intimidating. Exactly how much practice is it going to take to hit Perfection? How long after that will it take for somebody to point out a flaw? Even the work of the greats—Vignelli, Rand, Bass—can be criticised. Perfection is also a strange thing to want to achieve. It is, after all, the imperfections in the people that we love that make us love them. Why can’t the same apply for our work?
So, we need a more appropriate phrase. I’ve ended up settling on “Practice makes Better.” I like to think this keeps me on my toes a little more; it reminds me that “Perfect” is unreasonable (and to a certain degree, even undesirable). It keeps the motion in the practice. There’s no stopping; there’s always a next step, and there’s always room for improvement. Perfection is a big ask for such a young industry. We’re all walking the same road. Some will fall, but we’ll keep walking, picking each other up as we go.
The idea of perfection tends to conjure up an image of formula for me. The perfect process, combined with the perfect amalgam of perfect ingredients, in order to achieve a perfect solution. But formulas, like all things habitual, are dangerous tools. It’s through fear that we become dangerously entrenched in our formulas, staying well within the boundaries of what we find works and what is comfortable. Perfection stifles experimentation and improvisation as much as fear does. So let’s stop badmouthing the dead end that is Perfection for a minute, and think about Better instead.
Better is a slippery one. Though less so, it is still a very subjective thing. Through experimentation and improvisation, we can find out what is better and what is not. Loosening up and letting improvisation into your work can be difficult, particularly after finding success in a particular formula. It’s a little bit like learning to dance; you’ll only get so far with your hands by your side. Ironically, there’s a good formula to avoid getting entrenched in a formula; recognise the pattern you use, and then disrupt it. Maybe only a little, maybe a lot, but a disruption in the way you do things will open up the floodgates for improvisation.
Let me give an example. I was recently invited to talk at a fairly small event in Leeds. I’d been brewing something of an essay on side projects and focus, under a broad title I called “The Itch”. I decided that this would be a fairly good topic for a talk. After having only spoken once before, over a year ago, I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to get out of the formula that seemed to work in that first case. The first talk I gave had 40-something slides, and was 20 minutes in length. This had no slides, and was a mere 5 minutes in length. Foolishly, I didn’t rehearse the talk enough times before giving it, and it showed. I was nervous, my mind blanked, and I rushed through a 3,000 word essay in just 5 minutes – perhaps even less. But despite all these negative things, I felt good about the change I’d initiated. There were lessons from both the short and long talks that I can now use to improve any future talks I may give. I liked working with no slides, especially given I could spend more time designing that one slide. I know now to practice more – a lot more, and in front of other people. I also know now that seeing the faces of the audience makes me a lot more nervous than I could have predicted.
In this instance, opening the floodgates flooded the village. It was a risk, and disrupting your formula always is. But without taking risks such as these, we can’t progress. We create the same formulaic designs, the same, bland talks, and write the same old blog posts. The trick is to change the game before it changes too much and leaves us behind. Staying agile is an important factor in learning. With so many new technologies and techniques flying around, it’s hard to know what to keep track of. What’s going to stick? What technologies today are veiled in the allure of “new”, and what is actually going to make our lives and the lives of our audiences better? Loosening our hips and taking our hands away from our sides lets us dance through the trends, avoid the traps of habit, and keeps us moving in an expressive way.
Disruption is hard. It can go wrong, there’s no denying that. But there’s so much worth in disrupting our habits. Much like working on a side project alongside our 9–5, the positive lessons we learn from disrupting our processes will transfer back to that very process, making it more robust. It’s a strange, wonderful mix. Getting past that initial fear is the only hurdle we have to face; once we do, the momentum will be hard to stop.