Taste fights excellence

11 October 2015
11 Oct 2015
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

One of the things that I do several times a week that people find curiously strange is the idea of practicing designing. Most people I mention the notion to respond as if I’ve told them I hunt unicorns in my backyard or I practice blowing into the back end of the flute to increase lung capacity (neither of which I actually do, although the flute thing sounds mildly interesting). It sometimes feels like design is something a designer just spontaneously produces out of thin air, like an impromptu oration or a jazz solo. But like playing music or writing, there’s a fair bit of practicing involved to keep the typography tricks and color sense muscles flexible and useful. Most of the time, I just pick a company – real or imaginary – and try to do a fictional brand redesign. Everything from the color schemes and brand fonts to logos and business cards. It’s actually a pretty fun exercise.

Yesterday was one such day. The “company” I chose to design for was my local school corporation, WLCSC. Specifically, WLCSC has this cool wonky logo that’s a combination of “W” and “L” stuck to each other, slightly off visual balance and not quite 21st century. Not to hate on the brand itself – the logo’s fine, for what it’s worth (I’ve seen far worse…. see, for example, the logo for Vigo County Schools). But hypothetically, for the sake of a design exercise, it could use some modernizing and smoothing out the rough edges. So that’s where I started.

I started out by hand-sketching out a few dozen possibilities, none of which I particularly liked. But whatever; I picked the best one and ran with it, adding on the current color scheme and some gradients. And it didn’t come out too terrible. It might kind of be usable, too.

But here’s the thing.

When I design things – or, really, when I make anything creative, including this post and my original music – there are generally two ways the process could go. If luck is on my side, I usually start with an idea that I like. That idea drives my process to stamp out the basic sketches and polish things down to arrive at a rough draft of whatever I’m making. That’s usually a pretty enjoyable process of following through ideas and brainstorming, starting with a cool idea, I generally end up with something I can live with. But as luck would have it, that happens probably less than 15% of the time.

The rest of the times, I sit down with a blank slate. I sketch out a few ideas around, and like the one above, I start out with a concept that’s nice, but not quite there. And as I polish it out and try different color combinations or move things around here and there, the returns diminish. And sometimes, I end up with something that looks okay, but doesn’t quite feel right. As Ira Glass would call it, it doesn’t look right to my taste.

There have been times where I’ve scrapped designs I poured literal half a dozen hours of work into because a better one popped into my head two weeks later. I’ve shared bad designs just to get them out of the way and later regretted them. (I’ve never, however, regretted waiting for a better idea and taking extra time.) And this isn’t just in design. I’ve made entire videos and songs – something like 3-4 hours of a process altogether – and them deleted them because it didn’t sound as good as I wanted it to. I’ve pulled and re-done so many redesigns of websites from scratch, including this one, whose initial design I took down after a month and a half of being launched, only to take a week off to re-do the design from scratch. And this probably isn’t just me – I certainly hope it isn’t just my uber-perfectionism. In every single person who does something creative, from dance to writing to photography and filmmaking, there are times when what we’ve made just doesn’t feel right, but we can’t quite get it to be what we want it to be. It’s a struggle, and you probably know that feeling, too.

But through the times when I settled and shared that not-quite-finished work and through the times when I held back until I could make something I was satisfied by (even if it meant waiting weeks to completely re-do the piece), through all those times, I think I improved more, and my work was certainly better, when I held back settling for something I didn’t like.

One of the best analogies for creativity I’ve found is to externalize it. In this analogy we treat creativity like a creasure not quite under our control, like our creativity is this elf or gnome sitting inside our brains and occasionally cooking up cool ideas. When we make work that we like, it’s the creativity elf being satisfied. But every time we have that nagging feeling that what we make isn’t quite right, it’s that elf shaking his head. And it’s a weird analogy, but it also feels pretty accurate to me. And to keep that creativity inside us going, to keep creating better and more beautiful things that make us better and help us make better things for the world, we can’t settle for things that don’t quite feel right, and we can’t discourage that creativity sitting inside our brains, expecting something better.

Nearly every branch of art, from Rock and Roll to data visualization, is a matter of individual taste. And that taste is what pushes everyone to be more creative, and to motivate artists to keep striving to make better art. And sometimes, there are tradeoffs to be made between time and perfection, but as long as we can, I think we help ourselves, and create better ideas, by holding on through the mediocrity until we can really love what we make. Our taste fights excellence, but that clash is what pushes us to make our ideas better, and create better ideas.

Holding gaze

Intoxication by ideation

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