The Imperfectionist

Very well put. Something I, and I’m sure all designers, struggle with on a daily basis.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher | Content Strategy Consulting

You know those childhood memories that are burned so deep you can remember the shirt you were wearing, or the way the grass smelled? I’ve got a few: The Time I Fell Off My Bike Riding With No Hands; The Time I Couldn’t Keep My Balance On The Rope Tow And All The Skiers Stared.

But there’s a particularly unremarkable one that’s always haunted me. I was in the first grade, and we were making collages of cut-out magazine pictures to accompany the story we were reading. Except I wasn’t cutting anything out—I was just sitting there, vetoing every picture I came across. Nothing was good enough. Nothing lived up to the perfect collage in my head.

While everyone else shared theirs with the class, I just sat there, empty-paged and ashamed. I wanted to hide.

Two decades later, I was still hiding. It was 2008, and I was fumbling my…

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No Boundaries

Sometime in the past year, thanks to Pinterest (my vice and savior), I discovered the drawings and writings of Brian Andreas and fell in love.  His stories are like abbreviated poems and always, without fail, make me think.

Most recently, I opened one of the collections of his work at random to this snippet:

Brian Andreas

Now, I can’t say I have a particular affinity for geography.  In fact, I’m fairly lousy at it, and through a number of chance happenings, somehow missed ever having to take World Geography at all.  (Which, of course, means I’ll never win Trivial Pursuit.)

However, these words struck a chord with me, namely the final sentence: Pay no attention to the boundaries. Now that is a philosophy I can get behind.

I’ve always been fascinated by famous, successful people. But not just who they are today or how they live once they are famous.  I like to read the life story, from the very beginning, how they went from being just another baby born to someone who made it.  And you know what stands out to me about nearly every person who has done something extraordinary? They all, without exception, paid no attention to the boundaries.  Either because of a lack of knowledge of accepted boundaries or often a knowledgeable and deliberate snub of them, people who succeed simply don’t let themselves get boxed in by what is expected.

What does this have to do with design, you might ask.  A couple of years ago, I decided to return to school in pursuit of a second bachelor’s degree in graphic design.  I was excited, especially my first semester, when I was pushed to think outside the box in my design foundations classes.  My second and third semesters, I finally got to take some actual graphic design classes and I was so looking forward to them.  Until, that is, I starting being told what not to do.  Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t ever, ever, under any circumstances, do this.  Very rarely was there an explanation why certain things were frowned upon in design, and even when there was, it was vague at best.

Even better was the fact that the instructors would spend the first half of the class explaining to us the importance of getting an education in design but then turn around and show us examples of what “good” design that had been created by people who in some cases had never set foot in a classroom and whose designs very often broke the very rules the instructor had just laid out for us.

What a paradox.

When one thinks of all the innovators, in any profession, who are immortalized for making strides and discoveries and taking risks – wait.  Innovators?  Doesn’t that mean they did something new? That they bent, or perhaps even broke, what was consider the “rule”?  How do you make strides by doing what everyone else is?  How can you create a brilliant design if yours fits into the same box of guidelines every other design follows?

Why, indeed, do I need them at all?  Them telling me how to do things.  Maybe I can figure out what doesn’t work by just trying it. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else, and keep trying until something does work. And maybe some of the things I’ll discover will prove to me that some boundaries are there for a reason.  But maybe I will create something amazing the no one else could, because everyone else is confining themselves to the boundaries someone, somewhere, in some other time, in some other place, set for them.

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Designing My Future

When I was a sophomore in high school, we were given a standardized test – you know, the one that asks if you’d rather a) build a birdhouse from scratch b) write the instruction manual on how to build the birdhouse or c) just set the bird and its nest on fire.  It was supposed to give insight into how your brain works and then the results would supposedly tell you what you should be when you grew up.  Most of my classmates’ results came out with a list of career areas that fell next to each other, or at least fairly close, on the spectrum of possibilities created by the makers of the test: retail management, sales rep, telemarketer. But mine…my results came out suggesting visual arts, which was located at one end of the spectrum, and…laboratory medicine. Which lived all the way down at the opposite end.

Now, neither of these results were exactly a surprise.  I’d been drawing ever since I could pick up a pencil, and my parents were both (both!) microbiologists.  At least this test did do something to confirm that I was, in fact, my parents’ child.  I had had my doubts about that. And there wasn’t really any question of which field I would actually want to pursue, for although I may have a penchant for science, I certainly had no intention of going into laboratory medicine.  Especially not after a particularly memorable visit to the lab while my mother was testing a stool specimen.  No, thank you.

So I went on to college, majored in theatre arts (since the school I chose to attend did not offer a degree in art – which is a story in and of itself ) and never really gave the results of that test a second thought.  At most, it made an amusing antidote to tell, especially in the instances where my theatrical wardrobe career seemed somewhat less than glamorous.  You want me to sit here in the hallway for 16 hours on the off chance that you might, possibly, maybe, doubtfully, get to the next quick change my actress has?  I could have been a scientist, people.  

That is, until I decided to take a foray into the world of graphic design.  While researching for a design project, I came across this quote by Robin Mathew:

“Design is where science and art break even.”

I immediately thought of those long ago test results. And then, I thought of all of my design projects and the endless experimenting and tweaking to get just the right result, to convey just the right message to the right audience in the right place at the right time.  And then I realized that maybe, just maybe, those test results were way more accurate than I had ever imagined.  Because what I most enjoy doing isn’t just art.  And it isn’t just science.  It’s graphic design, which is a lovely combination of everything some far removed test makers knew I was made to do from the time I was sixteen years old.  And something I only realized about myself over ten years later.