14th March 2019

“The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: PARALYSIS.”
— Winston Churchill

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
— Voltaire

Sorry, couldn't decide which quote to open with. Both are equally good … sure, Churchill is a marginally more contemporary voice … but Voltaire has a bit more umph … of course the context of Churchill's quote may be more relevant (a message to landing craft designers who were wasting too much time arguing over details) … but I like the black and white, good versus evil imagery of Voltaire … now I think about it, actually there may be an Aesop quote that's more appropriate … or perhaps …

This is how I spend my days, in a state of constant indecision. The debilitating belief that all options but one are incorrect could generously be called perfectionism, but a more accurate term would be option paralysis – the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. An interminable mull over whatever trivial options lay before me, every action bogged down by a fear of choosing unwisely – what to write, what to wear, what to watch, what to eat (my sincere apologies to anyone who has ever sat with me at a sushi conveyor belt), what to anything.

At some point, no idea how, I managed to make the decision to be a designer, a profession that revolves entirely around making decisisions. Every new brief brings a fresh blank rectangle, waiting to be filled with my astute selections. Type, colour, image – I'm paid to choose. A thousand preferences and variables wrung from my mind, and they all have to be perfect. The more minimal the design, the more glaring the non-perfection – nowhere to hide in all that damned white space. Once the precise shade of white has been chosen, that is.

Just getting the title onto the page is like wading through a mental swamp – I might narrow my typeface selection down to a few possibilities from that endless drop-down list (having agonised over which typeface selection method to use) and then … I stare at them. One of them must be the one, must be right.

Which is probably wrong. Every little fork in the road threatens to bring my work to a complete standstill, all because of some irrational belief that every molecule of the universe should be arranged to some ideal, unknown pattern. Perfection leads to indecision, indecision leads to procrastination, procrastination leads to cat GIFs. Perhaps perfect is the enemy.

Of course, perfection is just an excuse, an admission of defeat at the daunting multitude of possibilities and variables available to me. Design shouldn't be about scrolling up and down lists. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to self-imposed constraints, like Massimo Vignelli's "a few basic typefaces" ethos or Jenny Volvovski's From Cover to Cover project, in which she redesigned dozens of strictly green/Futura/Caslon Italicised book jackets. Can paralysis be bypassed by having all of those decisions already made? Maybe. Probably. Of course, to reach this point, first I'd have to come up with my particular set of constraints.

Besides, the paralysis only lasts so long. Once decisions start being made – usually once the white has been killed, the fear of the blank page overcome – the ball starts rolling and real design starts happening. And then it reaches a momentous point in the project where I am the one presenting the options to somebody else; the client takes on the burden of selection. Three or four ideas will be sent out into the world to fend for themselves. Not yet perfect, but perfectly good. I reckon Voltaire will do just fine.