9 July 2011
Alternately: The Trade-offs of Iteration
As a child, my writing utensil of choice was a mechanical pencil. Unlike your standard-issue Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2, these instruments never needed sharpening. Always precise, but beyond that: easily erased. The sloppy errors I made in my math homework, the absent-minded doodles I made on my homeroom desk, the words I wrote in notes to friends but regretted only seconds later. The eraser was the original Command + Z—offering us not only an escape hatch, but a way to rid the crime scene of any evidence whatsoever.
As an adolescent, I discovered the beauty of pens. Of commitment. Of what it meant to think several moves ahead. To accept the consequences of my errors. The transition wasn’t an easy one. Initially, when I first switched to ink, I burned through reams of loose-leaf; my perfectionist tendencies wouldn’t allow me to submit papers or send letters with any visible errors. And for a short while, I was that girl—the neurotic one with a secret stash of Wite-Out® in her purse. Eventually, I grew to see strikethroughs as beautiful, a reminder of my own fallibility and a way to ensure that the iterative, revision-prone meanderings of my mind were captured alongside the final draft. There was a deeper narrative there, one just as much about the who, where, when, why and how as much as the what.
For the past week or so, I’ve been making miniature papercrafts in preparation for a short stop-motion piece to be directed, shot, and produced by Erica Gorochow. For better or worse, the drying time of Elmer’s Glue can’t be rushed, which has meant that I’ve had a lot of time to think, specifically about The Act of Making. I’ve been here before—when we first launched our site in January, I crafted the original set of paper miniatures. But this time around, I don’t have the luxury of Photoshopping the errant glue drip, which has required raising the bar on my level of craft. Precision tweezers and OCD-tendencies aside, the work has proven incredibly satisfying, and it was only after I suddenly found myself up to my knees in basswood and magazine scraps that it dawned on me why.
There’s a finality in the work. One that I’ve missed.
We’re all familiar with the benefits of an iterative design approach—in fact, it’s actually difficult to remember life prior to the one we know today. The technology and tools currently at our disposal allow us to think-and-make reflexively in flexible and agile ways, incorporating feedback throughout. But as I found myself thinking through the steps to construct the chipboard laptop, I realized that what was so gratifying was not just the newness of the challenge, but acknowledging was at stake (nothing life-changing, mind you; we are talking about miniatures). Not in terms of the cost of materials, but in terms of weighing the risks to achieve a desired outcome against the time invested. There were trade-offs to acknowledge—could I get away with abstracting the keys into a basic grid, or did I want to faithfully replicate the varying widths of keys? If I chose one material over another, what impact would this have on my ability to achieve interior rounded edges? I enjoyed the level to which I made bets and relied on instinct. And so I began to wonder whether iterative practice could actually begin to erode one of the most valuable (but seldom acknowledged) tools in a designer’s repertoire: his or her judgment.
It’s true that various media require differing degrees of commitment—releasing files to a printer is a nail-biter of a moment for many of us; the same with anything relatively permanent such as signage. There’s a retail store on Broadway that makes me cringe every time I walk by: Damn, I should’ve made that logo a little smaller; definitely should have tightened up the letterspacing between that I and A. And perhaps it’s because most of my projects of late have been web-based products that I find myself missing the idea of designing in a way that involves some degree of finality—of synthesizing all inputs to arrive not at a solution, but the solution—one that inspires conviction. And holding myself accountable when I ultimately fail, but learning in a way that affects me at my core.
It used to be that designers shared the company of photographers and filmmakers, hired for a particular expertise or point of view and responsible for a discrete product that, once unleashed in the world, could never be changed. Increasingly though, especially among practitioners who work in more fluid media such as web or mobile, a designer’s perspective is overshadowed by a prevailing ethos of an iterative approach: If it doesn’t work, we can always change it. Many designers embrace this; who hasn’t wished for a Command + Z to apply to real life? We could save ourselves the occasional professional misstep, a lot of heartache, and healthy amounts of humiliation. But when the stakes are high, being confronted with evidence of your mistakes makes it that much easier to learn from them.
In the start-up world, there’s a widely held belief that if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve waited too long to release it. Similarly, I’ve heard colleagues remind me time and time again that Perfect is the Enemy of Good. But to aspire to anything less won’t do us any favors either.
Keep a drawer of your mistakes. But design like there’s no tomorrow.