Making Peace with Design that is Never Done
This winter, I was helping out at a friend’s cloth shop on Portobello Road in London. A customer who bought curtains for his home came back that day to ask about the process of hanging up the curtains. He was deeply concerned that he would do it incorrectly. My friend — the owner — answered, “Hang it up and don’t look at it for a while.” I asked him why he gave this advice. He said, “Because it will never look perfect. So you have to walk away from it for a bit.”

This moment struck a chord with me. For a large part of my design career, I struggled a lot answering the question: “When do you know when something is done?” It had been consistently difficult for me to find the right balance between done and perfect because I never think that any of my work as such. Aside from having a bad case of imposter syndrome, I also suffer from a very severe case of perfectionism. 

Realising good design takes time

The second I look at a ‘final design’, I despise it. I can see all of the flaws that no one else sees. I have to resist the temptation to scrap everything and go back to the drawing board. Over time, however, I have learned that design is a learning process that eventually reveals the solution that is best for a particular moment in time. But that process does not end with the design that I ship for that particular moment or project.
Charles and Ray Eames believed in this kind of spirit; that the design process is perpetual. Their fundamental belief was that “design as a process, rather than a single outcome — [is] a process that’s never really over.” (2) To Charles Eames, Eames chairs were a 30 year design process.

Embracing deadlines and constraints

When I started designing and working for a design studio at 17, I hated deadlines. They reminded me so much of school, which I rebelled against and eventually decided not to finish. I felt the same way as a young designer and I would often rebel against deadlines and constraints, not understanding their value in the process of crafting good design.
In 2016, Rob Bartlett and I were designing the suite of Spotify icons. We spent 4 months working on it and we obsessed about every detail and shape. If we didn’t have a deadline or any technical constraints, we could have stretched that to 6 months, 12 months or more. I was even continuing to tweak the icons in my head as engineers were implementing them in the Spotify app. I don’t know that we were truly happy with the designs at the time but, despite that, I still believe it’s one of the most well crafted things I’ve done.

Identifying and working within the constraints has been key to my design process. It’s not easy but within the boundaries, I find true creativity. 

Taking in feedback and walking away from it.

Having a design critique is one of the latest trends in design teams and I hear many teams and designers struggling with them. Common questions include, “How many designers should be in the room?”, “What kind of feedback should I give?” or “What’s the right format?”. They have become an innately ‘serious’ part of the job, where designers think deeply, offer feedback and intellectually joust about each other’s designs. I enjoy design critiques, but I believe they don’t have to be such a serious affair. A mentor once told me: “You take the feedback that’s useful to you”. He was right; not all feedback is valid. Much of the feedback in critiques are statements from designers who are peer pressured to say something in a 45 minute time period, whilst their managers are watching. So I often remind myself to listen to feedback but not to become tied to all of it. 

Another example of this is the kind of feedback that exists on ‘Design Twitter’. I have a really interesting group of followers that are kind and thoughtful, but some designers (mostly men) are incredibly harsh and comment on projects as if I have made the biggest design mistake of my career. Some even go to great lengths to design “a better design” and email it to me. I read them all. Then I take in some of the feedback and I walk away from the rest.

Learning from repetition

I sometimes describe my design process as a non-process. But the more I grow as I designer, I realise my process has a pattern that I slightly modify each time. For example, when I’m at least 80% happy with something, I walk away from it. I apply this to everything: my product design, my writing, my paintings, my illustrations. I’m always fighting the perfectionist in me.

When I walk away from something and start a new project, I find that the real beauty in the imperfect - yet fully functional - craft of the first project emerges when I go back to it. I finally reflect that I’ve created something great, something to be proud of. 
Sometimes to create something great, I need to let go of the very essence of what makes me a designer and what attracted me to design in the first place. Nothing is really done or perfect. Not even this article. 
Andrea Limjoco is a Design Lead at Spotify in Stockholm, Sweden. Follow her on Twitter @andrealimjoco and Instagram @andrealimjoco. Join and donate to the Extinction Rebellion to fight for our future and the future of our children.

Images provided by author.
Art used in this issue: art provided by author
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