The curse of perfectionism

Perfectionists can be very frustrating, but at least they care.

My name is Wedge and I’m a perfectionist.

Not in all things, you understand. My home is cramped and untidy, my home desk is cluttered, my handwriting is a scrawl and sometimes I send emails with spelling mistakes, and I think nothing of it.

But when it comes to usability, consistency and design (the aesthetics and the usability again) I’m OCD. I’m learning to lower my standards and ‘just get the job done’. I know that deadlines must be respected. I know there’s such thing as ‘critical timing’ and so I try to work within the constraints.

I write, edit and publish internal communications, and I also oversee some external communications. I care about brand guidelines, and I physically wince when I see a heading in the wrong font, or a logo used without the requisite whitespace around it. I get upset when non-possessive (plural) acronyms have an apostrophe in them (e.g. “The NDA’s from Apple suck a lot” [Non-Disclosure Agreements]).

I’m told by better people than me, that our audience has lower-expectations and will be pleased / impressed with whatever I create. This may be true; lots of people don’t know the high standards I’m aiming for, so they won’t know when I fail to reach them.

There were these three perfectionists; one said to the other two “no you’re not”.

I’m working with a couple of perfectionists right now; both trust my judgement, and one ensures I don’t mess up multi-clausal sentences or make silly ‘there / their’ mistakes, and the other one dictates style conventions to me.

After discussing page layout for an on-screen magazine, Tim, having heard my concern that people don’t want to scroll down one column, and then scroll back up the A4 PDF page for the second column (ala print mags) said, “then PDF is the wrong solution, we need an online solution, and I can only think of web pages and presentations that allow people to read on-screen in comfort”.

But I don’t want another website, and I don’t think I want a click through presentation, not with all the design flourishes and layout structure that this magazine requires.

I said, “could we put a block of text at the top, with no columns, above the fold so it’s all visible on-screen and then people can scroll down to the second half of the page for the second half of the article?”

Tim showed signs of real distress. He explained that this would break all print conventions; it’s a big no no to break up an article like that with a bar of whitespace. I said that less than 15% of our audience would bother printing it. Still, he felt it was important to consider print. We brainstormed several ideas, such as moving to PowerPoint, even moving to A5 layout. In distress, I left it with him. He stated that he “absolutely could not create two walls of text with a break between them.” He said, “It hurts me, I won’t do it.”

Am I the client? Is he the contractor? Maybe, but I also know that Tim cares deeply about design, even more than me. I always try to consider the reader, the end-user. Tim knows the history of design and only breaks conventions for very real reasons. So I left it with him. He’s the perfectionist, he’s the designer; I’ve given him his remit and I will be pleased to have him fulfil it using his knowledge, skill, talent and passion; not mine.

If you’re involved with perfectionists, you probably experience frustration. ‘Compromise’ is not a word that wins them over. I tell you what though, if you ask a perfectionist to explain all the options to you, even the bad ones, you’ll get a good insight into their thought process. And once you’re talking about options, rather than compromises, you get to talk about ‘new solutions’ and ‘appropriate solutions’.

So what’s Tim going to do for me? I’m not sure. He’s either going to move my magazine to A5 and have it display two pages at a time on the computer screen, or he’s going to find a solution that allows columns to be read easier on A4.

I trust people who care; I do not trust people with a laissez faire attitude who say ‘sure, whatever you want’.

  1. Yes, talk about options and make them explain WHY they act the way they do.

    Many people think perfectionism is lack of flexibility. But it is not. A perfectionist only expects to get good reasons if someone wants him to change his plans. Not for lack of flexibility but because he has good reasons for his plan he might not have shared in order to save time. And because he can see things the others cannot see yet.

    So working with a perfectionist might be the more wearisome way to work but it will also lead to better results.

    My name is Annette and I’m a hopeless perfectionist too.

  2. As a selective perfectionist myself, I sometimes find myself split as to whether I prefer working with fellow perfectionists or with the more laissez faire crowd.

    Working with the second group means I get to do things pretty much however I think is best, which can speed things along and can make some projects easier. But, these people do not challenge me to improve.

    Working with fellow OCD folks, on the other hand, does force me to better articulate why *I* think X option is the right way to go and to take a closer look at Y option, too. I think that makes for better results. But, the downside there is that we are a usually a lot slower to get things done, because we talk things to death.

    I try to be a “rational perfectionist” – one who wants things done “right”, but who can be flexible enough to realize that deadlines need to be met and budgets must be maintained and (and this is the really hard part for me) tasks must sometimes be delegated.

    Do you think that most people who work in professional communications are just a little bit OCD? Hmmm, I wonder.

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