I’m Chanpory, and this is my site on how to live and work better as a designer.

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Pottery

My 3rd year graphic design teacher, Alison Woods, once told me a parable from Art and Fear that’s still stuck in my brain years later:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot”albeit a perfect one”to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work”and learning from their mistakes”the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Even today, I find myself sometimes in the “quality” group, trying to get it perfect on the first try. I have to remind myself of the two lessons this parable teaches:

1. Don’t drown in the details

Designers seem prone to obsessive-compulsion. We fight over details like kerning, pixel dimensions, and PMS colors. While being meticulous should be every designer’s trait, diving into the details too quickly can drown you. To use a common metaphor, it’s like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Designers, especially juniors, need to be especially aware of this tendency.

Writer Anne Lamott talks about the “Shitty First Draft,” the first piece of writing “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” Like the prudent half of the pottery class in our parable, Anne lets herself put down as many ideas as possible without the burden of perfection. She makes mistakes, but it’s okay, because they are later evaluated and refined.

2. Quality improves with each iteration

Like writing, designing is also a process of generating good and bad prototypes, along with editing and revisions. With each revision, quality increases. Newer software development companies, such as 37 Signals, who’ve embraced rapid prototyping methodologies know this better than anyone. With the success of phenomenally popular and evolving web-apps like Basecamp and Backpack, it seems to work well for online software. I suspect it would work well for other types of design.

It’s now three weeks since I’ve started my new job. Who’d knew thinking about pottery would help me as an interaction designer?

17 Comments

  • Jim

    gravatarJan 23, 2007
    9:24 am

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing that story.

    Jim

  • Codestr

    gravatarJan 23, 2007
    11:19 am

    Dude, isn’t red the only color of PMS?

  • Natascha

    gravatarJan 24, 2007
    5:34 am

    This is probably my worst problem. I am such a perfectionist that i always think i should come up with something genius on the first try. I really appreciate the post, and it makes me feel good to know i’m not the only one, and that its common to feel like this.

  • Steven Bao

    gravatarJan 24, 2007
    9:33 am

    Very good article. I’ve read many productivity tip lists that often include perfectionism is not the way to go when working. Thanks for sharing the story.

  • Davy27

    gravatarJan 24, 2007
    3:03 pm

    I have found this through time while doing many things as well as design – drawing, creative writing, etc.

    Head straight for the goal, achieve it, then suitably flesh out.

  • Anuj

    gravatarJan 24, 2007
    8:58 pm

    Good article and excellent tip…quality does improve with iteration….it is like saying “Practise make a man perfect” and after several unsuccessful attempts one does uncover the best way to resolve an issue or a task.

    andHapp

  • Rockford IL Real Estate Agent

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    6:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing the story……I love parables. Okay you got a Digg :)

  • Patrick

    gravatarJan 26, 2007
    1:46 pm

    Fantastic post Chanpory. I’ll file this in the “quality” folder in my bookmarks.

  • Nick Caldwell

    gravatarJan 27, 2007
    6:15 pm

    Here’s why I don’t like parables: the story’s ceramics teacher must have known this would be a likely outcome. The group that’s been put in the “quality” group have no real chace of gaining a high mark in that class. That’s extremely bad pedagogy. It’s grounds for an appeal at the very least.

  • Paul Foster

    gravatarJan 28, 2007
    12:49 pm

    Excellent and thought provoking. It does not just apply to design, but also to everything in life.

    I will be sharing this with friends and colleagues.

  • skippy

    gravatarFeb 2, 2007
    11:30 am

    The real lesson is that some teachers are narcissistic jerks.

  • Shoulung

    gravatarFeb 8, 2007
    4:16 am

    No, SKippy, the real lesson is that quality is only derived through quantity:

    There was once a king who loved the graceful curves of the rooster. He asked the court artist to paint a picture of a rooster for him. For one year he waited, and still this order was not fulfilled. In a rage, he stomped to the artist’s studio and demanded to see the artist.

    Quickly the artist brought out paper, paint, and brush. In five minutes a perfect picture of a rooster emerged from his skillful brush. The king turned purple with anger, saying, “If you can paint a perfect picture of a rooster in five minutes, why did you keep me waiting for over a year?”

    “Come with me,” begged the artist. He led the king to his storage room. Paper was piled from the floor to the ceiling. On every sheet was a painting of a rooster.

    Your Majesty,” explained the artist, “it took me more than a year to learn how to paint a perfect rooster in five minutes.”

    Isabelle C. Chang Tales from Old China, 1969

  • Paul Velocity

    gravatarFeb 8, 2007
    7:09 am

    Fantastic post. I am a “perfectionist” myself and often I find it hard to let go a little and experiment. I will use your words to inspire me to increase my workload turnover and be less obsessive about my work. Thanks!

  • Simon Cition

    gravatarMar 4, 2007
    10:08 pm

    Good advice, so long as one ends up delivering ‘quality’. Also, in reality the opportunity for ‘quantity’ exists in prototyping and refactoring – not deliverables. No doubt we have all (unfortunately) experienced ‘quantity’ being delivered.

  • Rick – Job Search Tips

    gravatarMar 11, 2009
    11:05 am

    I love the story. It reminds me of my favorite Mark Twain quote:

    “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection”

    Something to keep in mind whenever we get bogged down by fear and paralyzed from moving forward.

  • Marc Goodman

    gravatarMay 21, 2009
    9:32 pm

    Actually, reminds me of a great scene from a great Novel by Ayn Rand – “The Fountainhead”

    This book is brilliant. It talks about this guy (Howard Roark) who’s an architect and how he refuses to do what everyone else wants him to do because he has his own ideals.

    Anyways, he always comes up with buildings that are “perfect” as stated by all his clients and fans. So one day a close friend of his asks him: “How do you do it Roark? How do you produce such masterpieces? Do you ever do anything that is bad?”

    Roark replies: “I’m sure I produce more bad work than any other architect around, the difference is that my bad work ends up in my trash-bin, while others’ end up being built.”

  • house music

    gravatarFeb 2, 2010
    1:10 am

    interesting to use poterry as an outlet, and might serve well for road blocks.

    congrats on 37 signals, thats huge!