Fire Your Inner Artist: A Case Against Perfection in a Creative Company

“You don’t have a quality problem. You have an output problem. Get it done.”

I’ve said this to many creative companies in different ways. Specifically, it’s something I’ve said at a particular time in a company’s lifetime - late adolescence going into early adulthood - when companies need to grow the most and the fastest. This is the time to set aside perfection and concentrate on gaining speed. That first big growth in sales, clients, audience or growing into new regions means the scale of production must grow very quickly. If a company doesn’t ride this wave correctly, they will stunt themselves. If a company relies on its first big moment in the sun to gain an accompanying big following, failing to ride that wave will stunt growth permanently.

This growth period is almost always an existential struggle for creative companies. The talented folks who design products don’t always have the acumen for scaling a company. Sometimes designers and artists assume that any increase in quantity must somehow come with decrease in quality or a decrease in customer satisfaction. This an understandable perspective for creative people; they struggle to see that their product can be mass-produced without some kind of quality loss. As a result, the growth can be choked so they can comb over the product relentlessly. 

Many artists and designers are so closely attached to their concepts that mass production and distribution feel like a troll under the bridge, threatening to end the creative process before they can reach the goal of a sustainable business. But production and distribution are the bridge toward a sustainable business - the real troll is the relentless pursuit of perfection. The creative process doesn’t end at mass production and many beautiful artisan made products may actually improve with scale. Here’s the case against perfection.

Quality Gets Better with Scale

In his book Outliers, psychologist Malcolm Gladwell said that a skill takes 10,000 hours to perfect. Quality control is one of those skills. By scaling production, the quality control process logs more hours. As logged quality control hours lifts towards 10,000 there will be minor improvements made all over the place. Think about it: if you could have a team look at your product or service 10,000 times, wouldn’t they begin to notice things to be upgraded? Most importantly, any true quality control system loops quality issues back to design so the changes are made before the next production run.

Quality control is not perfectionism. Quality control is a concept used for production that involves many hands, it requires the designer to relinquish control but the result can be improved quality.

Blankets awaiting inspection at the Pendleton Woolen Mill.

Blankets awaiting inspection at the Pendleton Woolen Mill.

Feedback Always Comes Before the Final Form

Another tool is the “beta strategy”, where companies open up their beta to a test group before their official launch. When you think about it, how is it even possible to design a great product without getting feedback from the user? An honest review always comes before the final form. Recall when Steve Jobs sent back the iPhone because keys could scratch the screen? Putting a beta version into the hands of the customer is akin to the refiner’s fire. After all, it’s not going to be the designer’s product, it’s going to be the customer’s product. So if your designer is resisting customer feedback, your product is resisting quality.

Somebody is Going to Buy Something

If you never put your product on the shelf, you’ll never know how successful it is. If your company is using disruptive technology, new processes or platforms, your entire business can be beaten out by a faster competitor. 

When you go into the grocery store and don’t find the brand you want, do you leave or make a compromise? The customer will likely compromise because they have an approximate need and most brands will do. Pre-sales, betas and test groups are helpful in determining how ready your company’s product is. But until it’s on the shelf, you’re just a laboratory and not yet a company. So when the customer walks into the store and doesn’t see your product - they won’t walk out empty handed - they’ll make a compromise and buy the next best thing. So now your competitor’s ugly, inferior, overpriced yet highly available product is rung up by the clerk and you’re still in the lab.

Silkscreened wallpaper from the Timorous Beasties

Silkscreened wallpaper from the Timorous Beasties

Production Needs Creative Problem Solving Too

Labs and studios are a place for considering lofty problems and translating them into real solutions. It can be helpful to bring that attitude to the production floor too. Scaling your production is not as simple as turning up a dial or throwing another switch, especially if you’re working with high design products. Consider scalability as another design challenge. Sit your creative team down to consider how a product be made at large scale with limited scrap, less variance, less electricity, less labor, et al. 

There is a Morality to Mass Production

Making one beautiful product will consume more resources per product than making two. There is a morality here, not just a matter of cost savings. Some design principles - like elegance and rhythm - transcend aesthetics and should be applied to the production phase of your product. 

And if it consumes more time to do custom work or new products, how much of your time do you want to dedicate to the oversight? Although some custom work can be inspiring, finding creative ways to speed up the process can be inspiring too. In a world where time is becoming the scarcest resource, there is a certain morality to time-savings.

Now You (and the Customer) Can Afford Quality

Bigger production numbers mean bigger budgets. Bigger budgets mean better equipment, finer materials and more talented staff. The quest for quality requires some things that only economies of scale can justify. The transition from a small studio that produces small orders in-house to a medium sized studio that contracts out its orders in bulk is one of the hardest transitions. It requires a great deal of investment and faith. Knowing that greater scale can help achieve superior quality is a good motivator to overcome this test of faith.