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July 25, 2010

Is perfection possible?

Last week we caught a glimpse of Jeff Reed’s Brand RMX interview and thoroughly enjoyed the section on perfection. For this inwords discussion we’re focusing on the pursuit of the idea that is perfection: is the absolute perfect thought / idea / execution readily achievable or is it a phenomenon? How does the perpetual search affect your creative process?

Participation is caring. Please jump into the conversation and help shape the dialogue…your contribution makes all the difference in building a stronger Design is Love community.

07.12.10 / 6:11 AM
We're very excited to see this topic posted. As creative people, whether we're designers, photographers, copywriters, drug counselors or business managers, there's an inherit expectation that we will do all that we can to achieve something great. When we work hard and do an outstanding job (really nail it when it comes to results) have we set the mark as something that can't be topped? The idea of perfection is complicated...have you defined the unobtainable or simply given everyone else a goal to strive for?
07.12.10 / 1:03 PM
Jeff Reed makes a good point. There is no such thing as perfection, nor should you ever strive for it. I feel that when you push so hard for something to be perfect, you miss the little things. Like Jeff Reed says it is the little things that make a difference. I have learned that when creating an art piece, allow the mistakes to be apart of the picture. Just work with it, and let things be positive. Having a plan is good because it builds that creative drive. However, never expect it to come out exactly the way you planned because it leaves no room for greater things to happen. Go with the flow.
07.14.10 / 9:51 AM
After listening to Jeff Reed speak, my opinion of perfection didn't really change. I enjoyed what he had to say throughout the entire interview. What I took away from listening to him speak was that he truly loves what he does for a living and he is genuinely driven to better himself and those he collaborates with. He also understands what you can, and more importantly, what you can't take with you once we are done with our physical existence.

Perfection, to me, is idealistic, which by definition is subjective and can tend to live in the imagination. Interestingly, I spend a great deal of my life in my imagination. Speaking of definitions, I ended up looking at the definition of perfect and was surprised at the 3rd definition: perfection - the action or process of improving something until it is faultless OR as faultless as possible.

That's interesting. It seems that the definition of perfection allows for the search & journey to perfection. The process. Also it seems that perfection can be different for one person that it can for another. Which is relative and even subjective. This would then allow for exactly what Jeff was speaking about regarding perfection as constantly changing as you improve and get closer to...

{ pause }

I don't know what I'm talking about. I got lost trying to come up with the perfect answer to this. I don't believe in perfection. I believe in love & happiness. Which doesn't need to be called anything else.
07.15.10 / 6:50 PM
Perfection isn't real. It's real as something to strive for but I agree with Jeff Reed when he says "you should never be able to achieve perfection". Why? Because it's a subjective point of reference that constantly shifts with ones accomplishments and experience.

If perfection was attainable, it wouldn't be a worthy thing to pursue, I think. One doesn't start a task/project thinking "I want it to be blue". You want blue, you make it blue. Done. Determined, but didn't take much exploration. When you set something like perfection as an objective, you're setting yourself up for a journey. I agree with @bcgrabell, it's all about the process.

Interestingly enough, I mostly find perfection in things that are flawed. It's like the planets aligned, the right accidents happened and there it is.

note: I encourage everybody to check out the video that starts this conversation. I usually jump straight to the dialogue and it actually took me some asking around to figure out who this Jeff Reed was and why everyone was talking about him in this context. hahaha I had actually watched that video a while ago but I'm horrible with names... and far from perfect.
07.16.10 / 11:15 AM
Perfection does exist, I see it everyday. To the point @bcgrabell makes, by definition perfection is "as faultless as possible." If we use that looking glass to examine how "perfect" something is, then we're more apt to find perfection.

I think my daughter is perfect. At times she cries and screams, but it's because she's either hungry, tired or bored. Does that make her any less perfect than a hypothetical baby that never did anything other than coo and smile? No, because the screaming and crying is her way of communicating. The "flaw" is what helps her be better.

Now apply this approach to judging perfection to the creative process. You have this amazing idea and start to create it's printed / interactive representation. Maybe the shaping and reshaping changes what the visual execution looks likes as compared to your original sketch or vision. The final product is different than the ideal you set forth at the beginning of the process, but man o man does it deliver the goods. Does that make it any less perfect?

For me, perfection isn't about doing something better than anyone could, or someone examining and not finding a fault in my work. It's knowing that something was done with the best intentions and worked through to a point that it best represents the most ideal thing at any one given point. And once that point (or time) is passed then it's time to try again.

Knowing that we all play a part in creation in some capacity, is the goal to make something "perfect" or does "perfection" happen based on the process?
07.18.10 / 10:25 AM
Perfection is the original double-edged sword.

To me, it's the abstract concept at the end of a constant evolutionary process of refinement. On a subjective level, it's our awareness that we could do better, that something we're making isn't "working" well enough, that there's room for improvement. To me it goes without saying that we don't actually desire perfection, because its the cessation of all movement, all progress. Once perfection is achieved, the race is over. What we're really trying to do is strip as many faulty components from the finished product as possible (how we define as faulty or functional in our work is obviously a very relative and subjective).

On an objective level, the proposition of actually trying to achieve perfection always brings to mind the character of Joseph Grand in Camus' The Plague, who has been working on a book for years, but gets no further than constantly re-writing the first sentence in search of the best opening. That's a constant struggle for me as an artist, not becoming paralyzed by perfection. Imagination is a vacuum and sometimes I think we avoid possible disappointment by never moving certain ideas out of a conceptual stage and into the practical one. We content ourselves to make plans forever.

So, whether "perfection" as a notion should take part in your process depends on what effect it has. If it provides fuel and incentive, then cheers. If it becomes some unwieldy concept that intimidates you out of making something that might not measure up, throw it away.

p.s. - I agree with Constanza about finding perfection in the flawed, I'm the exact same way. I think as designers or artists we spend so much time trying to control outcomes, that we eventually start seeing beauty in the patina and the incidental.
07.19.10 / 10:07 AM
@Jstn_ > I think you summed it up, especially for me, very nicely in your third paragraph. Above, I boldly say "I don't believe in perfection", but I should have said "for me, and my own happiness, i shouldn't believe in perfection". It isn't for me to say that you or anyone else can't have perfection.

For me, what is ironic is that by allowing myself to view through a lens of love and happiness, I see things as perfectly as I want to see them. So, I guess by trying to not be perfect, I experience perfection. Hah.
07.19.10 / 12:09 PM
@tmonroe, I agree with your statement that it is not about flaws or finding no fault that makes something perfect. I think when you are completely content with something than that is "your" perfection.
07.19.10 / 7:25 PM
After years of hash criticism for my conviction in the idea of perfection, it's a delight to read all of these statements.

Seven months ago, my son was born with a genetic disorder, NF1, that left him spots across his body. I thought he sort of looked a little like a cheetah. I thought he was perfect. We learned that the disorder might lead to some real complications, including potential blindness by the time he turns 10 and life-span issues. Today, I look at him with his robust laughter, and early teeth and power grip and faux-hawk hairdo and resistance to all things vegetable and I see perfection. Nothing's changed. When I think of his short life thus far and the love he's generated everywhere he goes and the abundance of love poured on to him from his mom and me and his 4 brothers and an extended community too vast to list all members—I think his life, if it were taken from us right now—has been impeccable in its perfection.

In french there are 3 tenses that capture, in grammatical form, some of my views on perfection:
First, there is the imperfect (imparfait) tense which expresses or describes continued, repeated, habitual actions or incomplete actions, situations, or events in the past. It's a tremendously clumsy tense that seems to me to be lost in syntax. I could rarely find a use for it. It makes me sad.
Next is the perfect (parfait) tense: it's a present tense relating to an action completed in the now. I'd like to think that it doesn't address flaws because of it's overwhelmingly unconditional regard for the absolute present.
The last, and my favorite is plus que parfait, or loosely translated as more than perfect. It suggests an action that predicates another action. It suggests (in it's philosophical form) a prescience to the now—a root form of the perfect.

I believe in something large than I that guides me to find perfection in everything I experience whether joyful or sorrowful. I want to say with certainty that everything in the world is perfect, but I haven't yet looked at everything in the world deeply enough to say that's true. But, everything I'm guided to explore with any seriousness has unveiled perfection. I have to say, I'm more inclined to think the world is perfect than I am to think my guide is crafty and directs me to look only at things that are pure.

I don't understand the concept of flaws. I heard a judge in a design competition say that so many of the pieces were flawed. That surprised me. I'm glad she said it. I became uneasy. I slowed down... and there it was—perfection.

Messing with the baby metaphor for a second:
If I set out to create a perfect baby... I think I would fail. I'm guessing the reason is (to me) perfection is a state-of-being, a submission to process without putting faith in the outcome. I love my wife and the space of family between us. I do so with a kind of fierce and rubricate abandon that wakes me up like a shot of crisp oxygen. They are constantly present in everything I do. Everything. When I look, I find perfection.

As is true for my work, I can't attain this perfection, I can only honor it's plus que parfait tense. And be surprised by what comes through. When I chase it, I lose it. When I submit—there it is.

It seems perfection and freedom are a lot alike. I'm actually wondering if they aren't one and the same.
07.19.10 / 7:53 PM
@ tmonroe:
I think I might have made an argument for perfection as submission to process and not a submission to the quest of the perfect.

I spoke to a theologian who suggested that the apple was a symbol of perfection that hung temptingly from the tree of knowledge. The more you covet it, the more you're lost. Their seems to be the suggestion that though perfection exists, it's more a mirror that exposes its pursuer.

If perfection is the buddha, when you find it, how critical is it to slay it?

I knew a beautiful woman who had a bit of a cleft lip repair scar. I wanted to photograph her. She was beautiful, beautiful, stunning. Everything as it should be. She was hard and delicate and complex. That face! She had the scar cosmetically "fixed". I was saddened. Now she's pretty, but not riveting. Not to me. Something pure was lost. She feels better about herself. More confident. That should make all the difference—that should be her glow— that confidence should be her beauty. But for some reason it didn't translate for me. I felt like she betrayed us both. So weird! It had nothing to do with me. She was a store clerk. Her son had the same name as one of my sons. That's all I knew about her. Why did it mean so much to me? I find the idea of the flaw to be a tremendously complicated thing. It has in it an aspect of judgement that makes my stomach ache from my inability to sort it out.

Hey Design is Love:
how do feel about judgement as it relates to perfection?
07.20.10 / 11:30 AM
Perfection is such an abstract concept that it's easy for explanations to become tautological. I find myself constantly trying to keep this in check while I contemplate the questions raised. I purposely don't let thoughts of whether perfection is attainable weigh on my work. I opt for whether or not something "works", and I try to keep that as vague and instinctual as possible - but that's because overthinking things doesn't vibe well for me artistically.

Regarding the theologian's interpretation, this is still very subjective based on religious upbringing and differing opinions. Historically, there have been quite a few artists in various media who were regarded as perfectionists, they attempted to control the process instead of merely submitting to it - and have still created works that are widely regarded as classics, that have touched the soul or added something to the human canon. Likewise, there have been a great deal of artists who had a more prolific and ephemeral (even slapdash) approach to creating - who have left behind works of equal effect. What this says to me personally is the focus is not perfection, it's process. The relationships these people developed with their respective processes is what really matters, obviously perfectionism worked for some and not for others.

As for the world at large, some things do seem perfect - the way that evolution has sculpted animals with the exact adaptations their environments require, the way ecosystems maintain equilibrium, the cycles our earth goes through to maintain her longevity. But, as far as human civilization goes - I would say we shouldn't simply be submitting to the process with faith in the outcome. There are too many people locked in needless conflicts, too many people dying of famine, too many scarred by trauma and too many people profiting off the misery of others - especially when there are better alternatives. I hope I'm not macroscoping here. I too, look at my daughter and see perfection but also feel the need to protect it to the best of my abilities, as a radically different upbringing could turn the same child who could become a concert violinist into a killer. Perhaps this is all within the machinations of the universe, and on some days I think it is - but I don't think I'm ready to be that stoic and fatalistic yet. I don't think to strive for better when you are aware that better exists is to be lost.

(As for the Buddhist saying, from what I understand - the "Buddha" employed in the koan is not meant to be perfection, but instead a distraction from it. So to slay him is to reassert the path to Nirvana/spiritual perfection, so perhaps this pursuit is noble.)

Hopefully this didn't come off as pretentious as it felt.
07.24.10 / 8:28 PM
I find perfection all the time. I believe that if there is love and beauty present, then it's perfect. What has been said above that perfection is based on what you yourself find as being perfect makes complete sense to me.
07.24.10 / 10:20 PM
Lost the thread while on vacation in Maine, catching up on what has moved into one of the more intellectually deep inwords conversations so far.

@jstn_ I have a few questions regarding your deeply evocative and thoughtful response (well done!).

First, you stated that perfection is the "cessation of all movement / progress" as it determines an end point. In your process, what is the goal as an idea is initiated?

That approach defines the end product (or thought) of an individual project / thing. Knowing that process determines that we must continue to refine, refine then refine more, how do you know when to stop, ceding to the inherent structure of endpoints or deadlines (whether self imposed or determined by paying clients)? Can that project then be deemed "perfect" based on the standards I outlined in my initial response ("it best represents the most ideal thing at any one given point. And once that point (or time) is passed then it's time to try again.")?

Lastly, the example of your daughter and the differentiator between successful violinist / killer. Again, I think you're determining "perfection" as it relates to [your] process of parenting. Would the judgement differ if the lens was switched to your daughter's process of self-discovery and personal development, which would obviously include the upbringing you supply but also the influences that others have on her as she grows / learns?

@richh - the beauty of the search for perfection is that we (as individuals) all have an equal say in what's perfect to us. Hypothetically, I may look at the clerk now and see perfection in her clear, scarless face...whether or not I had the experience of an encounter before the cosmetic surgery.

Judgement, by definition is an opinion. Your personal conclusion, as it relates to perfection, could be dramatically different from mine, and in the end we're both able to rest easy knowing we're "right."
07.25.10 / 7:26 PM
That's an interesting conversation, Troy. Can't wait to have that over a shot of beer. There was a truth that you now know about the clerk. Can you formulate perspective independent of that truth? I'm going through this with a client right now. As soon as you observe, address or learn about something, the truth changes.

That said. I don't think my sense of perfection is relative. I believe there is an aspect that's universal. I don't think it addresses all aspects of perfection, but I believe it's at the root. The closer a thing gets to pure, the closer it gets to something that can be codified— the more absolute the perfection.

My investment in giving back and in having babies and in submitting to love is based on this: there is a perfection. We see its evidence everywhere. If we keep digging deeper, we'll get to the point where it's no longer my perfect or your perfect, but THE perfect. Without that conviction, it all becomes so existential, I don't quite know what to do with myself.


We'll post the topic to start the conversation. Where it goes is up to you.

Sunday t Sunday

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