Being obsessive about detail is being normal

Obses­sive atten­tion to detail is a pleonasm or a tau­tol­ogy. The very nature of detail means that one can­not deal with it with­out being atten­tive to it. I get asked about this a lot because to some (most?) peo­ple typog­ra­phy seems all about detail. When Matthew Knott-Craig from Design Ind­aba sent me his ques­tions, I had to point that out to him.

Ques­tion:
The metic­u­lous­ness of typo­graphic work seems to require an obses­sive atten­tion to detail. Would you describe your work in typog­ra­phy as an obses­sion and, if so, why does this par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline require this level of engage­ment?

Wrong ques­tion. Every craft requires atten­tion to detail. Whether you’re build­ing a bicy­cle, an engine, a table, a song, a type­face or a page: the details are not the details, they make the design. Con­cepts don’t have to be pixel-perfect, and even the fussi­est project starts with a rough sketch. But build­ing some­thing that will be used by other peo­ple, be they dri­vers, rid­ers, read­ers, lis­ten­ers – users every­where, it needs to be built as well as can be. Unless you are obsessed by what you’re doing, you will not be doing it well enough. Typog­ra­phy appears to require a lot of detail, but so does music, cook­ing, car­pen­try, not to men­tion brain surgery. Some­times only the experts know the dif­fer­ence, but if you want to be an expert at what you’re mak­ing, you will only be happy with the result when you’ve given it every­thing you have.

I strongly believe that the atten­tion some­one gives to what he or she makes is reflected in the end result, whether it is obvi­ous or not. Inher­ent qual­ity is part of absolute qual­ity and with­out it things will appear shoddy. The users may not know why, but they always sense it.

I admit to being obses­sive about my work, but I refuse that to be clas­si­fied as weird and unusual and obses­sive­ness being lim­ited to cer­tain disciplines.

18 comments

  1. kweed

    Absolutely loved it.

    I strongly believe that the atten­tion some­one gives to what he or she makes is reflected in the end result, whether it is obvi­ous or not.”

    Do you think that this reflec­tion in the end prod­uct also lends itself to the exper­tise of the builder/maker? In other words, would you “sense” the obses­sion in the prod­uct of an AMATEUR designer as well if he does, indeed, put every­thing into a prod­uct? Do you need to have top-notch skills for your obses­sion to shine through?

    I’ve always been con­cerned by this conundrum.

    1. erik

      Obses­sion is a mind set. It has noth­ing to do with acquired skills. What an ama­teur makes, may not pass pro­fes­sional muster, but the love and ded­i­ca­tion involved always comes across, even if the prod­uct itself is use­less in a prac­ti­cal sense.

  2. Some­times only the experts know the dif­fer­ence, but if you want to be an expert at what you’re mak­ing, you will only be happy with the result when you’ve given it every­thing you have.”

    I agree. Very well stated. I feel “experts” may become quick and effi­cient with many tasks, but no true expert will gloss over any­thing; the design or the mak­ing. I also appre­ci­ated kweed’s ques­tion con­cern­ing ama­teur vs. pro­fes­sional work. James Krenov, the renown fur­ni­ture maker and teacher of wood­work­ing felt that some of the best wood­work would be done by ama­teurs. That may unfor­tu­nately be true, since ama­teurs are often­times the ones who can afford to ded­i­cate sig­nif­i­cant effort toward the details… pros, less so.

    — Craig

  3. Jesse

    I con­sider myself both an accoun­tant and an artist, which to some peo­ple appear as polar oppo­site. Art, espe­cially in the design arena, often requires as much if not more detail than the account­ing. Your state­ment is very well said, thank you for the beau­ti­ful words.

  4. Bril­liantly answered! Truth and wis­dom in this arti­cle, thank you very much.

  5. Pedro

    100% agree, but it does not mean that is nor­mal, sta­tis­ti­cally mean­ing, since nor­mal is achieved only when a major­ity occurs. I would say “it should be expected/desired/requested” rather than “is normal”.

  6. I had a lot of peo­ple tell me to calm down when I would object to their design changes ren­der­ing a web­site use­less, or their spelling errors. Thanks for hav­ing writ­ten some­thing I can link them to.

  7. Extremely agree !

    We must love, take care and refine the prod­uct we are mak­ing, because I’m con­vinced it’s trans­mit­ted to users.

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