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.

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.


  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.

  8. M Napoli

    I am interested in what detailing actually means.
    A person hires a carpenter to update say a kitchen . The person continually watches the room being renovated and how the carpenter is doing it. The job is done and it is perfect. Now the person wants to show the kitchen off. Now the person explains how the carpenter accomplished this . Taking down the walls maybe having to change them a little ,putting up sheet rock the plastering of it taping painting it and from there goes into the explanation of the finished product and how it was accomplished. Is this called detailing? Or could you say simply ” I had my kitchen remodeled and updated ” it came out exactly the way I wanted. PERIOD. Would love feedback if possible Thank You

    1. erik

      As I say in the beginning: obsessiveness is required to do certain work whose quality depends on detail. If I wanted to show off my new floor, I’d just tell people to look at the detailing. Those that get it know the amount of work that has gone into it. Those that don’t see the quality are lost for the argument.

  9. erik

    The workshop is organized in cooperation with Gestalten. As far as I know, all 12 places have been filled, but you should check with them, in case there are any cancellations. More than 12 people cannot work at once.

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