Just Finish It

How web firms that focus on shipping instead of perfection do better, and how you can do the same.

Your New Mission

Just to be clear, this isn’t a call for mediocre work. I’m sure that we can all think of “234 Reasons Why Rushed Design is Bad”, and this article is certainly not an excuse for it. Instead, this is an invitation to start your projects with a focus on completion rather than un-actionable wish.

What do I mean by un-actionable? Suppose you were asked to do one of the following:

  1. Build a complete website and launch it within 5 weeks
  2. Design a website that is a carefully constructed masterpiece

Some of you may be leaning towards the second option while thinking to yourselves “That’s an easy choice, of course I want to create brilliant designs. Not so fast. While it’s admirable to set a goal of “pixel perfect” design for each project, it should almost never be the guiding principle. At least, not without some other goals to provide substance.

Why Perfect Isn’t Practical

Consider the two goals given above. In the first, we’ve given ourselves a concrete goal by which to act. A website must be completed by a given date. There is a specific end in sight. In the second instance, we’ve started with some much more subjective. At what point does a design become high quality? Based on this, when are you actually done?

Learn from Agencies & Startups

If the work of agencies and web startups are any indicator, projects are judged on more than a pixel by pixel critique. A design can be “good enough” but still wildly effective for a campaign. Especially timelines are consistently met. Successful projects are measured in a number of ways beyond pure design, and many of them carry more weight than the end aesthetic.

Yelp’s website, for example, is successful despite having a layout that lacks the polish that the web design community might prefer to see. It’s usable, but in a way that you might say “I could polish this up”.

Yelp is functional despite being simple

Video: Daniel Burka (Designer at Digg) gives a great presentation on this idea of “Just getting it out there” in his talk at Webstock 2010. It’s a long video, but well worth the watch.

Good Enough to Launch

When I tweeted about this a while back, one of our followers pointed me to a quote by Voltaire. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” It simply means that people focus too much on reaching a perfect solution, and it prevents them from making solutions that work well enough. If you focus on pixel perfect before shipping, you won’t get very much done at all.

A modern day version of this idea was presented in a quote from Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn:

“If you’re not embarrassed when you ship your product, you waited too long” – Reid Hoffman

Being known as the firm/freelancer that delivers can be much more profitable (socially and financially) than being known for a specific kind of perfection. Especially when good design is often in the eye of the beholder. Deadlines aren’t. Some of the best reviews that our team at One Mighty Roar have received have nothing to do with the product, and almost everything to do with our execution.

Dribbble with Caution

I’m a huge fan/advocate of Dan Cederholm’s Dribbble community, but there’s a problem that comes up when you spend too much time on it. It’s an unavoidable issue, and chances are that you’ve fallen into the trap before too. When you look at tiny snippets of things that look incredible, it’s easy to feel like you need to restart and scrap whatever is already done. For your own sake, please don’t.

Dribbble Popular Shots

Dribbble is a community built on designers who consistently produce “That’s Awesome” responses to 400 x 300 pixel shots. This is a great way to pick up on trends and tiny design details, but it can be paralyzing when used as a constant reference. The mistake of comparing your own work to that of such a mix of shots is that it’s not an even playing field. Your design may not be (in your mind) as inspirational, but the important thing is that you’re working on it.

The Jason Conundrum

To use a fairly well known example, let’s take a look at the current work of Jason Santa Maria. He’s consistently cited as one of the leading figures in design, and speaks about it across the country. Now let’s take a look at his first website from around 2000. Almost immediately, you notice that it’s not amazing. His second site design from 2004 shows progress, but still isn’t mind-blowing. The third version follows a similar trend.

Jason Santa Maria Upgrades

Does this cheapen Jason’s design ability? It shouldn’t. What it should do is help illustrate a obvious (but often overlooked) point: it takes time and experience to get good. People seem to forget this in an effort to become the next legendary designer who builds incredible work by age 23. You have to complete projects in order to grow.

Developing web designers often feel the need to compare their work to the folks who have been at it for years. Stop comparing yourself to the best out there. Learn from them instead.

Practice Makes Pixel Perfect

I convinced myself a while ago that the designers I looked up to were bonafide prodigies. That they had somehow managed to always have a high level of talent that set them apart from everyone else. But that’s not the whole story. In reality, many of these designers started with the same frustrating designs that left them feeling like more could be done. The difference is they spent more time on it.

Ryan Sims (of Virb and The Big Noob fame) has an eloquent argument to just this point on how “Practice Makes Pixel Perfect” from the 2009 Build Conference. It’s another video that won’t waste your time.

You should take comfort in the fact that by actively participating in the design community, you’ll be a better designer by this time next year. Now put out your next milestone and prove it.

Recommended Reading

  1. Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky
  2. Linchpin by Seth Godin
  3. Fear of Shipping
  4. The Truth About Shipping
  5. What Would Jason Santa Maria Do?
  6. Focus on the Big Picture to Fight the Perfectionist Trap
  7. Iterative Design Strategies talk by Daniel Burka

Posted Saturday, November 27th, 2010 · Back to Top


Add Comment

24 Comments 3 Mentions

  1. AFD Author Editor

    I hear that start-ups and SMBs are the ones that should concentrate on releasing.

    Once you go beyond that rushing things out that are anything short of finished is more trouble than it’s worth.


    • Zach Dunn Author Editor

      I think rushing is different from being held up by stuff that doesn’t matter. For example, how many times have you worked on a design that was finished except for polishing the menu just right?

      I think that’s it important to recognize when you have a launch-able product that is only being held up by things you can fix afterwards (e.g. Not entirely happy with font choice).


  2. Kaci Author Editor

    Oh gosh. What a good reminder to develop a time line into my work objectives. I have so many half-baked ideas and nearly finished projects that need that last 20% to make them complete.

    I struggle with this, but it’s a good reminder to release a project as done even if I’m not totally happy with the design (the truth is I’ll probably never be totally happy with the design). It doesn’t mean I can’t go back 6 months down the line and revise it with the knowledge I will almost certainly have gained from time (much like your example of Jason Santa Maria’s website progress).

    Great post!


  3. Stephen WEbb Author Editor

    Working to clear deadlines such as this is key to running a successful operation, so having a timeline to stick to is never a bad thing. As a designer it can be very tempting to continue the design and build process in search of perfection, but as stated here it is not just design that makes a site finished.

    Knowing that you can always go back in the future means you can rest assured that a design can be amended, and you can launch it in its current state. There is always the risk that a site will never get launched because of the designers attention to detail, so it is key to remember the bigger picture.


  4. Berthold Author Editor

    The problem you’re describing is pretty deep-seated. We love starting projects because they’re new and fun and exciting and we almost always start doing the things we enjoy most about our work. I research, plan and sketch. A lot. I’m neither terribly good with photoshop designs nor with CSS/HTML versions thereof and so far have no routine in either of those steps. So once I’m done planning and sketching, the project goes in the fridge, sometimes for years. I have to literally force myself to work on something for one day only and then ship, but as you can see from my site, I’m getting better. At shipping that is…

    So on top of all the stuff you’ve already suggested I recommend tracking the steps involved in your project, break them down and visualise them. The simplest form which I’m currently using is post-its. I make little boxes with tasks like so:
    O band.php
    O write copy
    O insert into html
    O crop image
    O link image

    and tick those boxes as I go along. Savour each and every box you tick, learn to appreciate finishing parts of the project instead of starting them. If you don’t have a twin or any other teammate around, give yourself a high-five when you’re done and have shipped. It may sound silly, but it will gradually help you enjoy finishing projects more than starting them. We need less starters and more finishers, less ideas and more shipped projects. Get cracking!


    • hello Author Editor

      hose boxes as I go along. Savour each and every box you tick, learn to appreciate finishing parts of the project instead of starting them. If you don’t have a twin or any other teammate around, give yourself a high-five when you’re done and have shipped. It may sound silly, but it will gradually help you enjoy finishing projects more than starting them. We need less starte


  5. Dinesh Verma Author Editor

    According to me, no web design is perfect? you gotta add new codes to your design within weeks. Like your previous web design, it wasn’t perfect, that’s why you moved to this design.
    Therefore, web firms focusing on shipping work better.


  6. Calgary Web Design Author Editor

    I’m always going back and finding stuff that needs improvement. As long as you have a satisfied customer, your business should do well and grow.


  7. tütüne son Author Editor

    Thank you, very nice. However, some files can not be displayed on your website, be aware of.


  8. Jenn Author Editor

    Great article. It put a lot of the problems and frustrations that I’m facing right now into perspective, not just as a web designer but also as someone who is trying to “make it” in the industry. I This needs to be turned into a mini one-liner type of motivational book for young designers who aspire to become like those ‘bonafide prodigies’. :] Thanks Zach.


  9. Stephan Tanguay Author Editor

    Wonderful article, inspiring to seasoned and junior designers!


  10. saerra Author Editor

    Thank you, very nice.
    Like your previous web design


  11. Montreal Web Design Author Editor

    Some sites like kijiji are not even beautiful but popular.


  12. LA Author Editor

    If you’re getting paid to develop web sites then the people that are paying you are probably more interested in the sites ability to sell what they’re trying to sell, aka, convert. Good design should be thought of in terms of conversions. If you miss a deadline because YOU don’t like the way a menu looks and are trying to perfect it, you have failed. The best sites (aka: the ones that convert the most) are never finished. They evolve over time via a never ending process of testing incremental changes and always moving in the direction of the variants that convert best. The web has gone from overly simplified to overly complex and then back to overly simplified. Good design is the sites site’s ability to either (a) get a user to where they want to go as easily as possible, or (b) get a user to where you want them to go and get them to do what you want them to do as quickly as possible…period.

    Bottom line..put something decent looking together and ship it. Better yet, ship two versions, measure them against each other with real traffic, and then stick with the one that works better…based on real data…not subjective opinions.

    Good article. Good business is impossible without hitting deadlines.


  13. Dave Harris Author Editor

    Great article Zach!


  14. Online Strategies Author Editor

    Sometimes, it is just accidents that cause great designs making all the difference.


  15. Hammy Havoc Author Editor

    This was the conclusion I came to lately; Sometimes you can plan too much. You have a goal, worry about the things that happen at 75% when you get near to it, because you probably won’t get there in the way that you first expected.


  16. Miles Wheeler-Smith Author Editor

    This is a great point. You can often get so tied up in perfection the site never seems to get launched.

    I think once it meets the required spec and is stable, launch it! Worry about the final details later.


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    I am not a slave, I am not a captive, and by energy I can overcome the greater obstacles.


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