Pixel Perfect

Awhile back on Twitter, I mentioned wanting to write a blog post about my growing annoyance with the phrase “pixel perfect,” which I think has a good shot at giving “pivot” a run for it’s money in the “beaten-to-death startup meme” stakes. At the time, however, I wasn’t quite ready to articulate what it was that bugged me so much about a concept that should theoretically be so up my alley as a highly design-oriented technologist.

Being on vacation the past few days, however, has helped me zero in on what it is I want to say. Two things aided my epiphany.

First, I finally watched “Black Swan” on the plane. For anyone who has seen the movie, I think the connection should be fairly obvious: Nina, a young, emotionally stunted dancer who is obsessed with perfection must realize that sometimes true perfection is possible only by losing control and yielding to messy, emotional imperfection.

Second, I ironed a shirt in my hotel room and realized that maturity had miraculously bestowed on me the ability to effortlessly perform a task that severely tried my perfectionistic nature when I was younger. What changed? I’m pretty sure it’s that I finally internalized that a certain amount of imperfection is not only acceptable in ironing a shirt, it’s essential.

I’m increasingly convinced this ability to continuously discern the appropriate amount imperfection in a design to make it shippable, to leave room for future growth and iteration, to keep it simple, and to allow it an emotional core is one of the hallmarks of truly great designers and engineers. Khoi Vinh recently wrote a great post about a similar concept as it concerns designers, and Guy English did another great and similarly themed one aimed at engineers.

I think one of the reasons “Pixel Perfection” is becoming a meme these days is that people want to emulate Apple, and attention to detail is one of the qualities people most associate with Apple. Having worked as part of the organization responsible for the massive undertaking of shipping OS X, however, I have a slightly different take on what makes Apple great. Certainly attention to detail is an important reason for Apple’s success. But I think another essential component of what makes Apple successful is that it is extremely disciplined and incredibly good at continuously identifying the appropriate level of imperfection in projects and products over time. That doesn’t sound terribly profound, but based on my experiences outside of Apple and my observations of the tech industry at large, perfection is a lot easier than you think. Imperfection is the hard part.

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