Persistence, not perfection: The mindsets of social design vs. corporate design

Sara Cantor Aye
Nov 5 · 7 min read

Before founding Greater Good Studio, I worked for an innovation consulting firm. Our clients were mostly large corporations, and we used human-centered design (HCD) to help them grow their businesses. Sometimes we designed improvements to existing products and services; other times, we envisioned entirely new markets and categories. HCD felt like a powerful tool, but after many years I struggled to care about my work — if we did our jobs well, customers might be better served, yes, but ultimately the value creation was for our clients. Corporations making more money.

This is not a debate about capitalism, but suffice it to say, I felt dissatisfied with my work’s purpose of helping large corporations to grow. I think many designers feel this way, since they typically work for big companies or the agencies that serve them. Good design is a competitive advantage for businesses, and a premium for end users. Therefore, most designers are working to further the goals and ideals of our capitalist economy.

However, in 2011 I became increasingly aware of the disparities in our country. While my corporate clients were trying to get themselves promoted, I felt like society was on fire. We started Greater Good to join the firefighting team, working with nonprofits, foundations and public institutions to address social issues using design. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expected to basically copy-paste our approach. I thought we’d dazzle clients with our innovative ideas and slick presentations, they’d give us big high-fives, and the world would start to change.

That is…ahem…not quite how it went.

Rather, in the first few years, I often found myself confused, overwhelmed and frustrated. Why was my design background met with such skepticism? Why was it so hard to land a new project? Why did we struggle so mightily to keep our work on time and under budget? Why did some projects peter out when it came time for implementation?

Designers can be perfectionists

Having been trained by prestigious design schools and agencies, my co-founder and I had a certain set of expectations for the style and fidelity of our work. We thought it should be polished to perfection. And this mindset extended to everything we did. We were used to pulling all-nighters to ensure that deliverables were world-class: slides had custom templates, language was on-brand, videos were cinematic, reports were translated into cool books or posters or decks of cards. And we probably spent as much time on the format of our deliverables as we did on their content. After all, I thought, we’re designers — our job is to make things look good.

And so when we started Greater Good Studio, we printed the nicest business cards we could afford. We bought the nicest video camera we could afford. We agonized over every font choice, page layout and weight of cardstock. We sought to recreate the level of polish that our previous firms had glorified. We figured that’s what clients wanted.

The social sector has a different set of priorities

But it’s funny — our clients didn’t hire us for our perfectionist tendencies. They hired us to design human-centered solutions to their problems, and their problems were more about substance than style. They needed to understand their programs from a user’s perspective. They needed to envision alternative ways of working. They needed to test those ideas in the real world. And they needed to implement, implement, implement. Basically, in the beginning, our expectations for the scale and fidelity of our work were completely unmatched by our new clients’ needs. Sometimes, they were even in conflict — such as when we wanted to create an interactive web-based presentation, but they really just needed a PowerPoint.

Rather than caring about polish, our new clients cared about persistence. They needed us to call and email and text people to get them to show up to a research session. They needed us to come up with idea number 6 when ideas one through five for the prototype hadn’t panned out. They needed us to keep going when the going inevitably got tough. And so, we started to slowly let go of perfection as our north star, and replace it with the overarching value of persistence.

Letting go of perfectionism

As a recovering perfectionist myself, I see now that this mindset is unnecessary and even harmful. First off, polish is expensive! And the time and expertise it takes to create bespoke materials for every milestone are not always required for the work to be impactful. Secondly, polishing to perfection is a recipe for burnout. We trust our teams to decide when something is done, and would rather have GGS staffers putting their energy into the deliverables that need the most work, rather than feeling undue pressure to make everything they touch turn to gold. Lastly, perfectionism is itself a remnant of white supremacy culture. Will it make some people feel more comfortable if a document is free from typos? Perhaps, but is that comfort worth creating an oppressively perfectionist culture? Not in a million years.

But what about quality, you ask? These days at Greater Good, we spend the time it takes to deliver high-quality work, but without stressing over extraneous details. We don’t value our team members for their ability to deliver unbridled excellence at all costs, but for their ability to innovate within constraints. This means constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing everything from how we spend our time (each week we try to set 3 priorities, knowing that we likely won’t get to everything), to how we conduct our research (plan the minimum number of sessions needed to find patterns), to how we share ideas (really rough sketches and hand-written posters are ideal).

Concept sketches for a neighborhood planning project in San Francisco

Plus, even if we wanted to polish everything to perfection, we often cannot. So much of our work is about teaching and facilitating the design process so that others — clients and community members — can learn the approach and own the results. In these cases we have literally handed over the reins (or in our world, the Sharpies) to someone else. So we must let go of the idea that our designer’s touch is the driver of an idea’s success. It always helps when concepts are well-described and well-visualized, but ultimately, people adopt the change that they are a part of making. Our clients would rather implement the ideas they create themselves than anything we design behind closed doors, no matter how beautiful it is.

Working with local leaders on child-centered change in North Minneapolis

Today, our tools are light and nimble. We use iPhones for capturing video. We make slides in PowerPoint when our clients request it. We use Google Docs and wireframes for almost every draft until the last one. These tools remind us that perfect is not the point, and that “good enough” can be great.

Embracing persistence

As I was letting go of perfection, I was learning to embrace persistence. You see, the social sector is riddled with fleeting support: stories of good intentions that didn’t last beyond the photo op. This explains some of the initial skepticism — maybe people assumed we wouldn’t be returning their calls once the project was over, or that we’d be shutting down the company and going back to our corporate jobs within the year. Once we started to demonstrate that we were here for the larger goal of advancing equity, and not simply to feel good about ourselves, building trust became a lot easier. You simply cannot rush this process, because part of showing persistence is simply hanging in there. Proving, through our actions, that we have a vested interest in long-term, positive impact, and building capacity for others to continue the momentum after we’re done.

The other part of persistence is doing whatever it takes. Our projects have required that we play roles far beyond our job titles or what we learned in school — things like writing grants, getting IRB approval, going on site visits and hosting conferences. We have tracked people down, convinced them we were worth their precious time, and gotten ourselves onto their calendars. We have recruited research participants by going to the laundromat, the WIC clinic and the hospital. We have opened a new bank account as part of a prototype when our client’s legal structure prohibited them from doing so. We have wrangled with our client’s financial departments when we knew it would encourage more groups to apply to our project. These kinds of activities boil down to a value — we will do whatever it takes to support our clients’ missions, and our larger goal of equity.

Conducting quick research at the laundromat in Little Village, a neighborhood in Chicago

After all, I now realize, we’re designers — our job is to make things happen.

Expanding our definition of perfect

The irony here is that there is no such thing as perfect. Even the most classically trained graphic or UX designer would be hard-pressed to show you a “perfect” logo or website. Furthermore, I see now that our initial ideals around design execution were simply one version of perfect, and hardly the best or only one.

I believe that a perfect design is something that is perfectly-matched to the needs, strengths and aspirations of client and community stakeholders. Perfect is not “designed by designers,” slick and shiny, or gorgeous and new. It’s certainly not perfect if the person you’ve designed it for can’t use it, or doesn’t believe it’s for them.

We now embrace a much more expansive version of perfect. Perfect is accessible, intuitive, and equitable. Perfect is trusted, owned, and implemented. Perfect is solutions that actually move the needle on social issues. We’re going for this version of perfect, but the path to get there is not one of perfectionism. It’s one of persistence.

If you are a designer, how do you relate to perfectionism? Is it something you cultivate? Something you keep in check? What does “perfect” even mean in your discipline? What does it mean to you?

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