~4mm (not to scale)

Four Millimeters

Precision is crucial.

At first, there was no pain, only confusion. Panic followed quickly — I needed to get out of the middle of the street. I knew I was injured, but in shock I was unable to determine how severely. As I slumped onto the curb and looked down, the fresh blood stains on my shirt and jeans made it clear that I was in fact in pretty bad shape.

My bike chain had slipped and fallen off of the front chainring. On a fixed gear without brakes, heading into a busy intersection on a red light is not the best timing for a situation like this. I tried to slow down by placing my foot on the wheel, a coin-toss chance that didn’t quite go my way. I would learn later that my foot bent the bike’s fork and snapped several of the wheel’s spokes. Somehow, the impact didn’t manage to break any bones.

I sat on the curb in the company of two kind passers by, one on the phone with a 911 operator, the other helping to slow the bleeding from my head. I frantically called and texted my parents and my startup cofounders, to let them know that I wouldn’t be making it to our meeting.

Nausea is a common accompaniment to head trauma. I have a strong stomach in general, but felt certain that I would be losing my breakfast as I waited for the ambulance. I couldn’t quite see out of my left eye — everything looked like one of those “magic” images that you have to look through to see some hidden message.

Several hours later, sitting in the ER, I was informed that with great luck, I had not suffered a serious concussion and there was not internal bleeding. My injuries looked bad — like a softball coming out of my head with a bone-deep laceration that wouldn’t stop bleeding, and a couple of nasty cuts to the nose that looked like they were earned in a knife fight — but they were nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few stitches and a handful of staples.

I was out of commission for a couple of days following the accident. For the following two weeks, I was busy playing catch-up and icing the strained ligaments in my foot and knee. Finally, after two-and-a-half weeks had past, I had time to take my badly disfigured bicycle into the shop.

The damage was worse than I expected. The fork, which is high-quality steel and can generally be bent back into place, had been bent too far and too close to the lugs to repair. Also, the headset was ruined. The wheel, as it turns out, was cheaper to repair than replace. Because I’m not a fan of repeating my mistakes, a helmet and a front brake were added to the repair bill.

The only result of my mechanic’s triage that surprised me was his mention that perhaps my bottom bracket was the wrong size. Bike chains are not supposed to just fall off, and an incorrectly sized bottom bracket is a common culprit. Every other part of my drivetrain was in good shape and properly fitting, but a quick inspection of the BB revealed that it was a smidgen larger than it should have been.

As it turns out, the mechanic who had installed my bottom bracket several months earlier had opted to cut a corner, by installing the part that he had on-hand, rather than ordering a properly sized replacement.

To be exact, the bottom bracket was 107mm, but should have been 103mm. All this trouble was caused by a difference of 4mm, less than 1/8” on either side.

Of course, there were other factors at play. A helmet would have prevented the injury to my head, but not those to my nose, foot, & knee, nor would it have prevented any of the $400+ worth of damage to my bike. A brake would have given me a good chance of avoiding this accident, but wouldn’t have been worth much if I had been, say, going down a steep hill. Neither of these would have outright and entirely averted disaster.

Sometimes, the best solution is absolute precision — the type of precision that makes back-up plans unnecessary.

This is the same type of precision that designers hold so dear. It’s why we spend hours nudging elements around to achieve pixel-perfect alignment. To those outside our profession, it’s not immediately obvious why, or even if, there is any benefit to the stringency of our grid systems. After all, we could cut corners and get things done more quickly.

Much like a bicycle, we can put measures in place to avoid big problems. We can save backups of previous versions of files, and we can maintain editable working versions for the duration of a project. We can rely on ace developers to correct our mistakes in production. These measures are like helmets and brakes — they keep projects from crashing and burning, but is that really enough?

Little imprecisions along the way have a compounding effect. To return to my bike situation, not only did the imprecision cause an accident, it also caused faster and more serious wear and tear to the drivetrain. By way of example, my rear cog has nearly fallen off, requiring only a quick fix, but avoidable nonetheless.

In design, the compounding effect of imprecision may be less obvious. Hours into a project, suddenly everything just looks not-quite-right. A pixel or two off here, a couple points of leading difference there, and now it takes razor-sharp focus to just to diagnose (not to mention to fix) those issues that could have been avoided in the first place.

The table stakes for a piece of visual design work are much lower than the assembly of a vehicle. No one ever sustained a head wound from looking at a terrible website. But if we didn’t concern ourselves with the precision of tiny details, we would be pretty shitty designers.

The next time that I think I’m crazy for spending hours correcting alignment, setting up type styles, or triple-checking a stylesheet, I’ll remember the difference that precision can make. After all, just four millimeters can really ruin your day.


I am currently a student in BDW’s 50 week program. See my work at tinyeahno.com

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