Is Good the Enemy of Great in Web Design?

Dec 30 2010 by Jason Gross | 26 Comments

Is Good the Enemy of Great in Web Design?

The popular phrase "good is the enemy of great" echoes a cautionary advice for the inspired and hopeful. The phrase means settling for acceptable or "good enough" results will prevent you from achieving greatness.

This advice, by logic, does stand to be true–allowing our second best effort so that we can just get the job done by the end of the day will always leave us short of our true potential as web designers.

Instead, it would be ideal for us to give 100% every time we fire up Photoshop or lay down a new line of code. Being great–under the premise that good enough prevents us from being great–means never failing, never being wrong, never producing work that sucks or is mediocre, and always being afraid and cautious of what we do.

However, is striving for greatness on every pixel we touch always the best approach to becoming successful in this business? Is good always the enemy of great?

Here’s my proposition: It is entirely possible to make great web designs without being a great web designer. Being a great web designer consists of making your clients or your boss happy, all of the time. It means your sites are usable, flexible and semantic. It also means you meet deadlines. It means holding a solid reputation within the design community. It means all of that, and more.

A great web designer doesn’t really need to make great web designs all of the time. And also, you can easily create superficially great web designs, even when your bosses and clients hate your guts, even if you always miss deadlines, and even if you use table-based web layouts. So, what does being great really mean? And is being good enough counter-productive to being great?

Defining Greatness

Defining Greatness

Experienced designers know that perfection frequently falls beyond a deadline, and that getting there is often impossible when we are trying to reconcile many other aspects of being a web designer, like staying within a project’s budget, communicating with bosses and clients, managing our junior staff, dealing with personal issues that might be affecting our productivity, and so on. When projects have deadlines and limits in resources, a great web project can quickly turn into a good enough web project because good is, well, good enough.

Many designers out there make a great and comfortable living creating work that is consistently just good enough and mediocre. And, to be honest, there is nothing wrong with that. They might not get their designs featured in design showcases and galleries, but hey, for them, the income they make is a good enough indicator of success and greatness.

On the other hand, we do always have the option to push ourselves to be better at what we do. We always have the choice to say, "Hey, you know what, I want to innovate today." Let’s face it, if every web designer was just good enough day in and day out, then the web design community wouldn’t have a whole lot to look forward to.

Being great, then, doesn’t mean not being good enough; it just means choosing times when we can afford to be great.

Those who dig down to achieve great things drive us all to improve. For this reason, great web design plays a huge role for all of us; it leads to constant and perpetual innovation.

The good news here is that great web designers aren’t born with the talent to knock our socks off–so anyone can be a great web designer.

The bad news is that great web designers have had to earn it with hard work, sacrifice, and a true commitment to the craft. Do you have it in you?

The Mentality of Being Great

The Mentality of Being Great

Sometimes things are just not as complicated and hard as we would hope them to be, so we’re left with no excuse not to pursue them. It’s easy to think that some people are born with better abilities, so we can justify to ourselves that there’s no use in putting the effort and making sacrifices to becoming better.

But just like with many professions in this world, web design is a skill that, through practice and commitment, can be mastered. The drive to always learn more and always improve is what separates good designers from great designers–not some innate, superhuman ability.

Hard work has a great tendency of paying off. Those who are working hard to be great web designers will be rewarded so long as they take advantage of opportunities as they are presented to them.

Breaking out of a daily routine of good enough web design and into great web design can simply be a matter of taking advantage of an opportunity.

Greatness Is in Opportunities

Opportunity can come in a variety of forms, and often depends on the environment we have created for ourselves.

For the freelancing designer, opportunity may come in the form of a fun and exciting project or a great idea for a personal project. For those working in an office or on contract, it can be in the form of a new direction for the company or getting a lead role on a critical project.

Keeping an eye out for the opportunity to try something new, to improve, or to try and be in a better situation than where you currently are is what great designers do constantly.

Some people may argue that boredom is the root of evil when it comes to the lack of opportunity. I believe the real troublemaker here is fear. Web design isn’t exactly the most terrifying job on the planet, but our fears can still get the better of us. For a lot of designers who find themselves stagnant in the good enough area, the problem may be a fear of breaking out into something new and something outside of their comfort zone.

Greatness Is in Opportunities

Developing new skills by leaving behind what you are comfortable with can be a risky thing because we aren’t always promised improvement. For example, early implementation of CSS3 and HTML5 in your web forms may be two steps forward, or it may be one step back.

But if we take no steps at all, sooner or later, we are going to find ourselves way behind.

The real secret here is that you can’t be afraid to suck and you can’t be afraid to be wrong. Eventually, we will learn that becoming great at something requires a lot of time spent being really bad or being just good enough at it.

When Greatness Strikes

So we have an enthusiastic eye out for that unique opportunity that provides us the chance to become even better at what we love. What happens when that moment arrives? What do we do when the opportunity to become great at what we do is upon us?

Well, you need to milk it for all it’s worth, of course. You don’t get these opportunities every day, so go balls to the wall, all out, to get the most out of every opportunity that you possibly can.

Confidence is a huge factor here. A fearless designer will realize that they may be wrong at any time, and that being wrong is better than never trying.

When Greatness Strikes

Second-guessing yourself will quickly land you back into that nasty pile of good enough work, and you won’t get everything out of the opportunities that present themselves to you.

As a web designer, you should embrace every opportunity you have to try a new technique that may be a better approach to the way you’re currently doing things. Experiment with a new web layout structure you’re not comfortable with, or a color scheme that you’ve traditionally been avoiding. We all need to take a measure of when we can get away with pushing forward and taking risks. We need to do this today, because tomorrow might just be another day where good is good enough.

Is Good the Real Enemy?

Good web design is more of a barrier to great web design only because we still need to be good enough and consistent at what we do, day in and day out. But good is never the stopping point of becoming great from time to time. It might be unrealistic to think that any of us can achieve greatness every day, but it is realistic to at least try, and the more we take advantage of the days we suck at design, the greater the opportunity for us to learn and grow.

Fear can blind us from seeing our true potential because it is scary to try and fix a problem that we never knew was broken.

At the end of the day, being just a good designer isn’t the enemy of being a great web designer; the one thing that levels the playing field is good, old-fashioned hard work.

Your Turn

What situations in your daily routine could be an opportunity for improvement and growth?

Have you experienced times when you didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to develop professionally because of a practice that was outside of your comfort zone or a skill that you had to learn?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the Author

Jason Gross is a freelance web designer focused on creating clean and user friendly websites. Jason currently lives in Indiana and can be found on Twitter as @JasonAGross or on the web at his personal blog and portfolio.

26 Comments

Anne

December 30th, 2010

Complacency is the enemy of greatness. When we get into a habit of only creating work that is “just good enough” then we risk becoming complacent about our work. Good article.

Chris Brown

December 30th, 2010

“Good is not good where better is expected.” — Thomas Fuller

Robin Cannon

December 30th, 2010

I agree that everyone should *strive* to be great all the time. At the very least that should mean that you’re good more often.

Nice distinction between a “great web designer” (who provides excellent service, on time, to specifications, at a good price) and “great web design”. I’d often like to be more radical and imaginative in my design, try different things, but obviously that’s not always possible when you’re focused on the company you’re working for, or the customer who’s contracted you.

That being said, I think there is one big issue that’s stopping the web design community from moving towards “great” design. It’s the promotion of generic aspects of design as “good”. Too much of the supposed inspiration and showcase articles all over blogs and websites are about … other websites. It’s combining a deep understanding of good web practice with inspiration from outside merely the web design field, that can help us really move towards exciting “great” design on a more regular basis.

Landon Poburan

December 30th, 2010

I really needed this article. I am working on a design which is good. It meets its needs and I know the client will be happy. I feel that I can make it better but it would require me going in an entirely new direction taking a long time to make another great design. I feel that on this particular project this design meets its needs.

Andrew Carpenter

December 30th, 2010

Great article. As alluded to, good enough/laziness is the enemy. All too often client budget keeps greatness out of reach – in every field – spite great work ethic/drive.

zero

December 30th, 2010

I live by the opposite saying: The perfect is the enemy of the good. I believe it’s credited to Spinoza. Meaning that taking forever to attain perfection for a design for example will cause you to forgo a good result. Sometimes you’ll tinker with a design forever trying to make it perfect when it’s already good. with tight deadlines and idiot clients you don’t have time to make it perfect. web design sucks anyways.

The Rampant

December 30th, 2010

This is something that we struggle with on a regular basis. It is hard to kill a project that you are attached to make it great.

Thanks for the great article!

Olatunji Jesutomisin

December 30th, 2010

I think it depending on who defines great, my clients think my designs are great even when i think they could do with a little more work. No designer will ever agree he’s done his best work ever already, someone else has to decide that and usually thats the client.
I working corporate advertising and the key is communication. As long as my designs communicate the client’s selling point, good or great doesnt matter…at least to the client.
Great design takes a lot of time and thought, something we don’t have a lot of in the real world (time that is) because there are deadlines and schedules to keep.
All in all, great design will only stand on the shoulders of good design. Make sure you at least are churning out good or better still really good designs. You’ll find you’ll hit you zen thing more often. At least your clients will tell you so.

Lady_Jaws

December 30th, 2010

Thank you for writing this. I’m working full time and freelance on design. It’s good but it feels i’m not going anywhere. I don’t know the measure of good enough in the industry and always scared, not confident enough to put my foot out there. well, that’s my resolution for 2011. Hopefully opportunity will come.

Dean

December 30th, 2010

Good design is often a great deal cheaper than great design.

Satish Sharma

December 31st, 2010

@Jason its not good but great article.. really very inspiring.

raybak

December 31st, 2010

You can’t achieve greatness everytime, for me its like getting good or good enough designs most of the time and off course its becuase of laziness + client/boss IDEAS and likings.

macino

December 31st, 2010

One of the best articles I’ve ever read. I’m only an amatuer web designer (professionaly programmer freelancer) but it desscribes my profesional life quite correct. I’m alwas hungry for new ideas how to improve and I don’t fear them at the professional level. Now, I should probably copy this practicies also to personal life. Before your article I’ve never thought about that this way. So, new year new practicies ;) thx

Vivek Parmar

December 31st, 2010

great article, sometimes i makes u jealous when someone create a beautiful design and u r unable to do it.
As a designer you should take it positive and work more hard so that you can make a better design as compared to others

Maria Malidaki

December 31st, 2010

I’ll go with Satish’s comment. Inspiring and balancing as always, Jason. A pleasure to read. Way to go!

Roberto

January 1st, 2011

Being great is surpassing even our own expectation. In other words, always try to do 1% better of what we tought we could.

BrianK

January 1st, 2011

This article really hit home. I always feel if I wait until a project is exactly how I want it, I’ll never finish it at all because I’m holding myself to a standard that I know I can’t reach. The standard being matching the top people in the market. The only way we can be the best in a given market is to work hard and learn our way there (while still putting out quality work – even if we’re afraid it’s not the best in the industry). Great read. Thanks for it.

Angelee

January 3rd, 2011

This is a good read that reminds us about a string between perfectionism and being too keen at anything we are tasked ourselves to do. We set standards as we strive to be on top but too much obsession with ‘greatness’ may drive us crazy. So, better stick with good, anyway people judge in different angles..

Luis F. Mejía

January 3rd, 2011

Hypothetically, if Stradivarius violins were affordable and accessible to the masses, and, that hypothetically in that society of some lost continent, “playing” the violin had become the marketing communications means of “spreading-the-business-word”, the great majority of its citizens would have been forced to have to wear earmuffs to block-out the noise and cacophony produced by must of the by then called “marketing communications designers violin virtuosos”.

In the begging of mass communication, Johannes Gutenberg who introduced movable type and the printing press, and thus, began the revolution of mass communication, acted as designer and printer. We now know that through the passage of time, those two professions became very specialized in their own right and for centuries, they develop a collaboration and interdependence in order to produce “great” communication pieces. As of not to long ago, there printing operators dealt with all technical aspects required to produce outstanding marketing communication pieces, with perfect colour calibration, register of images, ink density throughout the printed sheet and throughout the document. But, never did the Business World, Society or themselves consider that group as experts in communication or as designers.

Mastering HTML, or any of the technical interventions required to assemble a Web Page does not a designer makes.
In order to communicate a message and also develop a brand that motivates the subconscious of its audience, it is primordial that the “designer” possess profound knowledge of typography, geometry, spacial organization, rigourous communication protocol, colour perception, mythological symbolism and yes!, creativity and some more, etc. etc. etc.
Without knowledge of the above, programers produce “noise”. Contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s premise that “The medium is the message”, I tent to believe The Message is The Message not the Medium. Understanding that the message must utilize the medium at its best, taken into account its features as well as its shortcomings, those best exploited and implemented by the Master Programming Technicians, as the Printing Press Operators do in the printing-world.

By the way, great design is achieved by supplying the client with what he/she needs, not with what he/she wants. The one eye man leading the blind, this always conduces to mediocrity.
Keeping the client happy is the job of decorators.

Chuck

January 3rd, 2011

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. — Voltaire, _La Bégueule_ (1772)

The better is the enemy of the good.

Best or perfect often take the place of better, and all are more or less correct translations. The popular phrase “good is the enemy of great” and variations of it are echoes of a mistaken quote. Voltaire’s point was that constantly striving for something that is better/best/perfect will prevent you from doing what is good/right/great. Strive to do well, but in doing it accept that the perfect solution is an ideal. You probably are not being contracted to create the ideal product but one that will work as well as possible within a give budget of cash and time. This is not to refute what you are saying in its entirety. A good article. I would just add that good/better/best/great all lie between perfect and just good enough.

jemsdeo

January 13th, 2011

Jason your article is inspiring. But i believe good is better then perfectness because it bring ego.

Suresh Sancheti

January 13th, 2011

Jason your article Is ideal.you say “is good always the enemy of great?” and about “success” its true because success is journey not a destination. so enemy is lots but mind and energy help to make great web designer.

Jerrick

February 21st, 2011

no pain no gain, never fail never success, never be the worst and never be the best

Steve

May 23rd, 2011

From a small agency serving small businesses:
I usually make a distinction between design and art.

I rarely use the word “art” in my business. Great art sometimes just happens but often requires an amount of time that is outside of a client’s budget. Primarily we server the client and make ever effort to work within their budget. If a clean, effective and professionally designed ad or website(but not great art)turns a message into a customer response, maybe that is exactly what the client needs. I’ve known many small business owners that avoid agency services due to cost and really appreciate getting a modest bill for something between the extremes of crap and great art.

That said, I am inspired by and greatly appreciate the passions and efforts of the aspired artists around us who raise design to a higher level.

françois

July 4th, 2011

You say good is the enemy of great
More often we ear great is the enemy of good
I hope crappy will not become a friend

A Design Student

September 12th, 2011

reading this article late at night, feeling like crap. I googled: “I’ll never be good enough. Design”
I hit this article, and other blogs that inspire me to keep making mistakes.
Thanks for the goo- GREAT Read!

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