Design is a process to understand a problem and devise a solution.  Both the understanding and the solution, however, can be elusive.

My high school math teacher, David Caulkins used to ask this question:

"[pointing to his nose] If I move from where I'm standing to that light switch, and each time I move I go half the distance, how long will it take me to reach the light switch?"

Everyone knew the answer to that, but Mr. Caulkins always had a message or two.  One probably was that things could not only be infinitely large, but infinitely small too, the second concept every bit as strange as the first.  Worse still was the idea that something infinitely large (the time it takes to reach the switch) is fundamental to something infinitely small (the distance to the goal).

Another message, for me at least, was that each step forward brought a more accurate approximation of the desired result, though the completely perfect result was not attainable. At some point Mr. Caulkins nose would seem to be right at the switch, apparently not moving at all, though steadily moving.  A rational person, or at least a practical person, might say at that point:  "ok, I'm there, let's call it a day."

In understanding a design problem or devising a solution we would ideally like to have the perfect understanding and the perfect solution.  But how would one know it was perfect?  I think to have a chance of knowing, one would have to take one more step into the unknown, to look beyond what we think we know, to question what we know.  If there is nothing left to explore that could disturb our understanding or solution, we may indeed have reached the perfect understanding or solution.

We can also reach a point in our inquiry where the next possible step seems like a very small improvement, though there may still be another small improvement to be found after that one.  How far do we go before we call it a day?  How do we get as close to perfection as possible without letting perfection become the enemy of the good?

I think we first have to have an idea of how much time we have to work the problem, it's not infinite.  At some point we have to say:  "this is all the time we have."  Second, we need to have some idea of what resources, financial especially, we have to devote to the effort.

These are the real world limits within which good design will emerge, if that is possible.  Design skill can affect the efficiency of time and money spent, and the chances for success.  Most of us who design embrace this kind of challenge---of doing the best we can with what we have to work with.  And frankly, the resources we can deploy on small projects is normally modest.

It must be normal then to feel some awe and appreciation when we see others push their designs out beyond what our imagination and resources will permit.  

Business Week had an interesting interview recently with Jonathan Ive and Craig Federighi.  Federighi highlighted the deep effort at perfection in their work:

Federighi: I think it’s a unique statement about Apple’s values in product development that it is taken as a given among everyone on the team that we will go to the most absurd lengths seemingly to get something just right, to solve, to do the level of architecture work that normally would constitute the most critical element of a product, but we’ll focus that amount of energy and more to say, “That blur has to be just right. That detail has to be just right.” 

It's a big world.

And a PS.

Kevin Cameron, resident technical genius at Cycle World for the last 20 years offers this:

"Well shucks folks, beauty is where you find it.  I propose that Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa pull forth the superb beauty of controlled motion from the chaos of all other possible motions.  They are dancers on machines, living proof that perfection, even if unattainable, does not have to be too far away."

© More Than Construction, Inc., 2014