At my first design job out of college I worked on accounting software for small business owners. Trebuchet was the product's primary font, and one which I frankly thought of like a poor man's Meta. So I always set my Trebuchet labels and headers in kerned-out light weight small-caps, justifying my rebellion against the status quo in the name of aesthetics. It was my attempt at making lemonade out of sour lemons, in which the sour lemons are an archaic style guide that constantly had me questioning, "why can't we have nice things?".
I thought my unwavering dedication to the cause of visual clarity was indicative of my talent. I was being detailed oriented. I was being a perfectionist. I was being a good designer.
These days, I find elegance in what some might find ugly. Working on a product with inconsistent hierarchy or a clunky primary typeface doesn't keep me awake at night the way it used to. In fact, I think my recently acquired lackadaisical attitude towards achieving perfection has made me a better designer (not to mention a more chilled out human being in general).
It's made me prioritize and pick my battles. Designing useful functionality will always be more impactful than typographic tweaking.
It's made me more nimble. I don't get hung up on the details, I just keep moving forward. When everything's a mess there's always something to work on.
It's made me better at critique. Let's face it, critiquing minute typographic, color, or layout decisions (or lack thereof) is easy— especially from the outside. It requires little understanding of the broader business or product goals.
The freedom in designing new products with the intent of 'getting it right from the get go' is undeniably seductive. However, it is a lot easier to design the perfect solution from scratch than it is to create an elegant experience within the constraints and legacy of a successful product.
These days, I find it hard to get excited about beautiful new apps. Or perhaps it's just that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I've started to see things differently. Jelly sports an enticingly geometric logo, playful transitions, and a refreshingly minimal color palette and yet it pales in comparison to the inspiration I glean when visually banal products like Gmail or Facebook Messenger make small, meaningful updates such as the recently redesigned compose bar. I can only imagine the process, the challenges, and the failures that led up to the final outcome.
And while these products and larger eco-systems might not meet the designer ideal of perfection, it doesn't mean they don't still look professional.
Perfection is an unattainable standard in a world where you can't be everything to everybody. DJ Patil from RelateIQ, an enterprise sales product, once spoke of sacrificing whitespace in order to increase their users' productivity and therefore their happiness. While it seems like a cardinal sin on the surface, perhaps this is what perfection looks like for their product and their salesforce audience. If we are going to place a value on perfection, it can only be measured in relation to itself and how far the product has evolved.
Maybe that's what perfection is meant to be; the proverbial carrot on a stick. Something we want but can't ever really have, yet serves to lead us to where we actually need to be.
These days, I think there's something warm and approachable about a generic font set in normal caps. There's a human quality, a quiet reminder that software is made by human beings for other human beings. This certainly incites many ideas regarding the inclusivity of the design industry, but that's a wormhole of a thought for another time.