The Ups and Downs of Being a Perfectionist

Almost everyone out there knows someone who’s a perfectionist, if they aren’t one themselves.

Some people are perfectionists in only one aspect of their life (such as school or work) while others apply their perfectionist tendencies to every aspect of their lives.

Perfectionism is often looked at by those who don’t share the same obsession as a negative personality trait. In reality, perfectionism has both positive and negative impacts.

Learning to work within the constraints of being a perfectionist can lead to much higher productivity, but not working with those traits can lead to much lower productivity.


What is Perfectionism?

Your average perfectionist believes that not only is perfection achievable, but that it should be achieved whenever possible. They always strive to make their work better, and often derive pleasure from investing time and effort into their projects. They enjoy paying attention to detail and are often hard to please.


The Upside of Being a Perfectionist

Perfectionism has a lot going for it. For one, it’s common to have perfectionist clients, and that can be a huge headache if you’re not also a perfectionist. Working with someone who insists on getting every single detail the absolute best it can be is easier if you share the same outlook. But there are also other benefits.

Higher Personal Standards
With high personal standards, it’s easier to meet the expectations of others. If you have low standards, you’ll always have to push yourself to meet what others expect from you. If your standards are already high, you’ll likely have a much easier time meeting the standards of others. After all, a perfectionist almost always has nearly-impossible standards for themselves, much higher than what outside parties would generally impose.

A More Streamlined Work Process
Most perfectionists are also hyper-organized. They’ve perfected their work process along with everything else in their life. This means, in many cases, that your work is more efficient than that of many non-perfectionists. You have processes and patterns for handling virtually anything that comes your way, from email to new project and clients to bookkeeping. It can definitely add up to a more effective workday with less wasted time and effort.

A More Polished End Result
If you’re a perfectionist, it’s likely that by the time a project makes it to the client (or is made public), it’s as polished as it can get. Your designs are always pixel-perfect and your development projects always work flawlessly. Others often look at your work in awe, wondering where you find the time and patience to perfect your work in such a way. It’s a definite plus, as it can lead to more work and more respect.

Better Attention to Detail
In addition to an overall feeling of being polished, your work often has all those extra little details that set it apart from the crowd. You go the extra mile to add details to your work that others wouldn’t even think of. This applies both to design and to other aspects of your business. Things like making your clients and others you do business with feel appreciated and valued can go a long way toward improving your business, and are often overlooked by many. A perfectionist will often have systems in place to make sure things are done to improve client relations above and beyond expectations.

Fewer Fixes Are Necessary Later On
One of the biggest direct advantages of being a perfectionist is that there are generally fewer bugs in your finished projects. Because you’ve examined everything in minute detail and tested every possible scenario you could come up with to make sure everything looked and functioned flawlessly, it’s much less likely your clients will find anything you overlooked. This means not only do you have fewer bugs to deal with (which are often unbillable), but also that your clients and users will be happier.


The Downside to Perfectionism

For all the upsides to perfectionism, there are also plenty of downsides. Perfectionists can be looked at as being completely anal and overbearing by those who don’t share their outlook. It can also be frustrating to clients who aren’t interested in “perfect” and simply want their project done yesterday.

Longer Development Cycle
When you strive for perfection, everything takes just a bit longer to get right. Even if you have a more efficient design and development process than many other designers, it’s likely you spend more time on each step than a lot of others do. This longer development cycle can lead to less time for other projects, longer work days, and unhappy clients. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll need to have mechanisms in place to keep projects from taking up too much time. Setting mini-deadlines for individual steps in the process is one such way. Just make sure you stick to them.

It’s More Work
As designers and developers, we should all strive for our work to be as good as needed. But perfectionists often take it a step further and put work into a project that isn’t necessarily going to pay off in the end. Sometimes things don’t need to be perfect. A few rough edges here and there can add to a project, or at least not interfere with its effectiveness.

Sometimes It’s Unnecessary
Perfection isn’t always as important to everyone else as it is to a perfectionist. And some aspects of your work likely don’t demand perfection. Wireframes, for example, don’t need to be anywhere near perfect. Designers sometimes get hung up on how a wireframe looks without realizing that their clients or other members of their development team probably won’t care. And the danger we run into with creating perfect wireframes is that sometimes clients think they can’t make changes or are hesitant to make suggestions (which they end up making later in the process, when things are harder to change).

It’s Not Always Billable
If you spend ten hours trying to make sure that your design is pixel-perfect in every browser since IE5 for Mac, your clients probably aren’t going to be willing to pay for that. After all, they don’t really care if it shows up absolutely perfect in every browser still in use. What they do care about is that it’s functional in the browsers they and their clients use. Having every pixel line up perfectly isn’t high on the list of things most clients worry about.

It Can Drive You Crazy and Make You Sick
The harsh truth about perfectionism is that it can drive you nuts sometimes. Spending hours upon hours on minute details isn’t fun for most people (even perfectionists), and only serves to frustrate. Plus, when you’re always scrambling to make a deadline because you spent all last week getting the header text “just so” and didn’t bother designing or coding the footer or navigation until the day before the project was due. That leads to stress and anxiety, which can lead to real health problems. Find ways to reign in your perfectionism so that it works to your advantage rather than against you.

Lower Productivity
In extreme cases, perfectionists can get so wrapped up in the details of their work that they don’t finish the big-picture items. They might spend days working on one particular aspect of a project and end up missing deadlines for other important parts because they were so focused on just the one thing. This is destructive and can be very frustrating to perfectionists who don’t understand how others can move on to the next phase of a project without perfecting the current stage.


The Pros and Cons of Perfectionist Clients

Any designer or developer who’s been in this business long has dealt with perfectionist clients. They have incredibly high standards and set ideas on what they want their website to do and how they want it to look.

Some of these clients are realistic about their websites, while others expect everyone else to bend to their sometimes-unreasonable demands. Dealing with a client like this, even if you’re a perfectionist yourself, can be trying.

But working with perfectionist clients can have its upsides, too. These clients usually know exactly what they want and can pinpoint what they like or don’t like about your designs. If you’re not a perfectionist, their attention to detail can get annoying fast, but if you learn to work with their perfectionism and to explain to them why something is done in a particular way, you can still have a good working relationship with them.

Of course, there are also neurotic clients who are never happy with the results and who seem to have such unreasonably high standards that it’s impossible to meet them. The thing about a client like this is that their perfectionism is often a cover up for insecurity about their own decisions.

If you choose to work with a client like this (and there are plenty of reasons to decline their projects), it’s helpful if you can present them with similar designs or ideas that have been successful. Backing up your ideas with research goes a long way toward getting past their reservations.


Sometimes “Good Enough” is Good Enough

Perfectionists often don’t want to hear this, but sometimes good enough really is good enough. There’s the law of diminishing returns to consider here.

Sometimes the end result of tweaking something just a little bit more doesn’t hold enough value to warrant the output. If something is going to take you an hour (or five) to get just exactly the way you want it, but no one is doing to notice the difference but you, then sometimes it’s better to just accept it as-is. Chances are, you’ll forget all about it as you begin your next project.

When considering whether it’s time to just call a project “finished” and move on, think about what is to be gained if you continue working on it. If the only answer you can come up with is one that resembles “but it’s not quite right yet!” then it’s probably best to stop right there, tie up any real loose ends, and move on to the next phase or the next project.

Continuously working on the same thing with only marginal improvement is only going to add to your stress levels and create a negative, unhealthy work environment.


How to Figure out if Your Perfectionism is Dangerous

While most people who call themselves “perfectionists” do so in a light-hearted or positive manner, there are those out there to whom perfection becomes an obsession. They consider anything less than perfect completely unacceptable. This can lead to obsessive behavior and can have damaging effects on their overall quality of life.

Just feeling good about a job done to the best of your ability is entirely normal for a perfectionist and isn’t something to worry about. When it becomes particularly dangerous, though, is when a perfectionist feels they’re never quite able to attain perfection, and so drive themselves crazy trying to always reach this unattainable goal.

These perfectionists often place their entire self-worth on their accomplishments and ability to reach perfection, and since they’re never able to reach it, it creates a very negative self-image and low self-esteem or depression. The good news is that there are trained psychologists out there who can help those who are neurotically obsessed with perfection to overcome their obsession.

Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.

Are you a perfectionist? How has this impacted your career as a designer? Please share your thoughts with us…

  • marc-a

    Oh my!, reading that is like having the little angel/demon over my shoulder talking in my head. Alway have that inner desire to get thing a little better than ask. Will think about it, and keep it reading over the years.

    • Natalie Niemi

      haha…I’ve designed my whole identity based on that feeling of the little angel/demon hanging over my head. :) I can completely relate.

      It is tough to establish a balance between producing your most satisfactory work (both to yourself as well as the client) while continuing to move forward at a steady pace without getting too hung up on one thing and ending up at a grinding halt. I find this particularly difficult with personal projects, because we are all our own worst critics!

      Over time I’ve gotten more of a feel for when to keep working on something and when it really just needs to get out and off the table. Sometimes I’ll find a client is absolutely delighted with a place where I thought I was stuck, and other times it will at least keep the ball rolling if I submit it to them and let them decide whether to keep moving forward.

      And especially for personal projects, you can always come back and keep adding to or improving over time. (This is definitely what I’ve had to resolve to especially when it comes to my website/portfolio.) There’s always room for improvement (that’s what makes for good designers!), but don’t let it keep you hanging in limbo!

  • Tim

    Yes, I am a perfectionist. And it makes it really hard for me to get things done.

    Whenever I’m working on a new project, I spend hours and hours on each little detail of the design, redoing it like 5000 times. Wish I could just ignore them und move on to the more important parts, but it’s impossible for me. :/

    Is there any way out of being stuck with everything all the time?

    • Kirsti

      Hey Tim!

      Yes, there is. It takes hard work, and going against your own mind… But it’s possible. For instance, deny yourself working on items further than the absolutely necessary-stage (you have to define this yourself, I usually go by “unnecessary details and things that won’t be noticed without looking hard at it”) – and regardless of how stuck you are, stop. If you have more time when you’re done with everything, go back and work more on it. I’ve done it… :D

  • Lena Tailor

    it’s a great post,
    A positive attitude, always being on the lookout for opportunities and good work will keep the jobs rolling in.

  • Mammad Minaei

    I’m not exaggerating if I say This is one of the most useful articles I’ve read in a long time! Great stuff there Cameron! Thanks a million times!

  • BartV

    I’m a perfectionist for sure. It brought me plenty of good things but the pile of bad things is larger tho :(

    Is it me or does a perfectionist finds it harder to make something for themselves?

  • Christophe

    I kinda agree and kinda disagree with certain things. I think I’m a crazy perfectionist but I always try not to interfere in any of my process. Which of course means I work more but that’s totally transparent for my clients. They just see the results. Of course sometimes nobody sees the difference, it’s only personal satisfaction. For me “good enough” is never good enough, there’s always better and I need to feel like I did MY best on a project. In the long run, I feel like it shows and even if it’s now directly billable, it’s valuable for my clients and the people I work for/with.
    True though, this can make you nuts, because sometimes it’s not super obvious that you took a long time to perfect something and when the client says “is that it?” the whole world ends because all the hours you put on it. But oh well, I can’t help it. I need to give my client more reasons to work with me and not everybody else, because after all, we probably have the same skills, at the same level probably, what changes really is how we are and we do the job and I really believe that being perfectionist has been a good skill to have;)

  • David

    Good post. I definitely can relate to a lot of this, especially the part of getting hung up on one specific aspect of a design and leaving the rest to try to cram in on the last due date. The stress definitely piles on then. Thanks for the tips.

  • chuck

    Finally!! someone else understands! I always thought of it as a good problem.
    We “perfectionists” just have a higher attention for detail as well as high standards for our work. Who’s going to take you seriously when your work shows numerous flaws?

    It drives me to work harder actually, because when you do get it to your standard of “perfect” it was all worth it. :) Great Post!

  • Yuri

    What I like most about articles here is that article topic can be compared with other jobs or life situations. I’m perfectionist, definitely. :) Thanks for article.

  • mydivabydesign

    I am a perfectionist. But i have been learning that ‘good enough is sometimes good enough!’ Just get your work out there and perfect it later. You may create more opportunities for your self by doing this. Timely post!

  • Bea Litao

    Great post! I’ve always thought of my being a perfectionist both an asset and a flaw. When you’ve got high(er) standards, you’ll tend to work more. And when you work more, you learn more and well, succeed a little better.

    But I agree, we pretty much learn as well to tell ourselves when the work’s done and “good enough” or we might have a problem letting go which may lead to problems, right?

  • adam

    Really interesting post and I like the descriptions of both pro and con. I can completely see both the positive and negative side of being a perfectionist. I also think that your mentioning of “Sometimes It’s Unnecessary” is a great example of a con.

  • hotmac

    It might be interesting to have a look at the origins of perfectionism: Often perfectionism is a kind of self protection against criticism, not being loved for what you are doing etc. Perfectionism often roots in your childhood, when you were not good enough for your parents, teachers etc. (in my case this is proved true…).

    There’s a very interesting podcast about perfectionism and how to overcome it by Roland Koop-Wichmann on – sorry, this podcast is only available in German :-(

  • Erico Lisboa

    hey guys, what about some topic about “corporative E-mail Signatures Design”??!

  • Mikael Halén

    I am much of a getting-things-done-guy and I in most cases I don’t strive for perfection. That said, I would never leave something with flaws that affect the end result.
    There is this quote by Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” and my take on that is that you should not think that you can achieve perfection since you will need to change it anyway.

  • Demir

    great post. i’m a perfectionist too.

  • Bertrand

    The first step to living right with this kind of personnality is to know you are like this. When you know you’re like that, learn to deal with it or it’ll cause problems all around you. You can then use this to outperform everyone around you when you can master what I call “the switch” : learn to not be perfectionnist and adjust to everyone around you. Learn to let go, not worry, see the big picture and forget about the details when it doesn’t matter. Then you’ll be able to achieve great things… and not be an ass to evryone around you! ;)

  • AnggaRifandi

    Yeah, I’m perfectionist and sometimes the nature of perfectionism bother me a lot. Like read a book for example, I try to remember all the things in the book, oh that why a lot of my book unfinished till today

  • dennis

    Oh man I am such a perfectionish it is not real, I drive myself crazy and anyone who is unlucky enough to be around me.

  • Stacy

    Fantastic article, Cameron. I would have to say that this is the first article on this topic that I have come across on a web design blog. I love what Bertrand said, “The first step to living right with this kind of personality is to know when you are like this.” I could not agree more. I consider myself a perfectionist, and have been told as much by family, friends and co-workers. You really do have to be able recognize and admit if you “suffer” from this. Being aware of the negative tendencies and knowing when to dial it back makes your life (and the lives of those around you) much better.

    Thank you for the useful tips and presenting the pros and cons!

  • taobao

    from my perspective, a good designer always has this tendency to be a perfectionist.

  • shod4n

    Yea, it sucks. Perfectionism slows me down ; /

  • Otto Rask

    Nice read! Can relate to most of the points. Although I am not organized, I like to make my work just that bit better with details and adjustments. Often I’m affraid that I make mistakes which others can see and make me look bad (often I realize that these mistakes are not important or other do them too).

    One example being my website, I like the design I’ve created, but the next day I see something which I don’t like and begin planning a new design… Good practise as a designer, bad practise for personal time management and frustration.

    Oh well, school begins soon and I’ll have something else to think about. :P

    My tip: ask colleagues and friends what they think of your project, often they can help finalize the decision of declaring a project finished. :)

  • Gaurav Mishra

    To add perfection into something not only it takes time but also require huge amount of patience.

    Were to add perfection and where to not ..using a balanced approach..keeping in mind a thought.

  • dhavaln

    I am a developer and kind of a perfectionist. It helps me a lot to get a good output at the end but leads to unnecessary anxiety even after finishing the job in terms of how others might feel or react. But learning how to balance the “perfectionism” and still come out with pretty good results.

  • La Cinyc

    Good read, has put what I already know in some other words. (Perfectionism goes even as far as checking what you just wrote in a comment makes sense, has a good structure and tells what you want to tell in just a few lines… good for some, while others don’t even bother since… it’s just another comment ;) )
    But anyhow, after rereading the previous for a couple of times, I think it’s alright :)
    simple, easy, not at all perfect (if you only knew how perfectionists deal with creating stuff that is supposed to be messy… perfect messiness… almost incorporating knowledge of fractals to have random perfectness, lol)

    anyhow, keep up the nice work round here. great site

  • Web Risorsa

    As an human being if you want to succeed in your life and stand ahead of others Perfectionism will help a lot.. The person who doesn’t have perfectionism may be feeling good in that stage but can’t stand steadily for a long time..

  • MyW

    Great post !
    Like a lot of designers -well, I think- I’m a perfectionnist… (I’m not organized but well… I’ve got a good AD lol) I’m a slow designer and I’m fine with it… People in my team know how I work and they know wich project will fit with my work process… So they give the short-deadline projects to other designers (I do this kind of thing sometimes but I’m never happy the outcome, even when the team is, so I don’t like that^^) and they give me the big projects, for big clients, when they want something “perfect” or the “business development projects” (to get new clients) which are the most interesting because the brief is “make something nice about this brand so they’ll be impressed and they’ll sign the contract” xD This kind of thing is amazing for a creativ ’cause you can do what you want… but It’s also really frustrating when the contract is not signed and your work never comes to life^^

    In my case, I think there are more pros than cons in being perfectionist, even if It’s sometimes even boring, especially when the client wants the action button to be red so that people will see it and you wasted 1 houre to find THE button that perfectly to your design AND that’s easily readable (WTF do they ALL have with those f*cking red action buttons ?!!! xD). I think It’s also boring for the others as I always find something to say about designs (but I do It only in private so they know It’s always to help, and, as I’m really hard with my designs, they know I don’t feel like the “best designer on earth” lol)

    Sorry for my english, I’m french (and perfectionist, so, I always hate my mistakes and feel like I have to sorry in advance for that :p)

  • Pete White

    awesome post, can definitely relate…a single pixel can make the difference to you, but it’s fair to see not everybody will notice.

    attention to detail is definitely a positive, but getting caught up speed-wise can be a bit of a killer!

  • Irene

    Hiya, I am no perfectionist. Live is short enough, why wast your time with working on details?

  • Jordan Walker

    Nothing wrong with perfectionist, it is when OCD takes over that problems arise.

  • elizaio

    um, i’m sure someone’s mentioned this already but you forgot to mention the ultimate downside: perfection is unattainable.

  • Roy

    I consider myself a… realist. A bit of both worlds I guess. Really like to work a bit more on something, just get it that little bit better… if I think it’s worth it. If it works good the way it is done, but could be a bit better, I probably won’t put any more work into it.

  • Joe Donato

    I am NOT a perfectionist but often my Art Director/Creative Director is. I tend to work well with business types because I can get a huge amount of work done in a short amount of time. Project Managers aren’t zooming in on my work at 400% and noticing that something is a pixel or two off. Projects Managers are happy that I complete the project on time. Often times the revisions I get are things ONLY someone trained in graphic design would notice.

    Granted I see pro’s and con’s to both types of designers. I enjoyed your article because while my work is great, it is not always perfect. And I often have to argue with people if they want something perfect or they want done on time.

  • Rajesh Pancholi

    It’s a constant battle at which point to let go, at which point it stops making a difference. Who is the extra detailed work going to benefit, you or the client, sometimes neither. We do get hung up on the wrong things at times. At times when we have nothing useful to say and stop looking at the bigger picture. A learning experience for sure and I can definitely relate to the points.

  • Justin Carroll

    I suffer from perfectionism and obsession because of it. I’m about 20% proud of it and 80% disgusted and haunted. It affects my life in unwelcoming ways. I have to fight my bad attitude after a bad design day so that it doesn’t affect my wife and family. It’s very tough. The post was great, thanks for writing it.

  • Robert Dall

    Oh my.

    This post fits me perfectly. . .

    It is almost like you were writing about me without using my name.

    I also totally agree with the commenter above Justin Carrol. I am 20% proud of it and 80% haunted by it.

    But I atleast I know my website design doesn’t leave the preverbal shop without it looking as good as possible. Yes this does cause me some concern in terms of profitability at the moment. But were working on that too.

  • Simon

    Very recognizable, if I’m doing something I want it to be good :)
    But it does often take more time :(

  • BORA

    Thank for putting this together :)
    You read my mind!

  • Atlanta Graphic Designer

    I’ve struggled with perfectionism A LOT throughout my life… it’s something that’s really hard to get under control, especially when you’re a designer. It’s like some things just HAVE to be done in very specific ways, and if they’re not they just have to be completely redone – even if no one but you will ever notice them.

    It took me a really long time to start getting over it and stop seeing these ‘imperfect’ things as reflections of who I am as a person.

    Honestly, I think it’s better to care less and be happy than obsess over every little detail.