Learning from (loving your) mistakes

In the interest of continuing my forays into self-directed and hand-generated projects, I’ve been taking a screenprinting class at the fantastic Roberts Street Social Centre the past few weeks. It’s been fantastic, and I’m so glad I took a class instead of learning it myself—while I do love teaching myself new skills, the setup would have been extensive and it may have been more difficult to find the motivation to “go” to class each week, whereas with a defined class time, I was forced to show up or lose my opportunity. With projects and to-do lists constantly piling up, I may otherwise have abandoned the endeavour for sleep.

The time-crunch, however, meant that I needed to accept imperfections. Now, anyone who knows me knows well that I’m a tiny bit persnickety: I’ll spend half an hour adjusting the kerning of a font until it feels just right, I’ll go back over a design that’s already been client-approved in order to “finesse” the whole thing, and I typically complain that Photoshop won’t zoom to a level any higher than 1600%.  While I really do believe that this is a valuable tendency in a designer (and, in fact, I suspect that most graphic designers are by nature a touch anal-retentive), it’s also a major hindrance in an industry that is so intensely deadline-driven.

Finished thank you cards, each one screenprinted by hand! I'm not happy with the heart design at all--the lines are simultaneously too thick AND too thin. I think I might prefer this redesigned with more of a skull/vine design in the bottom-right corner.

This is why often my self-driven projects are finished late: while client projects are often do-or-die, if the client is myself, I’m often content to let my expected deadline pass me by in favour of producing work that’s closer to “perfect” (it’s never actually perfect, of course.) This is why it took me three months longer than expected to launch my new website, and why my Valentines were barely even printed and ready to go by the fourteenth. Given that it’s easy to sour on your own work after obsessing over it too long, this delay is a dangerous thing. Wait too long, and the whole thing ends up needing to be scrapped and started all over again!

But with the screenprinting class, I had no option (other than flakiness, which I’m giving up as a lifestyle choice as much as possible). So I showed up for my second class with a design that wasn’t perfect, telling myself that it was just a learning project, and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t right. I’m just learning! It’s okay to screw up!

The thing I started to realize as I got into the printing process is this: everything that looks like a fatal error to me is basically invisible to everyone else.  (Not a major revelation, but something I ought to constantly keep in mind, because I never seem to remember it.) The fundamental flaws in the initial design weren’t nearly as glaring or as apparent to others as they were to me.

Then, as I proceeded with the printing process, I realized that I hadn’t been as precise with the first colour “plate” (the red accents) as I would have liked. (In screenprinting, each colour is printed independently of the others, much like a traditional CMYK plate-printing process that I learned about in school, but never actually had a chance to witness.) Accordingly, when I printed the black “plate” on top of the red, the registration often didn’t line up perfectly, and there was an overlap.

Then something funny happened. I could, in theory, have used an acetate sheet to register and measure the placement of every single print to ensure a perfect output on every single print. I thought about it, briefly, and then threw caution utterly to the wind, and just started printing willy-nilly. Prints came out with white where red should be, and red where white should be, and instead of breaking down into tears or tantrums, I carefully put them on the drying rack with the others. Not only was I not upset, but I actually discovered that I rather liked these mis-fit mis-prints! Whoever knew?

And really, where I’m so gung-ho on the handmade process anyway, it’s about time I learned not only to accept, but to embrace my mistakes. (Are you listening, brain? I’m talking to you.) Mistakes are often the most interesting part of a piece of work, and they so often generate new ideas and concepts that might otherwise forever remain undiscovered (gravity, nylon, penicillin, chocolate-covered bacon). And especially when something is handmade, part of its appeal lies in its imperfections: signs of the inherently flawed human touch. So often the aesthetics of error (cracks in pavement, burned-out buildings, rips in a sheet of paper) are more interesting, alive, and vibrant than the sterility of pixel-perfection.

Can you spot the errors? I bet I can find more than you can!

Now, if only I can apply that sort of thinking to everything else I do, I might finally be able get some sleep!