Lowering your standards vs. picking your battles

There are only so many design resources to go around.

There’s too much work to do, and too little time. Too few designers. Too little energy.

Odds are, you can’t singlehandedly design every interface, flow, social post, landing page, icon, illustration, logo, and whatever else your project needs. No matter how large your team, there will always be some things that are higher priority and some that are lower.

At some point, we have to triage the things that are worth our attention and the things we choose to punt on.

I know that feeling — it feels like a failure, consigning some of our output to being lesser quality than the rest. It feels like we’re lowering our standards, surrendering to the inevitable entropy that comes when we don’t polish everything to the same degree of perfection.

This is a dangerous lie. Picking our battles is not the same thing as lowering our standards.

Go ahead, use Canva for those social posts. Build those landing pages using Squarespace. If it frees you up for more impactful work, that’s a good thing.

But how do we decide which battles to pick? There are a few things we can look for:

  • What has the biggest immediate impact on revenue (or other organizational goals)? What project will gain the most if it’s well-designed, or lose the most if it’s poorly-designed? That’s a helpful rubric for prioritization.

  • What will have the greatest long-term effect? Is there a project that’ll have major design implications in a month? Six months? A year? One-off projects tend to have less impact than projects with recurring value — ie, a single social graphic looking crappy isn’t as big a deal as a social graphic template looking crappy.

  • What will have second-order effects? Some projects affect other projects which affect other projects, and the ramifications of good/bad design will cascade to those other areas of your purview. You could be doing Future You a favor by investing resources, or digging Future You a hole of design debt that they’ll sorely regret.

  • What will impact design’s ability to have future impact? Which projects will generate the most political capital for capital-D “Design” at your organization if you invest resources in them? Which projects would destroy the least political capital if you choose not to invest resources? That could impact your ability to pick your battles successfully in the future.

It’s okay to invest design resources into some projects more than others. Making those decisions are themselves a form of design. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s part of the job.