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Sometimes the magic is in the imperfections


What makes indie films more appealing than so many of the huge Hollywood productions? What makes indie music more interesting than the slick big label big production records? What's the magic that disappears when you hear the studio-mix version of something you once heard live? Not that most of us have the problem of too big a budget for our own good, but still... maybe we should think about whether some imperfections might be a good thing. Maybe we should consider whether we're trying too hard to smooth all the rough edges.

I'm not even sure this applies to much other than music and movies, but it's definitely a big deal there. A couple examples:

David Gray
His breakout hit, Babylon, was on the album White Ladder -- an album he produced mostly in his apartment, using electronic sounds to back up his acoustic guitar and piano. One of the best parts of that record was the combination of cheesy drum machine sounds and the faint hint of traffic noise from the street below. It definitely had that home-made, soulful feel.

Fast forward-- he gets big and ultimately his last album was a big, slick, high production value studio recording that sucked the life right out of the music. (In my opinion)

Howie Day
If you had a chance to see this kid play live during the 2000-2001 time especially, you know what I'm talking about. I saw him at a small, used record store in Denver the first time in 2000, and he walks out with an acoustic guitar... and some strange foot controller devices. He constructs the songs in realtime, using looping and other effects to layer in percussion, other voices, different guitar parts, etc. It was captivating. But then his records--where he has an Actual Band to do the work--all sound like so much pop music crap. It lost the imperfections that came with building a song on-the-fly with one person and some gear.

I happened to see Thomas Dolby the other night, in the fantastic DeviantART show with BT, and Dolby also does a lot of his music through layering in pieces in realtime. I've never much cared for his music--certainly not enough to buy it and play it at home--but his show was amazing, and now I'm much more interested in his records. One of the really fun things in his show was his head-cam-- you get to see what he's looking at when he's fiddling the midi controls, switching rapidly between various input devices, etc.

If you happen to be near a city where the tour is (MD, PA, VA, NY are the remaining shows, I think), you should check it out. And the BT show will make your head explode in a good way.

I'm not sure how much this notion of overproduction vs. imperfection applies to other products, but I suspect it does, depending on how you define perfection. A typo in a book would be a mistage, not an imperfection that gives it life. But a more casual tone that occasionally violates your fourth-grade Grammar Rules might be just the imperfection it needs. I don't know. What do you think? Is there an "indie sensibility" that applies to other things besides music, film, and fashion?

Posted by Kathy on December 19, 2006 | Permalink


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You sometimes see this indie sensibility in fliers for club nights that get handed out on the street or fly posted round towns. Some graffiti also shows it (though the best does seem to be pretty perfect)

The big issue I think is whether or not the imperfections get in the way of flow : when you are at a gig the flow is more than just what is happening on the stage though that is clearly part and parcel of it all. Typos in a book draw attention to the medium and distract from the message - grammar imperfections less so (depending on what they are of course). A non-typo example of this (for me) is some of Irving Welsh's books where he writes using a sort of phonetic Scottish accent, this just gets in the way of reading of the books I find (of course I have a Scottish accent already so that's how I am hearing it anyway).

So, I think that flow is the key.

Posted by: L. | Dec 19, 2006 9:41:02 AM

Another aspect of the imperfections curve that I think comes into play is the "user's ego." When you encounter something that is really good, but still a little short of perfection, you convince yourself that you have a found a diamond in the rough. That you're in the know. That YOU ARE SPECIAL because you have the ability to discover something that others have not yet found.

So, I think user ego is a big part of this, as well.

P.S. Completely agree on the David Gray stuff. ;)

Posted by: Rick Turoczy | Dec 19, 2006 9:53:42 AM

There's an authenticity to imperfections that makes everything more real. That's why violating the rules of grammar are *imperative* if you want writing to come across as real and accessible. And that's why audio engineers don't scrub every breath out of a vocalist's tracks — there's a passion that comes across that in the way a singer grabs a breath as the song builds to a climax.

Trying to infuse a business piece with passion and authenticity is a harder sell, both internally and for an outside audience. If you TRY to make it that way, it could easily come across gimmicky. And bosses are infamous for saying, "That's not good writing." (hmm, so did the head of communications when I was in B-school).

But our audiences, whether internal or external, DO respond to authenticity. So maybe you need to be a bit more stealthy about it around your boss. And maybe you need to shut off that corporate slide deck that the Brand Police approved and just have a conversation with your prospect. It will be much better than anything you do in a formal way.

Meanwhile, I LOVE your graphics, Kathy! VERY authentic (particularly the handwritten font).


Posted by: John Windsor | Dec 19, 2006 9:58:51 AM

Hmm. I really like David Gray's latest - "Life in Slow Motion." Maybe I need to listen to "White Ladder" a little closer...

Posted by: Matthom | Dec 19, 2006 10:21:08 AM

"I'm not even sure this applies to much other than music and movies..."


At the risk of being accused of shamelessly plugging our site - the sentiment of your post is exactly what is behind Gabcast.com - our podcasting and audioblogging platform. Essentially you use any touch-tone telephone to record a podcast, which can optionally be embedded in one's blog or website.

"Gab" is of course meant to connote that it is somewhat informal (read: authentic).



Posted by: Jason Becker | Dec 19, 2006 10:23:38 AM

The imperfections make these creations more human and less machine-like. Obviously, people will better relate to something that has a human feel to it as opposed to something that was created by near-flawless machinery or those used-to-the-point-of-perfection production processes.

On a personal note, it gives me a sense of hope that I can create something beautiful that people can enjoy without it being perfect, because perfection is beyond my abilities.

Posted by: Sean C. | Dec 19, 2006 10:25:57 AM

Because imperfections show that there is an element of risk; of performing without a net; a possible disaster in the making that the artist avoids...an urgency to get out their ideas.

Posted by: daddydoodaa | Dec 19, 2006 11:02:15 AM

I think this is why sometimes when I go see the local orchestra I get kind of bored. I really like classical music, but sometimes you need that slight mistake or unplanned action to make it interesting.

Posted by: Dennis Eusebio | Dec 19, 2006 11:12:40 AM

Example of combining restraints and imperfection

I just had a drama seminar this weekend and each participant played about six short pieces - build from texts and/or improvisation and then fixed to be replayed, so no improvisation theatre in the strict sense.

Preperation time was an hour for the longest piece, but mostly much, much less.

The things that came across in this short pieces wer AMAZING! Funny like hell, touching, romantic, erotic, sincere, dramatic.
Of course these pieces were imperfect - costumes and props cobbled together from whatever was available, timing with rough edges, performances with the texts still in hand - it simply didn't matter: the heart of the pieces shone through all the more brightly.

Sometimes, productions values can distract from the core of the thing. For example, I'm always sceptic when anyone starts telling about a movie by telling me how brillant the special effects were - I want story, I want substance, the effects are just the added wow-factor and have to support the story. Best example for perfectly used special effects in a movie: Serenity by Joss Whedon.


Posted by: Jens | Dec 19, 2006 11:23:55 AM

Worse Is Better: http://www.jwz.org/doc/worse-is-better.html

"sometimes it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken"

Posted by: Robert de Forest | Dec 19, 2006 11:32:02 AM

Hi Kathy,

I'm wondering if there's any reason this curve's got a slightly different shape than your Featuritis curve from here:


I only have time to post this quick comment right now, but I'll try to add some more thoughts later!

Posted by: Jack Cheng | Dec 19, 2006 11:34:04 AM

You can also apply the 80:20 rule. If you make something 100% perfect, you loose all the inspiring energy from creating something new, innovative at the last 20%. You are also much more effective during the 80%, to make it perfect you need nearly the same time and energy as to make the first 80%. I learned that in film editing and apply that now to all my business practices. If for any reason I need 100% perfection, I hire somebody to do it. By the way, I subscribed to your blog since I use a feedreader, half a year a go. I am always inspired, it encourages me for my own blog and podcast.

Posted by: Sylvester Becker | Dec 19, 2006 11:40:25 AM

I believe the imperfections show that whatever is being experienced - music, movies, etc. - is being done because those creating it truly love and are passionate about what they do.

Over-production feels like they were striving to reach perfection not because they want it to look/sound it's best, but because they want to get back as much return on it as they can.

Plus, when people know you have nearly endless resources, the harder it is to impress your audience because they see no reason why you shouldn't be able to deliver exactly what they expect.

Posted by: Brian | Dec 19, 2006 12:33:20 PM


Don't know if this fits the bill but I once led a small team of developers that rolled out a small app (4 months development time) that had zero bugs. Not a one.

Nothing is scarier then not finding a bug.

Great Blog!

Posted by: Glenn | Dec 19, 2006 12:58:56 PM

Our personality lies in our imperfections, so too much polish drowns out our personalities. That's why blogs and podcasts are so successful as communications tools for professionals. They let us glimpse a person, and we give credibility to that person, when appropriate.

(For example, notice how I said "too much polish drowns out our personalities." That's totally a mixed metaphor but I can't think of a better word right now, so I'm gonna hit the button anyway. There, you know me a little better already.)

Posted by: David Brazeal | Dec 19, 2006 1:03:21 PM

thanks for that video, Kathy! A good friend of mine is the photographer who took some the (ahem) photos shown at the beginning of the show. I don't think I'll get to attend, but it's nice to hear that others are appreciating it.

Posted by: Gray Miller | Dec 19, 2006 1:07:57 PM

There will be a panel at SXSWi entitled "Design Aesthetic of the Indy Developer". Maybe they'll answer that question for you. :)

Posted by: Melle | Dec 19, 2006 1:39:08 PM

You'll notice that Velcro depends on frayed, not smooth, surfaces. It's hard to connect with flawless. You see this with speakers - the really polished, "no flaws here" people are harder to relate to than the comedian who confesses to a series of gaffes.

Posted by: Ron | Dec 19, 2006 3:07:59 PM

I saw Curt Cobain 'way back' totally hammered at a concert.
His voice was brilliant because of the imperfection.
It was a 'precious' moment.

Posted by: Peter | Dec 19, 2006 5:55:36 PM

Boy if you like imperfections, you should check out my band "I Am A Member Of A Secret Society" at http://www.myspace.com/iamamemberofasecretsociety
When I'm not not making music, I'm a librarian.

Posted by: Crash Solo | Dec 19, 2006 6:40:36 PM

Kathy - howdy!

You may want to look up 'wabi sabi', which is the Japanese expression for the 'art of the imperfection' or of 'appreciating the imperfect'.

Instead of creating the ultimately polished and unblemished object, the artist lets imperfections appear during the creation of the object as part of the process. These small imperfections give the object an individuality that is not matched - cannot be matched - by any other creation.

It is a way of saying that nothing lasts and is not perfect, but also that nothing is ever finished. Instead of investing all your effort in the pursuit of perfection, which one may not be able to achieve, you can create something to the most of your abilities, knowing that you will learn in the process and will strive to make it a little better (but not perfect) next time. I think it plays with our 'what if' instincts: What if I did this way? What if I try something different next time? If you have the ultimately perfect thing, or are pushed to do it, there is not much room for experimentation.

This will keep you in motion, getting a little better each step of the way, always learning a little more.

Posted by: Mauro Mello Jr. | Dec 19, 2006 7:20:01 PM

Ditto to Mauro Mello, Jr. You can't reproduce imperfection. That's what gives a piece charm. :)

Posted by: Mary Warner | Dec 19, 2006 8:29:20 PM

I'm not sure, but I think you may be focussing on the wrong thing. I don't think it's the imperfections that are making the end product better.
Indie projects are mostly just that, Independant. They're crafted over a long period of time by a small number of people, without any real deadlines, no studio or employer breathing down their neck telling them they must ship on date X.
I think that is why the indie projects tend to feel better, there's more soul in them. The people working ont hem are mostly there for the thrill of it, wanting to produce something "good". Once they make it, they get signed into contracts, obligations are piled on them, and suddenly they don't have 3 years to put together a wonderful soulful piece of work. Now, with the contract they get a stack of bonuses, better equipment, more talented people to provide backing vocals or supporting cast etc, which reduces the number of "imperfections". However, these things can't cover up a lack of soul. The the artists heart and soul isn't in the project, then the project will suffer. A good helping of soul in a project will help the listener/viewer/consumer forgive or even forget the imperfections.
I can see it in my programming, when I've got time, and I'm enjoying what I'm doing, the code flows easily, and I can go back and tidy things up. If I've got a short deadline or I'm stressed and worrying about all the other work I have, the code comes out in fits and starts and it's messy and ugly and I hate it, and it probably doesn't work so well either (just threw away 2 days work yesterday following this exact scenario).
Soul is all important in producing something that feels good, and you can't manufacture that. Contracts and daily grind work to supress it as we try to meet deadlines and satisfy our customers gluttony. And that I guess is what it becomes, feeding the beast, rather than building something beautiful to admire.
Now, I'd better go finish replacing all that code I trashed.

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Dec 19, 2006 9:18:28 PM

Imperfections work in the board room too. The board of our new non profit organization was thrilled to add two new highly talented and respected board members. After several meetings, it became clear that the new members wondered what they were doing there. Everything was making progress without huge efforts on their parts. They were used to being more needed.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 19, 2006 11:06:06 PM

This works quite well on software too I'd say. Ties in nicely with the whole 'ugly is the new black' discussion a few months back.

Looking at (for instance) MySpace, the supreme ruler of the 'ugly-yet-popular' world, I'd say thats a pretty good example of how successful 'imperfection' can be.

Also, what crash-thingamabob said; 'wabi sabi'.

Posted by: Martijn Gorree | Dec 20, 2006 3:33:04 AM

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