Monday, March 31, 2014

The Problem with Perfection

One of the questions currently being pondered in the Design Thinking group on LI is; "What is the most beautiful object in the world?" Reflecting on that got me thinking about the nature of perfection.

As designers, we create all sorts of things. Physical objects, processes, combinations of ideas, images and sounds.  One element of the value of those created objects is the amount of time and effort put into making them but another is their degree of perfection.  For example, a rough 0.64 carat diamond can be had on eBay for about $800.  By the time it's been cut, polished and turned into a pair of 0.36 carat ear rings, that price can go up to about $1000.

One of the questions to ponder here is; which is more beautiful?  There is a natural elegance in the "rough" stone.  It octahedral shape isn't "perfect" in terms of symmetry.  The edges are uneven and curved.  Converting it into a brilliant pair of stud earrings, like those shown here, requires cutting and polishing to create 58 very symmetrical, sparkly, faces.

Clearing Winter Storm by Ansel Adams

Here is another image for consideration. Clearing Winter Storm is iconic, combining clouds, granite, snow and trees into a spectacular, breathtaking, landscape which is also natural (mostly), utterly asymmetrical and rather chaotic.

The production of both the earrings and Clearing Winter Storm took human intervention. Both are a testimony to the power and precision of man-made machines which can position and polish surfaces to optical wavelength precision. One captures the essence of organic chaos, nudged by Adam's visual sensibilities, into the perfect balance of light and shadow. The other is balanced 3D symmetry elevated to art. (By the way, a signed 1970's gelatin silver print of Clearing Winter Storm recently sold for nearly $50,000.)

At times we seem to be a bit schizophrenic about perfection.  On the one hand, we admire high levels of human craftsmanship, particularly hand done work, which creates symmetry and order. At the same time we value uniqueness and individuality.  Our Gods are perfect, eternal and unchangeable, yet some of the most beautiful things about the universe, particularly at minute levels of inspection, are fraught with randomness, even chaos.

The moment we reach out our hand to influence matter, or apply thought to ideas, we imprint our personal interpretation of value.  At times we move towards the Bauhaus, at others toward a more Organic School.  Which is "better" when underneath it all lurks the possibility that chaos theory is the most elegant explanation of everything and it all gets more and more random the further down you look? What is the boundary between perfect and natural?

Perhaps part of the answer lays in whether the thing being examined and judged is in a mirror.  

The works of nature abound in asymmetry and randomness. We hold our own creations to the highest measurable standards of balance and order. Perhaps we are missing a critical point somewhere.When what is natural is infinitely random and what is artificial is balanced symmetrical perfection.

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