Sweating the small stuff

Just before I sat down to write this editorial I glanced through the proofs of this issue and noted an error that was most likely a simple typo, an oversight of layout, perhaps – an unnecessary apostrophe. I’ve often joked to students that I have a recurrent fantasy: to go around the city in the dead of night, armed with a can of black (or maybe bright red) paint, drawing large “Xs” over misplaced apostrophes on hoardings and display signs! Indeed, outdoor advertising can be great for a “spot the error” exercise in English grammar and punctuation.

I’ve often wondered why it is that something we spend so much money on (advertising does not come cheap) is so often riddled with mistakes. A friend once called it the “NQR” factor, something that affects many aspects of life. That’s Not Quite Right. We will spend hours creating something – a project, a display, an event – and even as we are wrapping it up, in our rush to finish, we fail to pay attention to the small things that lend it finesse and possibly could take it toward perfection. You find large imposing buildings with wires and metal bars sticking out in one corner. Or lovely tree lined avenues with a too small garbage container at one end, overflowing with plastic and paper. Large parks with poorly designed parking. Stairs without proper railings. Windows with latches that don’t fall smoothly. Posters with poor spelling and faulty grammar.

I have a theory that all these irritating flaws come from the same place, the impatience to finish coupled with the sense that these are minor details that don’t really interfere with functionality.

“It does the job, doesn’t it?”
“It conveys the meaning, doesn’t it?”

These are responses I often get when I complain about these things. In a country with big problems, these seem to be non-issues that border on the trivial. I agree, it is important to address the larger needs, to get the building constructed, or the roads laid, and not get caught up in aesthetics or finer points of appearance. But as they say, God is in the detail – as is the Devil. It’s the detail that makes the difference between a latch that keeps the window closed and one that allows for easy operation, between a poster that conveys meaning, to one that cannot be misunderstood.

As a country and a people, we seem to have a very high level of tolerance for imperfection and inefficiency, let alone a lack of aesthetic design. Where does this come from? This would mean getting them to build into their process of thinking and working a constant review for the small but important factors that not only make for better presentation and packaging but also helps the reader/examiner understand the content or concept better. Can we inculcate an attention to detail, an eye for what’s not right, in our students, so that they go beyond just getting a job done, to get it done well – both internally and externally.

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