It was June of 2010, and my parents were looking mighty spiffy.
My mom positively glowed in the wedding dress she’d kept in pristine condition in the attic for fifty years.
My dad looked sharp in the same style of white coat, narrow-lapel tux he’d worn in 1960.
I sang during the cocktail hour with a jazz trio at the big bash party they hosted at the restaurant.
But my real gift to them was the book I made them.
50 Reasons Why We Love You, Mom and Pop
My brother and sister-in-law and I all contributed the reasons, which I hand-calligraphed in pale blue gouache in one long line on cream colored paper, which folded into a concertina binding.
I wrapped the covers with acid-free marbled papers (not easy to find!) in shades of blue and green, and tied the whole thing up with cream ribbon.
Needless to say, my parents loved it. They even had a special case built for it, so it lives on permanent display on top of the piano, where everyone who enters their home can’t help but see it.
The only problem is, because it’s inside a case, no-one ever actually readsit.
Because it’s such a special, precious object, people are reluctant to take it out of the case and handle it, for fear of damaging it.
Even I am reluctant to handle it!
So this book, whose theoretical purpose is to be read, virtually never gets read.
Of course, it’s also a beautiful sculptural object, and a container of meaning as a gift, regardless of the words inside. In those goals, it is a huge success.
But as a container of content, it’s not as successful.
So when my mom’s 80th birthday came around last July, I knew I wanted to do things differently.
I wanted to create an artifact that she would feel comfortable handling, and handing to friends to flip through.
So instead of a calligraphy book, a made a coil-bound, typeset book, which I had printed at FedEx.
The object itself is very un-precious, made of very mundane materials, in order to better focus on the content.
While the anniversary book lives under plexi, to be admired by not touched, the 80th birthday book lives right on my parents’ coffee table, inviting guests to flip through it, just like any other coffee table book.
So when my husband’s 48th birthday was coming up, I thought of the lessons I’d learned from my parents as I was considering his gift.
He and I like to make things for each other — he makes silly drawings for (and of) me, and in the past, I’ve made calligraphy artworks for him.
Knowing my husband’s sense of humor, it occurred to me that a silly drawing would go over better with him than another calligraphy artwork (and besides, where would he put another calligraphy piece?)
He had quipped something about turning “four dozen,” which brought to mind four dozen eggs. Then it occurred to me that I could make a little book, with each page saying, “I love you more than four dozen [fill in the blank].”
It would appeal to his sense of the absurd, which I knew would be perfect!
Now here is where the old, perfectionist me would have tied myself in knots, laboring over the layout, designing the whole thing to death, carefully lettering it in precise calligraphy on fine art paper, with gouache or watercolor, and laboring over getting the illustrations just right.
Yeah, and guess what would have happened to that book? It would have been handled with white gloves exactly once, before being tucked safely away in a drawer, never to be seen again!
Plus it wouldn’t have captured the silly, irreverent spirit I was going for.
Intentional imperfectionism to the rescue!
Even though I have the skills to use calligraphy, I intentionally used plain, old handwriting, and impromptu stick-figure drawings (no under-sketches in pencil first!). And I did it all on blank 3×5 cards, which I then trimmed down to 3×4 inches. No fine art papers to get precious about here!
Content, not container, is key here.
Now, I confess, I did tell my husband he needed to wash his greasy French-fry-eating hands before opening his present. The container is an important part of the whole. But still, the content is the primary focus of this book.
Here’s a little video of the interior pages:
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Quite a contrast from my parents’ anniversary book, no? You’d never know from this little book that I used to be a professional calligrapher, would you? (*hysterical laughter*)
But here’s the thing: pristine formal calligraphy would have been utterly wrong for this particular job.
If you saw the look on my husband’s face as he flipped through each page, you would know that the wonky drawings and imperfect handwriting were PERFECT for this book.
Now that I’m working with corporate clients, designing workshops and trainings, it’s really no different. Whether you’re making a gift for someone or designing a class or making dinner, think about what the end use is for your project.
Who are you creating for? (This could be you, or someone else, or a group of someones.)
What are their needs and desires? (They may or may not be able to voice them. You may have to read between the lines here! I could only make the perfect [imperfect] book for my husband because I know him so well!)
It may just be that showing off your skills is not actually the best solution. Sometimes, as with my husband’s birthday book, the solution that makes your end user/client/gift recipient happiest is the one where you feel like you’re NOT doing your best.
I may not have been pushing my technical skills to their limits (good lord, that’s obvious), but the delight in my husband’s eyes proved to me that, in fact, I was doing my best after all.
Have you ever intentionally “slacked off” technically, in order to do your best according to the needs of a project?