It happened this morning while we were eating cheese.
It was a particularly good cheese – an extra-matured Red Leicester that my wife had bought on a whim, just to see if it was any good. For those of you that might not know, the quality of store-bought Red Leicester spans a spectrum of experiences, ranging from a dry-tasting, corporate, nondescript, bland substance most resembling plastic (i.e. purely functional cheese) to an exquisite, flavoursome, smooth and delectable taste explosion that lingers with a pleasing after-taste and makes you feel good inside.
It made us start thinking about and discussing why two superficially similar cheeses, costing approximately the same amount, in the wider scheme of things, should result in such different cheese savouring experiences. What could explain that range of quality, when the processes involved in making the two kinds were presumably quite similar?
Good cheese takes time and care to mature into a tasty, smooth sensation. You have to be meticulous about your choice of ingredients and the condition of your cheese making facility. How and where your cheese ripens also matters. Factory-produced cheese, in contrast, pushes the process for advantage to the maker, cutting corners and time, to get lots of product into the shops faster (to make more money), but the taste and texture inevitably suffer.
The cheese maker has a choice to make – do they do just enough to make a product called Red Leicester cheese, or do they care more than that, to produce something truly worthy of the name? Are they interested in giving the consumer something of value, or do they simply want to extract money from their pockets in the least expensive way for the cheese maker possible?
We see this dilemma between minimisation and optimisation in every field of human endeavour, particularly in the making of art. As a provider, should you exclusively focus on what you can take from the transaction, leaving the other party only just satisfied, or should you strive to see how much love you can give, to create a perfected, not excessive, experience.
It’s the choice between the least you can do versus the best you can do.
The difference between providing the minimum acceptable, versus unsatisfactory, is very slender. If you choose to only just satisfy your client, you’ve built yourself a relationship tightrope to walk. Any slight deviation from “good enough” equates immediately to “not good enough”. Providing the optimum, on the other hand, means you’ve been generous and caring enough to earn yourself the benefit of the doubt, if things go wrong. In any case, you gave as good as it was possible to give, without overdoing it. Who could possibly complain or condemn you for giving your best?
In software product development, at present, the in-vogue goal seems to be to identify and ship what is called the “Minimum Viable Product”, or MVP. Some people in the product development community objected to that assertion and said that the goal, instead, should be to ship the “Minimum Lovable Product”, or MLP, but I think they’re splitting hairs. The minimum viable product or minimum lovable product both sound like what you can get away with, to me. Optimum viable products (OVP) and optimum lovable products (OLP) are stronger and more robust statements of intention and quality. These, I contend, are more likely to be successful products.
Similarly, do you want a lean product, or one with a bit of muscle and a healthy glow? We could stretch the clichéd metaphors until the cows come home, but the point I want to make is this: providing the best you can is always better than providing the least you can get away with. So what, if it costs a little more, when the product is so much better value for the money?
Do you minimise or optimise, when you make your art? Are you consciously attempting to do your best, or just enough to make it saleable? If you’re like most artists, you lean toward doing your best work, because doing so gives you the most satisfaction. Art can be very long-lived (it can outlive the artist), so do you want your artistic reputation to be forever tainted by having not tried hard enough, or enhanced because the work you produced was of undoubtedly high quality?
High quality art doesn’t imply a particular style. It doesn’t mean unwarranted detail, the perfect reproduction of every hair and freckle on a portrait, or music played so meticulously, that all the life has been bludgeoned out of it. Optimisation is something more translucent and evanescent than that. It’s almost indefinable, in formal terms, yet almost everybody recognises it when they see it. “Best” is a very hard word to define precisely.
As a person that makes things for others, do you care briefly and then forget all about the work and its audience as soon as you can, or do you do your work with lasting commitment to the quality of the audience’s experience of your work and to learning ever-improving technique? In short, do you make the analogue of functional cheese, or exquisite cheese?
Artists and makers – you get to choose how you want to conduct and present yourself. You can opt to be short-termist and greedy, unconcerned about your impact on others or you can consider the long term and create with generosity and care. Algorithms cannot and never will give a damn. If your company is placing all its customer experience bets on big data analysis algorithms, guess which kind of organisation you belong to. It’s better to take time and to care about what you do and make.
Optimum is always better than minimum. It’s axiomatic.