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A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, the graphic arts industry was populated by full-time illustrators, production assistants and compositors. With only composing sticks for laying out type, straight edges for defining grids, a human proofer to catch spelling mistakes and an arsenal of X-acto blades for making edits, these guys lived and breathed detail. Mistakes were costly. It was a trade position that required lengthy apprenticeship; job security depended on getting all of the little things right.

While many of the tactile skills needed for our new generation of PC-based web design and development are radically different, a critical eye for detail is as relevant as ever. In fact, because of the lower cost of entry and increasing commoditization of design, that eye for detail is not only necessary for staying afloat in the profession, but a requirement for success.

The functional details are different than the ones with which our forefathers wrestled. Most of us do not own goggles to prevent spray adhesive from getting in our eyes or loupes to gauge dot gain at a press check. We do, however, have to deal with the endearing idiosyncrasies of browsers; we all run into the same double margin bug and inconsistent JavaScript support. These are quantitative, documented issues. Good website builders like you and I avoid these altogether simply by writing better code. But the details that can kill a project faster than a fly against a windshield are more subversive: the ones that, in hindsight, should have been blindingly obvious.

It’s never just about design

Only the luckiest website builders actually build websites all day. Most of us are also part-time proofers, project managers, usability experts, design critics, navigational architects, therapists for copywriters, and general go-to experts on all thing interweb. We are responsible for not only testing in different browsers, but for knowing which browsers our audience will use, and why. We have to sit in on conference calls and listen to people criticize our work and ask the same question nine times. We are responsible for checking the consistency of link treatment. Button design. Form functionality. Whether little decorative flourish A matches little decorative flourish B. We have to pay attention to a lot of stuff, and a lot of it falls well outside the sphere of design.

After working in numerous design departments and managing of a diverse creative team, I’ve learned that the best employees have distinct habits. These employees:

  • re-read the project brief before clarifying outstanding questions with the project manager or client,
  • communicate with project stakeholders to catch any mid-project scope changes—and, more importantly, understand why these changes are happening,
  • challenge changes they don’t agree with, and defend their positions objectively and pragmatically,
  • pass work to colleagues for a peer gut-check before a formal review,
  • spell check, then reads everything again to catch the errors spell cheque doughs knot,
  • read everything again for language nuances, such as consistent point of view, active voice, and parallel structure,
  • study relevant market trends and understand the competition,
  • suggest details that improve the piece, from adding clearer alt text to switching out images, to altering the grid in ways that allow content to breathe,
  • know which battles to fight and which to avoid, and
  • recognize and work on the details that help them get better at their jobs…and then go on to get better at their jobs.

Invest for the long run

When design deliverables go wrong, it often leads to Old Testament, end-of-the-world stuff—fire and brimstone, rivers and seas boiling, cats and dogs living together. Every finger lands squarely in the face the designer. And why not? It is every designer’s responsibility to ensure the 100% satisfaction of the client, and that means delivering work in which every detail is thought through: top to bottom, inside and out.

In practice, though, there are two types of people when it comes to paying attention to detail: those who say they reviewed their work, and those who actually reviewed their work.

Website designers and developers who consistently fall short of expectations, who let little details slip through, ultimately develop a bad reputation. For the corporate employee, choice projects go to others and promotions are few; for the freelancer, client referrals dwindle. Perhaps most deflating, however, is that colleagues no longer take you seriously in peer design reviews. When people expect you to miss the details, the road to redemption is long.

The black comedy of it all is that few people celebrate designers when they get it right. We are, after all, expected to nail it perfectly every time. We juggle all of the tiny pieces of the great project puzzle, and after it goes live on the web, then it’s on to the next project. There is little short-term glory in being perfect, but there are long-term rewards for being consistently great, and good managers look for that consistency across the careers of their employees.

The little things lead to success

When designers and developers think about the details of the project, they must think critically and analytically. The best solutions come from both sides of the brain, built from both the how and the why.

To be truly great, we have to understand the motivation of our clients, maintain constant two-way communication with shockingly uncreative people, get a firm handle on copywriting and how that craft exists symbiotically with the visual element, and foresee how the finished whole will be greater than the sum of the bits and pieces we spent hours obsessing over. All of these factors cascade into the final product.

Creative professionals who can see all angles of a project are the ones who ultimately succeed in the industry. They win awards, get promoted, and make money, but most importantly they develop a reputation for caring about detail, for putting a personal and deliberate effort into making sure all of the tiny things are in place to make the final product perfect.

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