What do these have in common?
• Pixar choosing to make its first movie about toys
• The decor of Friends, unchanged for 10 seasons
• The scratchy sound of a vinyl record
Although separated by field and nature, they’re all limitations that ended up defining the identity.
Imperfections are usually something we try to hide, but there are some great examples where they have been turned into decisive strengths.
While in Lisbon, I discovered that vintage lenses (from the film era) could be adapted to modern cameras. They are often cheap and have great optical quality, but come with some quirks. Compared to modern lenses which are trying to be perfect, you could say the vintage ones have an « opinion ».
Let’s look at an example:
The Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is a USSR lens whose production’s started in 1958 that would cost you around $50. It has a quite unique defect: the bokeh (background blur) can be swirly. Behold:
This defecting lens sells like hot cakes
Thinking of it as a flaw, Helios fixed it in the following versions of the lens. However, the interesting thing happening today is that people aren’t buying the « fixed » version, but the one with the defect. Photographers use it to their advantage to create artistic compositions.
Using them is a rather serene experience: you embrace the defects rather than trying to hide them. It’s the opposite approach of using modern gear which is about chasing perfection.
In the 1930’s book « The Beauty of Everyday Things », the Japanese author Soetsu Yanagi defines what he calls the beauty of odd numbers:
« Generally speaking, the Western perception of art has its roots in Greece. For a long time, its goal was perfection, which is particularly noticeable in Greek sculpture. This was in keeping with Western scientific thinking; there are no painters like Andrea Mantegna in the East. I am tempted to call such art ‘the art of even numbers’. In contrast to this, what the Japanese eye sought was the beauty of imperfection, which I would call the ‘art of odd numbers’. No other country has pursued the art of imperfection as eagerly as Japan. »
— Soetsu Yanagi
Wabi-sabi is a well-known Japanese philosophy about finding beauty in imperfections, notably in the effect of time and nature.
Kintsugi is one of the famous examples: fixing a broken dish with gold lacquer. Rather than trying to hide the repair, it is embraced. It becomes part of the object’s identity.
Interestingly enough, embracing limitations won’t create a competitive disadvantage but will rather create a unique opportunity to differentiate yourself. For instance, traditional architecture and recipes have usually emerged from embracing the local construction materials and food.
A couple more illustrated examples:
Trying to do the first computer-animated film came with some technological limitations. At the time, generating realistic organic shapes like hair and skin were a complex task and would often look like plastic (poor Andy). However, geometric shapes — like balls and blocks — are child’s play for a computer, which is why the story ended up being about toys. It’s also a nice differentiation point when you’re coming in a market dominated by Disney, which was mostly creating stories about humans and animals.
To save time under tight deadlines, animators would focus on animating one moving part at a time (mouth, eyes, etc). That way, there’s no need to redraw the entire frame. It’s an interesting exercise to figure what to leave out while still selling the movement and emotion. Arguably, it’s now fully part of anime’s identity.
The first prosthetic arms Angel Giuffria wore as a kid were trying to mimic human skin, trying to be invisible. However, when meeting strangers, she was annoyed to be constantly wondering « Did they notice yet? ». Trying to hide it was implying it was something to be ashamed about. She flipped that over and embraced it as part of her identity. Today, with her new arms, people are stopping her in the streets to ask questions as you can see in this Guardian’s video.
Keeping the same two environments — the apartments and the coffee shop — was a huge time and money saver. It also created an opportunity: these two decors became iconic and are instantly recognizable.
Five Guys initially didn’t have enough storage space for its potato bags. They decided to embrace it and make it part of the decor.
With the ReCrafted collection, rather than trying to hide that the clothes were made of repurposed materials, Patagonia embraced it and let that fact define the aesthetics of the line. It’s also a great way to showcase that each of those pieces is unique.
Let’s look at a modern example in which limitations were intentionally created. On this camera, the screen is hidden by default — and there’s no way to turn it around easily. This has two consequences:
When designing that camera, Fujifilm deliberately didn’t make it perfect for everyone but focused on creating something street photographers would be excited about.
Even the screen hinge they created is thought for street photography: it’s perfect for shooting from the hip.
It is to be noted that this will divide opinions: people will either love it or hate it — but at least no one will be indifferent.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the scratchy sound of a vinyl record being artificially reproduced. Back then manufacturers would invest in R&D to get rid of it, and we’re now adding it back with our modern tools.
A modern example of this is The Spiderverse movie. They’ve taken limitations from comics printing and cartoon animation:
Ben-Day dots in comics (printing dot by dot)
Misaligned colors in printing
Animating on twos (12 images per second instead of 24)
All of these were reproduced with modern tools in The Spiderverse (video here)
This particular last point is a clever way to enhance the story using the technical limitations.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for artificial reproduction but rather for embracing our current technological constraints to create new icons.
We all have little rough edges that make us who we are. It’s what makes us colorful in a way. In that sense, accepting imperfections has a humane side to it. There’s something freeing about acknowledging we can’t — and using creativity to overcome that.
A weakness can be turned into an opportunity to make something unique.
Next time we feel like hiding something, let’s ask ourselves how we could make it something worthy of showing instead.