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Compromise vs. Compromised

August 25, 2010

My dog woke me in the middle of the night. Seems she’d been upset by the faint, high-pitched squeak made by my bedroom fan when it oscillates. (It had been a hot day.) The only thing to settle her (and perhaps regain a decent night’s sleep) was a short walk – even though it was 3 a.m.  …I compromised…my sleep…to get the promise of more sleep later.

By morning my plan for the day had been irrevocably altered by the loss of a full night’s sleep. I thought about all the parents whose days are sometimes regularly altered by a sick child who can’t sleep. How many days are shifted due to unplanned events? Folks compromise.

Architects often seem to be the ones needing to master the Art of the Compromise. They start with lofty design concepts, dreams of making truly original structures with stunningly different visuals than their artwork’s surroundings (the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan). Then, more often than not after months of meetings and negotiations, the planning commission, without the same design vision (and sometimes with none at all), begins to chip away at the design: “too tall” “too out-of-place in the surroundings” “too ugly.” The architect is requested to lower one wing, change a roofline and more. The design becomes…compromised. The original vision…lost.

While we think of many classic paintings as exquisite masterpieces and assume the painter made no compromises, we learn later on that the lady’s dress was painted over, perhaps a modesty panel was added. Maybe the lady’s husband, who commissioned the work, was suspicious of the painter’s intimate knowledge of the lady’s décolletage. Did the painter then consider his work compromised?

When I’m hired to design a graphics ad, for print or online, compromise occurs throughout the process, which isn’t necessarily a negative. Good compromises are ones that everyone agrees enhance the final product. Perhaps the client hates the first font choice that was shown. As we go through the design process, a client or other contributor may say, “I don’t know what it is about [fill-in-the-blank], but it’s somehow…not quite right.” This person’s observation may be completely invalid (from my point of view) or s/he may be picking up on something that hasn’t quite gelled properly for me either. This spurs me on to find a better design solution – a compromise. But I’m still able to achieve the original goal.

Recently, some design work has felt more compromised than full of compromises. Interesting — the difference between the past completed action – ‘was compromised’ – versus an implied current tense (even though nouns don’t have tenses) – ‘compromises.’ The former has negative connotations while the latter isn’t necessarily related to bad things.

What makes up a compromised design? To start with, if the components you have to create your work are already substandard, you can never create the first rate work you’ve envisioned. For me, if the product photography is poor or nearly non-existent, there’s no way the lipstick I will apply to the pig can make the cloven-footed creature look like Aphrodite – even if I put Manolo Blanicks on its hooved feet. That design is compromised because it’s impossible to achieve the original design goals.

Was Michelangelo’s David compromised by limitations in the marble’s vein structure? We’ll never know. The sculptor Agostino di Duccio had abandoned the enormous chunk of marble forty years prior due to structural imperfections. Is it possible the artist altered the design due to imperfection in the rock’s structure? Perhaps he never planned to have the figure’s left arm bent up. Perhaps David’s arm was supposed to be pointing across Florence in a position of strength to warn away invaders. But when a worker dropped another chunk of rock on top of the marble where the arm would have been extended, Michelangelo chose to bend the arm back. We’ll never know…

There are times when compromises positively affect the outcome of our work and our lives. (Certainly any husband or wife would say that ‘compromise’ is an essential ingredient to a happy marriage.) When the fashion designer’s assistant spills coffee on the silk fabric envisioned for a couture dress, perhaps a new material appears at just the right time, infinitely improving the drape of the dress’ cut. When the planning commission requests the architect to lop off six feet from the roofline, changing the slope of the structure, perhaps this artist discovers the building now blends into the surrounding land’s incline in a much more complimentary manner. When the editor informs the writer his piece just got chopped from 2500 words to 1500 for space consideration, perhaps now the writer finds his heavily edited piece now reads far more smoothly than the original.

On the other hand, if the goal of the writer’s piece was to provide a detailed analysis of the effects of global warming on the wombat, his work may now be compromised. There simply isn’t room for the many examples of change to this creature’s life and habitat. The goal can no longer be met. The situation is …compromised.

What about your life? Do you feel like you’ve made too many compromises? There is a certain sense that when you finally have too many of the noun you’ve crossed over and arrived at the past completed verb. You’ve been compromised.

Life is full of compromises. But you should never allow yourself to be compromised.

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