Why is one movie better than another? Why do we prefer the writings of this author over that one? Why do some pieces of art make our hearts sing while others make us flatline? Quality is personal taste not owned by anyone else, not always describable but, without a doubt, felt. So why don’t we put more thought into how we define quality?

Quality helps us to grade something. The problem a lot of us face is that our value of quality isn’t something we actively try to develop. We have an idea of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ and whatever is ‘bad’ we try to eliminate from our scope. So what happens when we remove all the bad, or low, quality things from our lives and we’re only left with the good, or high, quality stuff? What we should be doing is removing all the low quality things from our lives and then looking at what is left. Then adding to the high quality end of the spectrum and continually removing from the low quality end. In other words, what you consider is good now, needs to be replaced with what’s great, pushing the good, down into the bad and then being removed completely.

What can happen if we don’t do this is that we’ll float from one piece of creative output (books, movies, albums) that we think are pretty good, to something else that we think is pretty good, somewhat grading the next on the previous, but not really considering how they might affect our own creative output, not really looking elsewhere for inspiration or ideas. Variety is a good thing, a really good thing, if you’re a creative person. It’s important that we look for new inputs, we need to look for a new experience we are fairly sure will be bad, but have a slight chance of being great. If it is bad, then no harm dealt, you’ll be less likely to give something like it a shot in the future, but at least you gave it a go. But what if it’s great? What if it’s something that changes your life for the better and introduces you to a whole new world? When we’re young, most things are new and it doesn’t take long for us to realise we’ll love something or hate it. As we get older, we throw a fence around what we like, never letting anything new in, or old out, because it might not be worth it and will be a waste of our valuable time, right? The problem is that it’s harder to grow in any meaningful way if we constantly receive the same experiences over and over.

They should be tentative guides at best

The majority of people rely far too heavily on the words, inputs and previous works of others to make their quality based decisions for them. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but these words and ideas should only be telling a small part of the story—they should be tentative guides at best. While outside influences can be a good thing, you should take most of what you’re told with a grain of salt, just as you shouldn’t always expect content producers who’ve struck gold in the past will continue to do so. Artists develop their skills, actors change their ideals and writers gain new experiences. Sometimes these influences put them in a place where their idea of quality aligns with our own, which is a great thing. But sometimes their idea of quality and our idea of quality will go down two different paths. This is when you need to say to yourself ‘they were good in the past, but now I’m not digging what they’re doing, so I won’t introduce it into my spectrum’. Don’t let low quality stuff into your life and your idea of what quality is will rise, which will pay its self back tenfold.

If you are only watching, viewing or reading what you consider to be the best, then what you produce in your creative life will become better and better. All of the creative inputs we have help gauge what we consider to be high quality work, which in turn means that anything we produce will be graded against this scale. This internal scale of ours is in constant flux, even if we don’t realise. If you are looking at the work of the best in your field and saying to your self ‘this is good, this is what I need to aim for’, then even if you don’t get to that point right away, eventually you will get closer to it, than if you’re looking at the work of someone whom you might consider to be average.

You are asking yourself
‘if they did this work, would they be happy with it?’

Let’s say you rank the best in your field at number one, and you consider your self at number 100, then it is absolutely worth aiming to produce the same quality of work as them—and if you fall short, then maybe you’ll land at number eight or nine or even thirty, but it’s much better than aiming at fifty and landing at sixty. It doesn’t matter if it seems impossible to land anywhere near them, just take the shot and do everything you can to hit the mark they’re hitting. But don’t forget, it isn’t solely their work you should be trying to learn from, it is their gauge of quality. Essentially you are asking yourself ‘if they did this work, would the be happy with it? Would it live up to their standards?’.

Don’t stick to your niche. Look outside of it. If you are a print designer, then look at film, music, interactive design, illustration, typography, architecture, physics, engineering and so on and so forth. Look at how the best in these fields operate and how their idea of quality effects their work. You’ll be amazed what you can learn and how you start to think and grade your own work differently. You may see how much effort and heart is put into a typeface a typographer designs and say to yourself ‘why aren’t I putting that much effort into making sure the quality of my work meets such high quality?’ It is worth trying to be the best creative you can be, not just the best designer. If you can learn to think creatively, independently from your field, then you will produce work that will break the boundaries and borrow from more than one creative area. Don’t try to develop work that is of a high quality for your specialty, do what you can to develop work that is of high quality creatively.

The novelist whose work never really made sense to you
might break your heart into two

Be prepared to let go of everything you consider to be of high quality. It’ll seem like you’ll be missing out on a good thing as you know what you’re currently experiencing is a good thing, and what you aren’t experiencing might be a bad thing. The key word there is might. It might be a bad thing. Or, it might be a great thing. That artist whose work you don’t really get now, might be absolutely breath-taking after reading a small article about her. Or the novelist whose work never really made sense to you might break your heart into two once you give it an honest shot and just dive in, without any preconceived ideas of it being good or bad. Be willing to try new things, to throw out what you think is good for something better. If you find something that really is better then you sure as hell won’t miss something that is (now) only ok.