Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The 80/20 Rule

I've often heard artists, designers, management, etc. use "the 80/20 rule" to explain their choices.

"You want 80% to be rest areas and 20% areas of detail"
"80% of this geometry should be interactive and 20% non-interactive"
"As long as we get it 80% right, the extra 20% doesn't matter"

The problem is, none of these things have anything to do with the 80/20 rule.  So let's get it right, because this is an important one if you want be a faster artist.
The 80/20 rule states that 80% of a system will be affected by 20% of the variables in it.  So that 20% matters a lot.  80/20 doesn't mean that everything divides neatly into that ratio, or that that 80% should be one thing and 20% should be another.  Instead, it's a principle of resource allocation.
The 80/20 rule applies when 80% of one thing is affected by 20% of another thing.
So as an artist, what is that 20% of your process that takes 80% of your time or resources?  There are multiple answers to this question.  Here are some ways it applies to me:
How often do you get a painting to the point where it's looking good and you start feeling like you're just about done, only then you spend way more time finishing the painting up than you did getting it to that point?  For me, this is true nearly every time.  If you paint in detail or care about your brush strokes, this is just a fact of life.
But to make use of the 80/20 rule, you need to do more than identify the problematic 20%. It may be useful for setting proper expectations, but you won't get any faster to know that.

Where the 80/20 rule becomes useful in this case is by applying it in another related area.  If I were to uniformly apply detail across this painting once I finished the block-in, it would have taken me three times as long.  So instead, once I got to hour 3 or 4, I tried to identify the 20% of the painting that would likely demand 80% of a viewer's attention.  Then I focused a disproportionate amount of time and effort developing those areas. The remaining 80% of the painting then fell naturally together in support of the high-attention areas.  This is the magic of the 80/20 rule: tackle the correct 20%, and the other 80% often falls into place.

What are some ways that the 80/20 rule could be used to speed up your process?


  1. Didn't know this 80/20 rule came from science.
    I actually never heard the versions you talk about but I often heared this one : "You spend 20% of your time getting 80% of your work done, and 80% of your time doing the other 20%" which I guess is another way to put it.
    The problem I have the most, with clients anyway, is that often a picture must have a lot of details that really should read. It's more a question of far can you get in abstracting a form so that a non-artistic eye (=clients most of the time) understands it.
    The other difficulty for me (when I do personnal works) is to not getting bored after 2 days of work on a picture. I don't know if there is any scientific help on this one ? ;)

  2. Brilliant... I had no idea of the 80/20 rule, I guess this is more of an industry thing? :D Thank you for sharing this, I will take this into consideration next time I draw a scene.

  3. I hadn't heard of this concept before. I think I feel it inside, but ears no hear. It's interesting. I'm trying to find it in my own process. Say, the photo album project that takes up most of my first two months of the year: the scanning of the family history, and then the photo correcting and formatting for print book form. The scanning is a long process, largely without intellectual investment. The correcting is even longer. Perhaps the twenty percent comes in after I galley and find that I've over shot the color saturation and have to go back to correct everything. I'm going to have to think this one out. I know it works on the treadmill - 80 percent walking, 20 running. 80 percent research into genealogy, 20 percent getting the work done. Hmmm.

  4. Thomas: Looking at your paintings, it looks like you are already applying the 80/20 rule to your detail allocation, even if you aren't aware of it. Even in a highly detailed picture this idea is helpful, because when you identify and focus on the critical details, the supporting details become easier to manage, because once you have the critical details in place you can see the supporting details in their proper context. Craig Mullins is a master of managing detail efficiently:
    Look at one of his more detailed paintings closely and you'll see that he manages the impression of a high level of detail through texture overlays and fancy brushwork, but most areas of the painting are actually quite rough. But unless you're really looking at it you won't even notice because he handles the critical 20% so carefully.

    Gemma: The 80/20 rule was discovered in economics but has been found to be true of many complex systems. Unfortunately most people don't really understand the rule so it's not used very well in many industries.

    K: Your comment got me thinking and I revised the post with to clarify some things. To use your example, where the 80/20 rule becomes useful for you is if you can identify what part of the scanning and photo correcting process is affected by a 20% variable from another part of the process. Simply knowing that you'll spend 80% of your time scanning can be more discouraging than helpful. But it's empowering when you change a 20% variable to reduce that scanning time, such as replacing your scanning software with something that has better automation, or feeding your photos through a machine at a copy store. You might cut your time in half, or more.

  5. I love the 80/20 rule, and would like to share this post with artists that I work with in Seattle. I was introduced to this theory back in the early 90's as an art rep for illustrators and photographers as a way to focus my attention... if 80% of your business comes from 20% of your client list, correctly target that 20% and cut down your marketing & promotional efforts. However, I had never before thought about the application for artists using this to appropriate time on a painting. Thanks for broadening the perspective!

    First time reading your blog, it popped up because of the title "Sam's Tasty Art" and our gallery is called "Tasty" and we sell art, so I have a google alert set to that...

  6. Love your work, and love your blog, specially because of all the research, all the experimentation and all the color studies. It's very helpfull. Keep it that way!

  7. Great Blog! I really appreciate your attitude of breaking down why something works and trying to understand what is happening.

    I am currently on trying to find resources that explain appeal and the things that attribute to it. Ive read your past postings on it and was wondering if you have found any that might be useful?

  8. Thanks Sam. Thanks for considering the problem from my point of view. We find in recording music that people can save that time by doing all of their rhythm tracks in one session, instead of cutting each song and then overdubbing the vocals and the solo instruments on each as the project goes. The set-up time for the drums and the sounds of the keyboards and bass and guitar is that 20 pct. If the tracks are done all at once, then there's only one setup.

    That's how I see what I did this year. I finished all the scanning I'd be doing over the next five years. And after I finish all the pages for this year's book, I'll simply do two pages a day every day - no mind numbing hours of it at a time, and then the 80 percent of my first two months of the year that I used to spend scanning and then editing will end up being 20 precent, setting up the book, finishing the cover, checking for missing pages.

    You made me think, Sam. Is that a surprise?

  9. It's very interesting how this echoes the golden ratio, where: the third part is equal to the first part divided by the second, etc. to infinity. Great post, I'm going to try apply it to my animation :)ar

  10. When I started publishing political cartoons in the early 80s there was no any Google to go for documentation (can you imagine?).
    So, I used to get mails from readers punctuating my mistakes: "the barrel of an AK 47 isn't like that", "you mixed up two types of nuclear plants" or (the most embarrasing) "(the penguin): what? chicken feet? not fair!"
    The readers taught me to focus in that 20% of factual details that could ruin a whole cleaver concept and let the best caricature portrait unnoticed. Great post.

  11. Carlos6:46 PM

    Reminds me of an old Computer/Software Engineer's addage: "Make the common case fast." 80/20 is an interesting concept; I'll have to think about how to work it into my current projects.