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“catastrophe curve” July 21, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Definition, The Two-Year-Old.
Tags: , , , , , ,

catastrophe curve
kuh-TASS-truh-fee KURV

I first came across the concept of a catastrophe curve in the Terry Pratchett novel Maskerade, in which Mr. Salzella, the music director of the Opera House, tells the house’s new owner, Mr. Bucket, how opera runs:

A catastrophe curve, Mr. Bucket, is what opera runs along. Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, Mr. Bucket.

Opera, like business, runs on a catastrophe curve. (Photo by Jonny Ross)

Opera, like business, runs on a catastrophe curve. (Photo by Jonny Ross)

Sounds an awful lot like an office environment to me. See, it seems to me that most businesses these days run on a catastrophe curve — or, worse, a recursive catastrophe curve, which means that a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong, thereby producing one product, which is a part of a larger catastrophe curve, and so on, infinitely.

As I mentioned last week, I’m working on this new site for a new client. When I got to work yesterday, I had a micro-meeting with the Two-Year-Old — her idea, not mine — because I’d asked Hope, who is in charge (more or less) of this project on the client side, if I was still doing the project. There had been some e-mails shot back and forth about how one of our other designers might work on it. Anyway, the micro-meeting was a micro-dressing-down where she said “you said you wanted to do this project, and now you’re asking if James is going to design it? I can have him do it, but you wanted to…”

And so on.

After clearing that up, Hope and the Two-Year-Old showed me a few things related to the project and gave me a few items to write down. Then the Two-Year-Old said “we really need to get working on this.”


There’s just one problem: I have no assets. No art, no color palette, no phone numbers, no addresses, no CMS data, no nothing. All I have is the design, as drawn on our meeting room smartboard, which I printed out so I would have a handy copy to refer to.

I sat in front of Dreamweaver for a moment, thinking about what I could do on this project, and I quickly determined that the answer is “not a whole lot”. Without the art, I can’t build out the web elements. Without the phone numbers and addresses I have no information. Without content from the client (which they’re working on now), I can’t populate the page. I also can’t build the Flash animations, the video players, the forms, and the advertisements. All I can do is put categories in the CMS.

That took me all of five minutes.

I can predict what’s going to happen: two days (if I’m lucky) before the deadline, everything is going to come together, and I’m going to have to shelve all my other projects to finish this one while somehow avoiding telling anyone that I’ve shelved all my other projects. Because, you know, nothing I’ve been working on for a while is nearly as important as the newest, coolest thing.

And that, my friends, is a catastrophe curve: when you finish the project on time, on (or under) budget, and you do so at almost the very last moment because just when you’re about to give up hope every single one of your assets arrives with precisely enough time to put them all in place.

I’m sure you’ve been in my position at least once in that regard.

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1. Hannah - June 25, 2013

Gods I love Pratchett…and Maskerade. I’m a clarinetist, by the way, and a concert really is a catastrophe curve. So I understand how you feel :-)) At the moment I’m also studying towards an MA in translation. Even more catastrophe curves :-))

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