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There are a lot of great digital tools available now that let creators work in rapid, iterative ways. We owe a lot of the progress made in the last 40 years to the humble “undo” command.

The undo feature of most software is second nature. We roll our fingers across Ctrl-z like we pick lint from a shirt. Removing a minor misstep from digital work is mundane. There are usually several levels of undo and redo and we can walk back and forth through the past at will. This ability has advanced human creativity explosively. Attempting and testing new ideas in visual arts, music, literature, science, engineering, medicine, frankly every industry touched by a computer, comes at very little risk. Undo isn’t an eraser. Undo is the freedom to make mistakes while appearing to all the world like you’ve made none.

Like most tools, there is a downside to undo. The ease of undo can sometimes make us forget that every creation has an end point. Usually several end points, laid out in intervals along the path toward a finished work.Even the most well thought out workflow passes the point of potential undo. There are barriers that need to be crossed when digital information is converted from one form to another. Separate instrument tracks need to be mixed into a single recording before you can present it as a song. Visual effects need to be blended into filmed footage, and the footage must be edited, before it can be presented as a movie.

When someone works with physical materials, the understanding that changes can be irreversible is inherent. If you tear paper or cut wood while creating something new, that change is permanent. Almost everyone has, at least some, experience with computers, and almost everyone has used undo. There is a rampant perception that digital creation tools, like photoshop, contain within them a turbocharged version of undo that allows those in tune with it to access a world of infinite malleability. The truth, of course, is that at some point along the way wood gets cut, metal gets melted, paper gets marked, and digital files get converted. The process is always one way, and undo is not possible. When undo is so readily at hand for everyone, the belief that creators can revert changes and modifying anything without limit, usually follows. Most creators will understand the limits of their tools. Unfortunately, their clients rarely will.

Educating clients, calling out the points of no return in the production process, has never been my strong suit. People never like to hear that something can’t be done without significant difficulty. Significant difficulty usually translates into more time and more money. This can make it uncomfortable to raise the issue. Of course that usually means eating the time and cost when a client requests late stage changes. Changes past the point where undo was ever useful. There is also the problem of creator ego. It’s nice to be able to just say “OK” and turn around the changes as requested, making you look like a master of your craft. In the end, it would probably be healthier for everyone if clients could be gently educated to the cold hard facts of production. You can measure twice and cut once, but after you cut, there is no undo.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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