Why are you building this?

At some point in what feels like the very distant past, I bought The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero. For six years, apparently, I’ve flipped past it on the way to reading other things. For some of that time, I was convinced I’d already read it. I was wrong, I just started reading it, and I’m super glad I did.

It opens with this bit of foreword, which struck me right in the “these are my people” feels:

Frank Chimero and I came together over a shared commitment to jazz. But not only exchanges of music. We emulated the form. He would write a blog post. I would respond. I would improvise one of his hunches. He would iterate one of my posts. A call-and-response approach to a developing friendship.

From there, it’s continued to impress. The illustrations before each chapter are delightful, the chapters are short and punchy, and the ideas are as useful to doing computer programs as they are to doing design.

The first idea in the book has taken up residence in my brain and I don’t want to let it go. It is, simple enough, that we should ask “how and why?” are we building this thing.

The “how” is often easy enough and the proverbial cart before the horse. We’re building a design system, we’re using Rails or React or whatever’s hot right now, or we’re doing XP with a little bit of Kanban and a dab of Lean methodology. The thing is, in the end, few of us will say “Oh, they built this with a design system, React, and lean methodology. Phew! I wasn’t going to use it otherwise.”

The answer to “why” is more likely to generate a satisfying response. We build things to learn, because they don’t exist and we want it to exist, because what exists doesn’t satisfy us, because people need it, because it brings joy to those who would use it, etc. Answering why motivates our craft.

Working backwards from “why” something should exist to “how” it should come to exist makes the difference between boring blandness and purposeful clarity.