What & Why Questions in Design

In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero, with his beautifully crafted words, tells about an encounter with a Mockingbird:

I remember one specific night where I found myself on the tail end of a long, fruitless stretch. I took to gazing out the window to search for inspiration, to rest my eyes, to devise a plan to fake my death for forty-eight hours while my deadline whooshed past. I looked at the tree before my window and heard a sound rise from the leaves. It seemed misplaced, more likely to come from the cars than one of the trees next to them.

“Weee-oooh, wooop, wwwrrrlll. Weee-oooh, wooop!”

This was not the song of a bird, but the sound of a car alarm. He mimicked the medley of sounds with skill, always pausing for just the right amount of time to be in sync with the familiar tempo of the alarms that occasionally sounded on the block…

And in that moment, a brief little glimmer of insight came to me from the bird’s song: his efforts were futile, and to a large extent, mine were too. We were blindly imitating rather than singing a song of our own.

He continues to use this story as an analogy for why designers need to ask Why more often:

The relationship between form and purpose  –  How and Why  –  is symbiotic. But despite this link, Why is usually neglected, because How is more easily framed. It is easier to recognize failures of technique than those of strategy or purpose, and simpler to ask “How do I paint this tree?” than to answer “Why does this painting need a tree in it?”

My path as a designer has lead me to this insight multiple times before (for example when I wrote about design patterns) but the more I mature as a designer, the more evident it becomes to me that the quality of my work is in direct relationship to exactly this: how often I can ask Why in relationship to What.

Sometimes asking What takes a lot less energy. It’s easier to ask what kind of navigation needs to be used, like, does it need to be a left navigation, a top one or maybe collapsed into a menu icon? This question has a lot to do with the form of the website. But asking Why unearths purpose: Why do we even need navigation? Or a mega dropdown? Because the Information Architecture is too complex? Because that’s what Facebook does? Or maybe because the Nielson/Norman Group found a better answer?

One question isn’t more right than the other. They both fulfill a specific purpose: What creates skill and Why forms the bedrock of learning and improving. The moment these two aren’t in balance anymore, blocks will start to arise. We will either have an idea, but lack the skills to execute it; or we will have the skills, but lack the purpose for the work.

So, what you read in this post is equally as important as why you read it…


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