The Shape of Design

A 2 minute read written by steve July 27, 2012

The Golden Circle

I went to an elementary school called Wye School – pronounced “Why.” To a pre-school kid this was the best school name ever. Whenever someone would ask me what school I went to I could just answer “Why.” When they said, “Because I want to know” I would just reply “Why.” Still makes me laugh a little today. But now I look back and realize that there was a deeper meaning in that statement.

If I were to ask someone what we do at school, pretty much everyone could give a solid answer. We learn math, reading, writing, science, etc. If I were to ask how we do those things, most would have a good reply. We practice adding, learn the alphabet, have stories read to us, experiment with science, and try our hand at art. The question that few can answer is by far the most important. Why? This isn’t because we don't think about the Why, it’s because the Why is often the last thing we think about. It should always be first.

Our mistake was the same as that of the creative person who places too much focus on How to create her work, while ignoring Why she is creating it. Questions about How to do things improves craft and elevates form, but asking Why unearths a purpose and develops a point of view. - Frank Chimero - The Shape of Design

Think about your product, company, service... whatever your main focus is daily. Imagine if you always started with the Why. That one question would transform everything else. A common phrase I use when talking with our Creative Team is “start with the Why and everything else will follow.” It’s not quite as simple as that, but it’s close. The vision, mission, goals of a project (or better yet, an organization) should define Why something is happening. They should be the essence driving everything. People come to sites to complete a task, to get information. Let’s give our stories some soul by allowing the Why to drive us.

What drives us?

Take a look (after reading this post) at our home page. “We make the web work for everyone.” This isn’t some grand statement about us producing the entire internet (but imagine if we could!), but rather us declaring that the pieces we do build will work for anyone who accesses them. We believe in accessibility and that a website should render properly for anyone. Go ahead. Try this site out on different devices. We’ve built it to be accessible (WCAG levels 1, 2, 3 and Section 508 compliant), responsive so the user experience renders well on various devices, small screen first so that it will work even on older devices, and with structured, well written content for our audience. We believe that the web should work for everyone. It motivates us we create our portion of the web.

Design is not art. Design looks a problem in the face and asks ”why?” Good design concerns itself with the “what” and “how”, but great design asks “why” first. Brilliant solutions can only come from “why”. - Steve Fisher - .NET Magazine (yeah, I just quoted myself)

Consider why

Start with the Why. Build from that inner circle out to the How and then finally to the What. It will  establish a foundation for your project that will be successful and will motivate intrinsically. It will keep you from jumping on the latest “feature bandwagon” and give clarity to each step you take.

It is [...] simpler to ask ‘How do I paint this tree?’ than to answer ‘Why does this painting need a tree in it?’ - Frank Chimero - The Shape of Design

Btw, I came to believe as a young adult that school was about understanding, craving knowledge and had nothing to do with career success or grades.