Why do you design?

The ‘why’ is more important than the ‘how’.

Some days designing sucks.

The day-to-day practice of designing looks nothing like the sudden onset of brilliant thoughts on Mad Men or the frantic scribbling on a window from The Social Network. The day-to-day often involves fielding an endless cycle of opinions and feedback. Most of the feedback is useful, some of it isn’t. Most of the feedback is optional, some of it isn’t. It is the designer’s job to know the difference and apply that feedback to their design in a way that will matter to the user and stay true to the user’s needs above everything else.

Many, many times the application of that feedback will be overruled, changed, altered or done away with for a variety of reasons that are often (but not always) beyond a designer’s control. Other times, the designer or the design team may be the problem. It is so easy to second guess yourself or your fellow team members’ designs that it often becomes the subconscious norm to kill ‘risky’ ideas (either in your own mind or within the design team) before they are even tested.

These are just some of the many reasons why most things a designer works on will not be amazing, they won’t be experiences that change people’s lives or are praised for years to come. Most designs, products, or companies will be forgotten as ‘honest efforts’, or ‘good ideas’ that ‘helped us accomplish some key business goals for the quarter’ or ‘did a few things really well’, because deep down they didn’t quite have that… something.

They didn’t quite have that magic.

So why do it? Why go through all that hard work, all those late nights and often disappointing outcomes? What makes designers continue through all those failures until they ultimately do hit on something great? The ‘why’ behind all that hard work is extremely important and as a design community, we don’t spend enough time talking about it. We often decide, instead, to focus on tooltips and templates to make the physical process of designing easier. Those articles are great, but they can’t be the only thing we share with one another.

We should be talking more about why we design, not simply how.

We should be talking more about why we design, not simply how. As a young designer, there are very few places to go to to understand the ‘why’ designers have behind their craft. I think that’s a real shame and a disservice to the newer designers out there. If the design world is simply telling you that your job is to ‘just ship it’, ‘be more efficient’, or ‘find the fastest way to do X’, it's hard to see how that doesn’t lead to job dissatisfaction and burn out. The impression that paints of us is pretty bleak. If our online discussions are to be believed, we are mostly a bunch of people obsessed with more efficient processes and a hatred of anything that happens to fall into the ever changing definition of ‘bad design’. But you and I both know that isn’t true. That is not the design community I know.

The design community I know is composed of deeply empathetic people who believe that their work has the capacity to change people’s lives provided they are able to do it with a group of like minded people and in an environment that supports that goal. But you only get that impression after meeting with them in-person. Our online conversations often give a distinctly different impression that makes us all seem like machines on an assembly line that are simply trying to find ways to do our repetitive tasks faster. Let’s change that. Let’s talk more about our ‘why’s.

I know that is hard and more than a little scary to share the personal reasons behind your work (writing this article was no picnic), but the ‘whys’ are where all the good stuff is. They help us to understand one another and our work as something more than the product of our ability to follow a metaphorical (or actual) template and hit a (often very real) deadline. And the best part is, there is no wrong answer. No ‘why’ is better or worse than another. How could it be? These are personal feelings, not quantitative outcomes (those are important too, but not to this discussion).

To that end, I’d like to take this chance to share my ‘Why’. I’d also love to hear yours.

My ‘why’

My reason for designing goes back to roughly the age of twelve. I was a rambunctious, curious kid living in the Midwest. I loved playing make-believe games outside (I have an especially fond memory of creating a game with my friends around throwing my mom’s big green exercise ball at each other while swinging — we called it Big Green Granny Apple), writing stories, playing with action figures, and video games.

When it came to video games, my Uncle was my dealer. He lived in California, but would occasionally visit us for a week or two as a family reunion of sorts. Every time he visited it was like a mini-Christmas. One time he visited and it was even better than Christmas because he brought along his copy of Doom.

I find it hard to describe how cool it was to play Doom for the first time. Something about it just grabbed a hold of you and urged you on to beat the level… and then the next level… and then the level after that. Doom was my first real taste of being entirely engrossed in a piece of software. Today we would call that experience deep engagement or a flow state, but back then it was simply captivating to a level I didn’t fully understand — I thought it was magic.

Like any twelve-ish year old, once the initial high of playing it wore off, I complained about it constantly. I talked my poor uncle’s ear off as I nitpicked every part of Doom’s levels, guns, and characters. He’d say he was being supportive, but I secretly think he just got fed up with me when he finally said, “Why don’t you just go make one yourself then!”

So I did.

I made an incredibly crude platformer where you jumped around like Mario. Looking back, I won’t pretend it was good, but it was a start. I made it and moved on to other things without giving it much thought. I didn’t see designing as my passion or even something I would necessarily keep doing until one day my brother played one of my little games (it kills me to say it, but I can’t remember which game it was). All of my games were essentially the same, a character runs from left to right, jumping over obstacles and solving puzzles to get to the end of a level that was maybe 8–10 screen long. When my brother sat down to play the game he laughed (and later destroyed my high score along with any dream I ever had at being good at playing games). His laughter was special because it was rare.

His laughter was special because it was rare.

My brother was born with a learning impediment and a speech disorder. He is much, much better now, but for most of my childhood, his speech was stunted and infrequent. Connecting with him was hard, but when he played my game he laughed… he laughed every time.

I didn’t process it then, but that moment will never leave me because that moment taught me everything I’ll ever need to know about why making software matters. Nothing else could make my brother consistently happy, only games. The games he played were his escape, he was in control and he knew the rules. When I played games with him we could connect without those messy and confusing words. A reward we could celebrate and a clear path to attain it where all we needed to bond. We played all kinds of games, shooters, platformers, racing games, they were all part of the rotation.

Sometimes I’d just watch him play, learning the little cues and gestures that he used to signal his emotions. I knew when he was angry, sad, defeated, or elated better than anyone else because I got to see those very emotions over and over again as he played a game.

Put another way, games, simple software with a few lines of code repeated millions of times over, allowed us to connect. Our bond was built on software when our words wouldn’t do. That software created empathy when nothing else could.

For as cynical as some people get about the software and technology industry at large, they can’t take that fact away and they can’t deny that millions (probably billions) of people are having similar experiences. If that isn’t magic I don’t know what is.

In my own mind, nothing I have made since has lived up to that little game, maybe nothing will, but I know that every time I start a project I get another chance to try and create that magic. When something I make fails or is simply ‘good enough’ it helps me learn, it helps me get that much better at what I do. Everyday I work to increase the odds that someday I will work with the right group of folks and have built up the right set of skills to make that magic happen again (as many other people have in their work). If that day comes, I can only hope I will have learned enough lessons along the way to do the other thing software is really good at and help scale that magic to as many people as possible.

That goal of creating empathy that can scale is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I believe we are in a better position now than we have ever been to make our software more responsive, more human, and more relatable (conversational and adaptive interfaces come to mind) than ever before. The challenge of taking the lessons of emotion and empathy from other art forms and applying them to interfaces and tools that people use everyday is a challenge I feel privileged to get to join thousands of other designers in taking on.

That is my ‘why’.

If you are a designer/creative/anyone who makes something, I’d love to hear about your ‘why’ on Twitter, in a Medium post or any other way you feel like sharing it.

I also want to call out some of the few great resources I have used to help learn more about the ‘why’ behind some of my fellow designer’s amazing work:

Thank you for reading.