I’ve spent much of my time figuring out the how of a design problem. I most often asked myself, “How are we going to reach this goal?”
I’ve often assumed the things coming to me already had the why figured out. I gave those who handed me the project the benefit of the doubt that they’d done their homework and knew the why so well, that I didn’t even need to consider it for myself. Early on, I believed that to be true almost every time without question.
I wasn’t wrong. I was very wrong.
People tend to forget to consider the why – often only the what or the how. But every problem needs all three.
The what is easy to replicate, because it’s a thing. It’s at times been done before. When looking back on previous projects or things they’ve seen on TV, people often remember the what and not the why. Considering only the what can create a cycle of repeating or copy-catting.
The how is the reason you, as a designer, have a job. This is supposed to be your problem to solve.
But most importantly, the why is the root level. It should represent the goal of what you’re trying to achieve. It’s the purpose, the vision, and what clarifies the win in what you’re trying to accomplish with a given design or brand.
Now that we know the roles, how do we approach the problem? You have to start by asking hard questions, lots of them.
Discover the why.
I’m willing to do much with my time if it isn’t productive. I don’t just like to be accountable with my time, I’m borderline obsessive about it. If I’m going to work, I’m head down. If it’s designing, I want it to mean something more than just pixels. If I’m writing, I want to be sure I’m saying something worth reading. If I’m cycling, I’m pushing myself to continually be getting better. If I’m resting, I’m doing it because I know how much my body and mind need it.
There isn’t much I’m willing to do without purpose. Figuring out the why of any task or problem is crucial to staying motivated through it. This is what you have to lean on when it gets difficult, is no longer fun and exciting, and you want to do nothing more than quit. The why is the mission. It’s the vision. It’s the reason for doing. If you don’t discover this part, you’ll lose heart. It’s just fact. You’ll come to grips with the purposeless of what you’re doing, and it will become about the wrong thing.
Clarify the what.
This is what brings the why to life. It communicates the vision. This is the funniest or most amazing commercial you’ve seen. It’s the what that people remember as amazing, but without the why it can be a miss. This will often be what communicates the passion within the why. It will be just the right amount of beauty, reason, awe-inspiring, and smart that is needed to make the why clear. Often this step is most difficult to be original. But when it’s for a purpose, it’s a beautifully memorable thing.
Savor the how.
The how is the part we designers love. We love making the perfect web button, figuring out how to make two letters kern perfectly, making the whole design align perfectly to the golden ratio, or coordinating the perfect color palette. This is the part we all yearn to accomplish. This is the craft we stay up late perfecting, what we went to school for, and why we spend hours going through tutorials trying to hone our understanding and abilities. We love to be able to create, but we need a purpose to do so.
It is my favorite part of design. But that’s only the case when I understand the why, when the what has been clearly defined, and I’ve got to figure out the how. But I can’t tell you how many times people have said they want something they saw on television or in a magazine but have no idea what their vision is. They like the what of something, but don’t think through the how that accomplished their goal. It makes them just a purposeless copycat.
The framework works.
We have to question everything we do, because we want to do it with purpose, with a goal in mind, and execute with excellence. We have to figure out why we’re doing it, and make sure our vision for it is defined and carrying a great message that we get to communicate. We have to figure out what it is that will work best, and then the fun part of how to create it falls into place.
We have to remember not to jump to the what first, but unearth the why that gives meaning to what we’re doing. Once those two are in place, it’s then that we can bask in the process of how to make the what without having to question why we’re there.The why keeps you on course. It’s your constitution that you can always go back to and remember the purpose of why you’re working so hard. The what is your goal that you’re aiming for, it’s the perfect execution of the vision with a beautiful presentation. The how is the route you’ll take, the skills you’ll use, and the process you’ll follow to make that goal come to life. Because, after all, we creatives love to create with purpose.
Keeping this framework in order is not just the best way, but for me it’s the only way. Trying to give vision to something that’s visionless is rarely (if ever) a true success. Trying to figure out how to design something without a goal is inefficient and frustrating. In fact it’s in that lack of vision where the lie of “creative block” stems from.
Knowing why you’re doing something can unify you and those you’re working with, because only then are you all in it for the same win. Don’t get me wrong. There will be hard work. But knowing why you are working hard makes it so worth it.