Why Put the Why Before the What

“We need a flier (brochure, website, logo),” is how most design projects are initiated. That’s when the possibilities start to dissolve.

Maybe it’s a mandate from on high.

Maybe it’s what you’ve done every year.

Maybe you hope the flier will clarify what you want to accomplish. But that’s backwards.

Even when you really know you need a website or an annual report or an event logo, you should first ask why.

A brochure or a flier is merely a form — the what. They are just vehicles for your message.

The form could be writing in the sky.

The form could be a wine and cheese party with a presentation.

The form could be a short video.

Don’t limit the possibilities by starting with the what. Since you (as the client) are always right, you might get just what you ask for. But the most beautiful flier in the world can’t make up for the lack of why.

Even if you do describe the function as well as naming the form, you still risk thinking in limiting terms. You’ll always see a flier as a two-sided piece of paper folded in thirds. You’ll always see an annual report as an accounting of numbers. Maybe the flier can also be a lampshade. Maybe the annual report can also be an invitation (invitation in a broad sense, not a literal event).

Start with why. Now there’s potential for surprise or clever reuse or delight.

This new approach has a built-in problem though. What exactly do you ask for? How do you budget for why rather than what? How can you ask for a cost estimate if there’s no what to describe?

It requires a shift in thinking.

You’ll see design as a way of thinking, a problem-solving tool — not an end in itself, a poster or a website. This shift in thinking might cause you to hire different people, to ask different questions, to engage in a different way than you had before.

The end result might still be a logo, but now you’ll see the logo not as colors and fonts but as a container for your values and aspirations in a way you hadn’t before.

Designer Yves Behar of FuseProject told an interesting story at a sustainable design conference called Compostmodern. As a partnering design firm with Puma, he and his design team noticed that the plastic sleeves that t-shirts arrived in from the manufacturer could be folded just one more time, making the plastic sleeve smaller, thereby reducing waste and saving Puma tons of money. This was able to happen because of the unique relationship between the design firm and Puma that gave designers access to the inner workings of the company.

This ingeniously simple solution came about by chance and because the why was about a sustainability, not about redesigning t-shirts.

On your next project, let the form remain a blank slate until you’re really sure what the function is.

See related posts:

The Tree of So-So? Or the Forest of Effective.

Design Briefs: Don’t Get Caught Without Them

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(Image credit: Flickr / Amanda Wood, under a Creative Commons license)