Closeup of a lego contraption

Imagining and building

Published 2019-03-15
This is one of my favorite blog posts

I’m working on a project right now with a UX designer who is way better than I am. She can think through use cases really thoroughly. I realized this is actually a failure of imagination on my part. And maybe a core personality difference between “designers” and “developers.”

My entire career is about dancing on the line between “designer” and “developer.” But there always comes a point where I can’t finish “designing” something in my head. I have to start building it to find the edges. My colleague can imagine the whole damn thing.

The other thing I realized, sometime in my 30s: I’m not actually the imaginative, original person that I always imagined myself to be. I like building, but truth be told, I gain more satisfaction working from the instructions than I do hacking together something original. That realization was when I became 100% OK with my personality.

I’m using scare quotes here because I think labels like “designer” and “developer” are reductive. But they are convenient! If you work in the webby/computery world you can picture those roles pretty clearly. Maybe a more accurate formulation would be to switch between two modes: imagining and building.

You imagine a thing when you build it in your head. The more thorough your imagination, the better you can build it. Tools like documentation or mockups allow you to express your mental build to other people.

You build a thing when you express an imagined object in a way that can be manipulated directly. I’m lucky in that I work in a world where it’s relatively trivial to un/rebuild something if it were imagined poorly. This would not be so simple if I were an electrician.

My gift/curse is that I know enough about building (i.e. coding) that the mental energy to imagine (more accurately: produce documentation or mockups) is roughly cognate to the mental energy to build. Either way, I’m building something from my head, using computers. Do I computer-build the head-thing in Sketch, as mockups? Or do I computer-build the head-thing in Vim, as a website? I am exactly lazy enough to only want to build it once — in code.

This all seems like a gift, right? I think the curse part is that I can’t easily hold the Gestalt of the head-thing, in the same manner as my colleague. So I miss edges she can imagine. And by the same token, she can more completely express it for someone who is more competent at building — an advantage, for example, when working with a vendor or remote team.