September 29, 2023

The Middle Piece

I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with design system leads lately who all seem to be stuck on a specific task. Each of them felt they hadn’t been able to crack the solution to a problem they just knew was the next thing on their list. I could hear the frustration in their voices—they were genuinely hoping I could just solve the problem for them (it’s not that simple, of course, and they know this).

Instead of trying to guess at some potential solution for them, I’ve been suggesting a little tidbit I picked up in Rick Rubin’s book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Here’s the paragraph (p. 174) that most succinctly explains his approach:

If you’re holding a center puzzle piece in your hand and staring at an empty tabletop, it’s difficult to determine where to place it. If all of the puzzle is complete except for that one piece, then you know exactly where it goes. The same is generally true of art. The more of the work you can see, the easier it becomes to gracefully place the final details clearly where they belong.

What an insightful analogy. We often think of building a product (and I’m lumping design systems into product” here) as a very linear exercise. First we do this, then we do this, then we do that. Certainly, there are dependencies that come into play. However, I think many times we get so focused on a single task that we can’t see the bigger picture. In those moments, perhaps try stepping back from the problem and looking for other areas to make progress. That will only make the picture clearer. Coming back to a particularly difficult problem after having solved others around it gives you more context with which to tackle that tough one.

Mr. Rubin speaks and writes mostly about art. Design systems are not art—though some of the folks I work with are artists in the way they approach their systems thinking. Even so, there are so many lessons I’m learning from experts in other fields (like Rick!) that are helping me in my coaching work with design system leads. Let me know if you’d like to collaborate in this way.

Stay in learning mode.


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