Let’s write shorter letters
“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
Identifying the originator of that sublime quote has been the subject of m`uch debate over the years—one that has encompassed a who’s-who list of the world’s most influential thinkers, from Voltaire to Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. This article on Quote Investigator seems to trace it back to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th Century.
Pascal’s saying sounds odd the first time you hear it, but then its premise almost immediately becomes clear: Clarity and simplicity take time. Pascal otherwise prides himself in crafting concise, informative letters to his friends and colleagues that communicate his key thoughts, waste few words, and leave little doubt about his intent. Most of the time, Pascal likely researched, scribbled, sketched, made a list, sorted his thoughts, wrote and re-wrote before putting his final version’s pen to paper. Only after all that planning and envisioning of his message does he arrive at a message that is all signal and no noise. Any information not on point was left on the cutting room floor.
However, in this one particular instance that allegedly produced the famous quote, Pascal was short on time and simply needed to start writing. The letter probably meandered a bit, was not as well organized as usual, and contained more information and ideas than the recipient really needed. It may have been difficult to sort through Pascal’s thoughts and identify his intent. For that, Pascal apologized, basically saying “I was short on time, so I had to throw in everything … Sorry about wasting a bit more of your time than I intended to.”
If Pascal lived in our modern day he’d be a big fan of Post-It™ Notes, I’m sure. Digital project managers, creatives and developers can certainly appreciate Pascal’s approach. Our research, strategy, sketching and wireframing, information architecture, and prototyping represent the “more time” that Pascal preferred to take. This is the work that comes before any design comps, or any lines of code — because it needs to come first. While design and code often seems to many as being more “tangible” progress, a well-thought-out, properly-invested-in Discovery phase involving strategy, research, mapping, and planning is the most important progress of all.
Your project’s goal is to deliver a “shorter letter” to your audience:
- an easy-to-navigate web site;
- a delightful mobile app experience;
- an efficient business software user interface;
- an infographic, data visualization or explainer that conveys complex information.
In short, without the right amount of up front planning, you may be apologizing for a hastily-delivered project being such a “long letter.”