Work on the Structure

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656)
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1656)

Sometime during my school years, I learned how to write an outline. We’d been tasked with writing an essay. Our teacher showed us that we could either write from start to finish or think about what we wanted to write first. By considering the main points first, and what sequence they should be in, our essays would be more coherent and compelling.

It was hard. Putting words down as they came to us seemed easier; this outline business slowed us down. I resisted at first. With time, as we were assigned longer writing projects, the benefits of outlining became clearer. Writing an outline allowed us to see we were missing important points or had them in the wrong sequence. Outlining also helped us face the fact there were things about our subjects we didn’t yet understand; we had to do more research.

I re-learned the lesson of outlining during my final year of university when I took an elective oil painting studio course. I’d dabbled with different painting media throughout my life, and had always thought of oils as “grown-up” paints. I was excited to learn how to do it.

But our professor had other tasks for us before we could paint. First, we had to learn about the studio space: setting up easels, cleaning our workstations and tools, proper lighting, etc. We also had to learn to stretch and prime canvases. These “menial” tasks gave us an appreciation for both the ground we’d be working on and the context where it happened.

We eventually got around to painting. To my surprise, we didn’t start by laying down paint. Instead, our professor showed us how to use charcoal to sketch the structure of the image: its overall composition and underlying geometry, areas of shadow and light, etc. When we finally started applying paint, we did so in large, unfocused swaths. The image’s details would come later, in layers. But in the beginning, we only used our broadest brushes.

As with outlining, I resisted at first. I was impatient, and this prep work seemed like a waste of time. I wanted to get to the “good” stuff — whether writing and painting — ASAP. Even at this late stage, I hadn’t yet realized that the stuff won’t be good without a strong foundation. In both cases, the foundation was the work’s structure.

Working on the structure requires thinking about what parts need to be there and how they’ll come together to make a whole. It requires having a sense of what the work will be about at a high level. The structure creates a bridge between a vague image in our minds, the blank canvas (or sheet of paper), and a product that can surprise us and others. Far from wasting time, a strong structure makes creative work faster and easier and produces better results.

But it’s a counter-intuitive lesson. Working on structure (and the research it entails) can feel like spinning wheels. In business, especially, there’s always a sense of urgency. Stakeholders want to know “when we’re getting to see screens.” But unless you’re dealing with a small project, jumping too quickly to high-fidelity artifacts is a mistake. It’s essential to think first about the work’s purpose, its key components, and how the relationships between those components will help achieve the purpose.

This doesn’t mean the structure will be perfect upfront; it won’t. There’s much you don’t know at the beginning. That’s OK. You’ll tweak as you test and iterate. But it’s much easier to spot and fix structural problems before stakeholders have signed off on details. By fixing significant issues early on, you’ll build upon a solid foundation. You can’t do that by beginning with the details. Start with the structure instead.

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