Design Principles are for Messes


As people that have worked with me can attest I tend to stongly advocate for adhering to design principles. While I don’t think I’ve been called a purist I have been described by one team as “uncompromising” and I periodically encounter detractors who aver that such pursuits are more ideological than practical but most of the time these voices seem to be missing the most integral virtue of such designs…well structured design is not about trying to do everything right but rather to allow for things to go wrong. I typically phrase this as “good design is knowing how to contain your messes”.

Sooner or later something is going to slip - there may be any combination of time pressure, inexperience, ignorance, or sometimes even indifference (which may not be an immediate problem if the functionality has an uncertain future) that results in work that is less than desired but good design provides a means to stop any malfeasance from spreading. In addition to suffering from a possible broken window effect, if practices are not contained by design then some future work may end up intentionally or accidentally building on top of it, and suddenly what may have been a short term compromise lodges itself deeply into business logic and may become one of those ever-widening house of cards that no one wants to touch until it’s one of the legacy monsters that torments the poor soul that is stuck trying to maintain it.

If the intent were to pursue doing everything right then many such designs wouldn’t be necessary to begin with. Such principles are typically about making the systems easier and safer to change with the acknowledgement that such change is likely and the cause of that work is not having done things quite right. In addition to allowing for the system to evolve, if everything were done right then softer concerns such as comprehensibility could likely be addressed through documentation. Such a model ultimately worked for TeX so it’s certainly a viable one in some cases.

For most of the rest of the world that are dealing with trying to deliver nebulous business needs to a constantly changing environment with time pressures it seems reasonable to not only expect but to embrace the need to make some sacrifices here and there, and good design allows for any such compromises to be applied tactically and *managed over time.