David Heinemeier Hansson

May 20, 2024

Beautiful motivations

Programmers are often skeptical of aesthetics because they frequently associate it with veneering. A thin sheen of flashy marketing design covering up for a rotten or deficient product. Something that looks good from afar, but reveals itself to be a disappointing imitation up close. They're right to be skeptical. Cheap veneers are the worst. But discarding the value of aesthetic on behalf of cheap imitations is a mistake.

Not just because truly beautiful objects and concepts inevitably reveal a deeper and designed experience. That's the whole "I'm writing you a long letter because I didn't have time to write you a short one". Making something beautiful takes extra steps. Steps that are commonly also associated with extra care the rest of the creation.

No, the primary reason I appreciate aesthetics so much is its power to motivate. And motivation is the rare fuel that powers all the big leaps I've ever taken in my career and with my projects and products. It's not time, it's even attention. It's motivation. And I've found that nothing quite motivates me like using and creating beautiful things.

I don't think that would come as any surprise to people of the past. The history of creation is in part a tale of pursuing beautiful outcomes and rewards. But in our age, we've managed to deconstruct and problematize so much of what is self-evidently beautiful that it's harder to take the chase for granted.

It's in the context of this age that I labor for programmers to rediscover beauty. Beautiful code, beautiful patterns, beautiful tools. Not to create a single, monoculture of aesthetics. That's never going to happen. But to elevate the work of making things look not just good, but sublime. To revel in it, to celebrate it.

And beauty isn't binary. It's the journey of a thousand little decisions and investments in making something marginally prettier than it was before. To resist the urge to just make it work, and not stop until you make it shine. Not for anyone else, even, although others will undoubtedly appreciate your care. But for yourself, your own motivation, and your own mission.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.