One of my favorite forms of online content is when someone finds an interesting, obscure story from the past and manages to extract a lesson that’s widely applicable today.

I like to think of it as something like fan fiction: we, as individuals, retcon and re-tell stories from the past to help us make sense of the present.

Elan Ullendorff published a great example of this recently in a piece called Should this be a map or 500 maps?

It features the story of a king in 18th century Spain who ordered a geographer to create a map. The geographer attempted to delegate this work by asking the priests of towns across the country to create maps of their own provinces.

The idea was to put all of the maps together in the end, but because there was no standardization, all of the maps were created in entirely different forms. Those forms are beautiful! But ultimately not useful as an actual map.

Rather than seeing this as a failure, Elan asks us to consider the things we might be losing when we impose structure, standardization, and process. We might have gained a useful map, but we would have lost the creative perspective that each of the pieces represents.

I’m obsessed with this story because it gets at a dynamic embedded within everything designed that we rarely think about. Once you notice it, it is present in almost every conversation, at every aperture and zoom level: modularity is inversely correlated to expressiveness.

This hit me like a rock, in no small part because of my career focus of choice: design systems.

Fortunately, Elan goes on to reassure me:

I am someone that preaches expressiveness to a fault, but the truth is that I make decisions to scale all the time. I don’t necessarily see this as a compromise of values. There is beauty in trying to express something specific; there is beauty too in finding compromises to create something epic and collective.

Hear hear.