Being Legible

🗓 March 31, 2023


In Episode 533 of the Changelog, Filippo Valsorda, a professional open source maintainer, brought up the idea of being “legible”. He does a great job of explaining legibility as it applies to open source in the episode. Essentially, Filippo identifies that one of the problems with the OSS funding model is that would be backer companies lack the operational systems and procedures needed to "donate" or "sponsor" maintainers. These concepts are simply foreign to them.

He advocates that maintainers should work to make themselves more "legible". In OSS, this might mean that instead of asking for sponsorship (and getting nowhere) that maintainers find ways to become vendors. Afterall, big companies have decades worth of procurement infrastructure. Setting up a new vendor is easy for them because the process exists... while punching a credit card into a Github Sponsor page is too foreign a concept.

Legible to Everyone

This idea stuck out to me, as I think it applies to most interpersonal and team communications.

To be legible is to communicate on the terms of the receiver, to use their tools and artifacts to get your point across.

An Example

Here is a simple, but hopefully illustrative example of how this works in practice.

Some customer feedback came through that inspired me to think about building a new web product. To validate the idea I had 1:1 conversations with our Head of Design and VP of Engineering respectively. Obviously these 2 have different roles and tools that they use to execute. In both conversations I was presenting the value proposition and evaluating the level of effort, but the framing and discourse was vastly different in order to be legible to each party.

With Design, we focused on heavily on the visual layout and information architecture of the app. We quickly tossed together some rough visual designs and got on the same page.

With VPE, we dove right into the code. We talked about scalability, data persistence and what existing abstractions we could use to quickly spin up a solution.

Very different conversations... but about the same topic, with the same goal, and same outcome.

Being Legible is Unselfish

Presenting things in terms that the recipient can understand is unselfish. It forces you to look at your idea from the angle of another (presumably important) stakeholder and will ultimately strengthen your case. If doing so surfaces flaws in your thinking, well that is a success... sure up that part of the idea until it makes sense on someone else's terms.