Vitruvius, Principles and Craft

Poggio Bracciolini knew it the second he flipped through the first few dusty pages.

He had spent days holed up in a Swiss monastery searching for writings that had been lost for centuries. As an avid manuscript hunter and former secretary to multiple popes, he was obsessed with finding the forgotten books of history.

But this one was big.

What he had unearthed was the only remaining copy of De Architectura, a comprehensive book on architecture by early Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius. This discovery in the 15th century and subsequent circulation in the intellectual circles of the Renaissance played a significant role in shaping the architectural principles that transformed much of early Europe. Bracciolini's finding not only influenced architects but also caught the attention of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, who was so inspired by Vitruvius's ideas on proportion and harmony in architecture and the human body. This fascination led to the creation of da Vinci's famous drawing, the "Vitruvian Man" seen in the image above.

Vitruvius was very hands-on and wrote deeply on the principles of his craft. What I find his intriguing about his ideas is that they remain directly relevant to designing things people love today, even though they were formulated over 2,000 years ago. The same ideas that sparked Da Vinci jump off the page now.

De architectura provided guidelines for constructing buildings, but Vitruvius went a layer deeper. He stated that a building must possess three essential qualities: firmitatis (stability), utilitatis (utility), and venustatis (beauty). These principles, now known as the "Vitruvian Triad," continue to be taught in architecture schools today.

Read this excerpt from Chapter 1 of *De architectura* and observe the parallels to contemporary work (emphasis is mine):

1. Architecture is a science arising out of many other sciences, and adorned with much and varied learning; by the help of which a judgment is formed of those works which are the result of other arts. Practice and theory are its parents.
Practice is the frequent and continued contemplation of the mode of executing any given work, or of the mere operation of the hands, for the conversion of the material in the best and readiest way.
Theory is the result of that reasoning which demonstrates and explains that the material wrought has been so converted as to answer the end proposed.
2. Wherefore the mere practical architect is not able to assign sufficient reasons for the forms he adopts; and the theoretic architect also fails, grasping the shadow instead of the substance. He who is theoretic as well as practical, is therefore doubly armed; able not only to prove the propriety of his design, but equally so to carry it into execution"

What an incredible piece of writing.

Vitruvius’ insights on theory and pragmatism are directly relatable to any product team today. His concept of being “doubly armed” is a reminder that theory and execution are tightly linked. Spending too much time in either camp will hinder your ability to build the right things.

I remember a project where the product team leaned in heavy into theory. They had done study after study. Deep market analysis. Interviewed every stakeholder. Applied the right frameworks. But after months nothing was actually built. This information was helpful but it was also stale – it lacked the spark that you can only get by doing. The overemphasis on theory was well-intentioned but actually increased the risk of execution.

It was out of balance.

Skip theory all together and just start building things blindly and you will miss out on the hard won experience and understanding that can help shape a better result.

Engage in pure theory and avoid shipping things and you will fail to make any meaningful progress. This will lead into "work about work" instead of the product.

Great products are the result of intention and focus. Intention blossoms with balance, being "double armed". Holding the tension of being a student of your craft while always being rooted in pragmatic execution.

So take a page from Vitruvius and evaluate if your team is striking the right balance and course correct if you are off track.

PS. If you find these principles interesting, the rest of De architectura is equally great.You can pick up a copy for cheap on Amazon. Its a fascinating read.