Architects, gardeners, and design systems

I compared design systems to dictionaries. My point was that design systems—like language—can be approached in a prescriptivist or descriptivist manner. And I favour descriptivism.

A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Meanwhile, over on Frank’s website, he’s been documenting the process of its (re)design. He made an interesting comparison in his post Redesign: Gardening vs. Architecture. He talks about two styles of writing:

In interviews, Martin has compared himself to a gardener—forgoing detailed outlines and overly planned plot points to favor ideas and opportunities that spring up in the writing process. You see what grows as you write, then tend to it, nurture it. Each tendrilly digression may turn into the next big branch of your story. This feels right: good things grow, and an important quality of growth is that the significant moments are often unanticipated.

On the other side of writing is who I’ll call “the architect”—one who writes detailed outlines for plots and believes in the necessity of overt structure. It puts stock in planning and foresight. Architectural writing favors divisions and subdivisions, then subdivisions of the subdivisions. It depends on people’s ability to move forward by breaking big things down into smaller things with increasing detail.

It’s not just me, right? It all sounds very design systemsy, doesn’t it?

This is a false dichotomy, of course, but everyone favors one mode of working over the other. It’s a matter of personality, from what I can tell.

Replace “personality” with “company culture” and I think you’ve got an interesting analysis of the two different approaches to design systems. Descriptivist gardening and prescriptivist architecture.

Frank also says something that I think resonates with the evergreen debate about whether design systems stifle creativity:

It can be hard to stay interested if it feels like you’re painting by numbers, even if they are your own numbers.

I think Frank’s comparison—gardeners and architects—also speaks to something bigger than design systems…

I gave a talk last year called Building. You can watch it, listen to it, or read the transcript if you like. The talk is about language (sort of). There’s nothing about prescriptivism or descriptivism in there, but there’s lots about metaphors. I dive into the metaphors we use to describe our work and ourselves: builders, engineers, and architects.

It’s rare to find job titles like software gardener, or information librarian (even though they would be just as valid as other terms we’ve made up like software engineer or information architect). Outside of the context of open source projects, we don’t talk much about maintenance. We’re much more likely to talk about making.

Back in 2015, Debbie Chachra wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly called Why I Am Not a Maker:

When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.

Anyone who’s spent any time working on design systems can tell you there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for architecture and making—“let’s build a library of components!”

There’s less enthusiasm for gardening, care, communication and maintenance. But that’s where the really important work happens.

In her article, Debbie cites Ethan’s touchstone:

In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish.

(Emphasis mine.)

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Humans aren’t always great at efficiency and consistency, but machines are. Automation increases efficiency and consistency, sacrificing messy humanity along the way:

Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children.

Historically, we’ve seen automation in terms of physical labour—dock workers, factory workers, truck drivers. As far as I know, none of those workers participated in the creation of their mechanical successors. But when it comes to our work on the web, we’re positively eager to create the systems to make us redundant.

The usual response to this is the one given to other examples of automation: you’ll be free to spend your time in a more meaningful way. With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.

You’ve heard the joke about the factory of the future, right? The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.

Good joke.

Everybody laugh.

Roll on snare drum.

Curtains.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Ethan Marcotte

i’d been working on this blog entry for weeks and……………you just blurted it out

Sameera

Enjoyed this so much. I’ve been thinking a lot about adoption and maintenance in a system I’m working on now, as well as I talk I’m planning. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

# Posted by Sameera on Wednesday, January 29th, 2020 at 5:10pm

Jordan Moore

This is great Jeremy. You’ve found words for things I’ve struggled to put into words and found new pathways of thinking that I hadn’t thought about before. The last paragraph in particular resonates with some incomplete thoughts I had scribbled down earlier this week:

Nick Dunn

So much nodding. (Random aside, this too https://t.co/U1VqkSxSNh)

# Posted by Nick Dunn on Thursday, January 30th, 2020 at 6:50am

Petch

“With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.” adactio.com/journal/16369

# Posted by Petch on Friday, January 31st, 2020 at 3:57am

ruymanfm

“The factory of the future will have just 2 living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.” Interesante post de @adactio: Architects, gardeners & Design Systems adactio.com/journal/16369

# Posted by ruymanfm on Tuesday, February 4th, 2020 at 11:39am

Mark Rickerby

“The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.“ adactio.com/journal/16369

Evan Travers

Books Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

I’ve been slogging at this one for a bit… the first part is basically an extended version of the same story from Deep Work, but then eventually it opens up into a compelling series of arguments to detach from screen addiction and embrace a healthy and vigorous personal leisure time. I enjoyed it, after I got through the first third.

Links The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it

Often the concise description of the problem is the solution. It can of course be improved, but not bad for two minutes of work. But it only works if people feel they have autonomy and are a part of a cohesive team. Otherwise, they’ll go rogue.

This is a great design system pulse check for where we are as an industry.

Read more…

The smart phone as pacifier - Marginal REVOLUTION

In other words, in a sense, smartphones are not unlike adult pacifiers. This psychological comfort arises from a unique combination of properties that turn smartphones into a reassuring presence for their owners: the portability of the device, its personal nature, the subjective sense of privacy experienced while on the device, and the haptic gratification it affords.

Well, this is terrifying.

Read more…

Being a Noob

But if the feeling of being a noob is good for us, why do we dislike it? What […] purpose could such an aversion serve?

Read more…

Architects, gardeners, and design systems

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of scientific management are the same as those of design systems increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Ouch.

Read more…

Innovation Can’t Keep the Web Fast | CSS-Tricks

If we’re to make progress in making a faster web for everyone, we must recognize some of the impediments to that goal:

  • The relentless desire to monetize every square inch of the web, as well as the army of third party vendors which fuel the research mandated by such fevered efforts.
  • Workplace cultures that favor unrestrained feature-driven development. This practice adds to but rarely takes away from what we cram down the wire to users.
  • Developer conveniences that make the job of the developer easier, but can place an increasing cost on the client

Read more…

A new technique for making responsive, JavaScript-free charts

This is pretty doggone rad. What a unique way of doing charts… I wonder how performant it is with multiple charts on the page?

Read more…

Twitter Thread from @skuwamoto on the line between product manager and product designer

This is a question me and my colleagues have been wrestling over for a while… this thread has a lot of great resources and thoughts.

Read more…

Building an accessible autocomplete control by Adam Silver | Designer, London, UK.

This is a great resource for building a typeahead or autocomplete. I especially like he walks you through it step by step, explaining both the reasoning and the code.

He even has a good demo here.

Read more…

Git the Princess!

I love toggl and this delightful comic only makes it better.

H/T to @codinghorror

Read more…

Design systems roundup

Given how many wonderful thinkers have weighed in on this topic in the past few weeks I’m sure you’ve seen this, but it’s a great resource.

There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

Read more…

Why recursion matters, part 1: proof by induction – The If Works

In Douglas Hofstadter’s classic book Gödel, Escher, Bach , the philosopher Zenointroduces his famous paradox by saying: Not the wind, not the flag—neither one…

Read more…

The design systems we swim in. — ethanmarcotte.com

Which brings me back to my earlier question: when was the last time a design system empowered you to make a decision about the best way to proceed?

Read more…

Setting Up Your Webcam, Lights, and Audio for Remote Work, Podcasting, Videos, and Streaming

Great resource for anyone with regular internet calls.

(H/T to @chevinbrown for the link)

Read more…

CEO By Day. Internet Sleuth By Night.

Recently, I was up until midnight one night after I put my kids to bed, just sitting there and doing research for no reason into the origins of a particular quote.

And at the end of it, I found an answer that I don’t think anyone else in the world has ever found. And that’s fun.

As a rampant consumer of readily available information, this dedication to go deeper, to uncover the truth is intriguing and somewhat convicting to me.

Read more…

Why I Quit Google to Work for Myself

February 28, 2018 12-minute read For the past four years, I’ve worked as a software developer at Google. On February 1st, I quit.

This is a good warning to those who think an ‘unbiased fair system’ can replace a healthy line of communication about work and how people should be rewarded.

I proudly and lovingly nursed the pipeline back to health. I fixed dozens of bugs and wrote automated tests to make sure they wouldn’t reappear. I deleted thousands of lines of code that were either dead or could be replaced by modern libraries. I documented the pipeline as I learned it so that the institutional knowledge was available to my teammates instead of siloed in my head.

The problem, as I discovered at promotion time, was that none of this was quantifiable. I couldn’t prove that anything I did had a positive impact on Google.

Yikes.

Read more…

How to Take Smart Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide - Nat Eliason

The core idea of Smart Notes is that purely extracting highlights is generally a waste of time. A highlight speaks to you when you take it, but if you don’t capture the idea that the highlight gave you, you’re unlikely to remember the importance of that highlight later. Or even if you do feel some spark when revisiting the highlight, it might be a different interpretation.

If you’ve ever looked back at your book highlights and thought to yourself, “why did I highlight this?” then you know what problem we’re solving here. And if you don’t already take book highlights, even better! You’re going to dramatically level up your reading comprehension and retention.

That’s the cleanest description of the capturing part of zettelkasten I have ever encountered.

Read more…

You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus

COVID-19 is already reported to have killed more than twice that number. With its potent mix of characteristics, this virus is unlike most that capture popular attention: It is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways. Last week, 14 Americans tested positive on a cruise ship in Japan despite feeling fine the new virus may be most dangerous because, it seems, it may sometimes cause no symptoms at all.

The assertion that this virus could just be uncontained and we’d have a COVID-19 season next to flu and cold season is kind of frightening. God is in control of all things, but it is worrisome.

Read more…

How to Dox Yourself on the Internet

A step-by-step guide to finding and removing your personal information from the internet.

I’m probably going to need this eventually.

Read more…

Zoey Nguyen

“With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.” adactio.com/journal/16369

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Previously on this day

2 years ago I wrote GDPR and Google Analytics

Do you have permission for those third-party scripts?

8 years ago I wrote Eighteen

Pausing to give thanks.

9 years ago I wrote A dark star is born

We are dark stardust, we are golden, we are puppets.

11 years ago I wrote Creative Commons Q&A

15 questions on Creative Commons.

12 years ago I wrote Outbound

I’m off to San Francisco. Again.

12 years ago I wrote Regional

You can’t play that here.

15 years ago I wrote Best. News story. Ever.

In his seminal 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell outlined some simple guidelines for writing. These include:

16 years ago I wrote Just plain wrong

Seeing windows apps running on OS X kind of freaks me out but not nearly as much as seeing what this guy did to a G5:

16 years ago I wrote Airport

An iChat transcript with my friend Diarmaid who I am supposed to be meeting in Dublin right about now:

18 years ago I wrote Please don't let me be misunderstood

There’s a magazine called "Cre@teOnline" which bills itself as "The Web Designer’s Bible".