Journal tags: design

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Design Principles For The Web—the links

I’m speaking today at an online edition of An Event Apart called Front-End Focus. I’ll be opening up the show with a talk called Design Principles For The Web, which ironically doesn’t have much of a front-end focus:

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

That explains why I’ve been writing so much about design principles …well, that and the fact that I’m mildly obsessed with them.

To avoid technical difficulties, I’ve pre-recorded the talk. So while that’s playing, I’ll be spamming the accompanying chat window with related links. Then I’ll do a live Q&A.

Should you be interested in the links that I’ll be bombarding the attendees with, I’ve gathered them here in one place (and they’re also on the website of An Event Apart). The narrative structure of the talk might not be clear from scanning down a list of links, but there’s some good stuff here that you can dive into if you want to know what the inside of my head is like.

References

adactio.com

Wikipedia

Mind the gap

In May 2012, Brian LeRoux, the creator of PhoneGap, wrote a post setting out the beliefs, goals and philosophy of the project.

The beliefs are the assumptions that inform everything else. Brian stated two core tenets:

  1. The web solved cross platform.
  2. All technology deprecates with time.

That second belief then informed one of the goals of the PhoneGap project:

The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.

Last week, PhoneGap succeeded in its goal:

Since the project’s beginning in 2008, the market has evolved and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) now bring the power of native apps to web applications.

Today, we are announcing the end of development for PhoneGap.

I think Brian was spot-on with his belief that all technology deprecates with time. I also think it was very astute of him to tie the goals of PhoneGap to that belief. Heck, it’s even in the project name: PhoneGap!

I recently wrote this about Sass and clamp:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the goal of any good library should be to get so successful as to make itself redundant. That is, the ideas and functionality provided by the tool are so useful and widely adopted that the native technologies—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—take their cue from those tools.

jQuery is the perfect example of this. jQuery is no longer needed because cross-browser DOM Scripting is now much easier …thanks to jQuery.

Successful libraries and frameworks point the way. They show what developers are yearning for, and that’s where web standards efforts can then focus. When a library or framework is no longer needed, that’s not something to mourn; it’s something to celebrate.

That’s particularly true if the library of code needs to be run by a web browser. The user pays a tax with that extra download so that the developer gets the benefit of the library. When web browsers no longer need the library in order to provide the same functionality, it’s a win for users.

In fact, if you’re providing a front-end library or framework, I believe you should be actively working towards making it obselete. Think of your project as a polyfill. If it’s solving a genuine need, then you should be looking forward to the day when your code is made redundant by web browsers.

One more thing…

I think it was great that Brian documented PhoneGap’s beliefs, goals and philosophy. This is exactly why design principles can be so useful—to clearly set out the priorities of a project, so that there’s no misunderstanding or mixed signals.

If you’re working on a project, take the time to ask yourself what assumptions and beliefs are underpinning the work. Then figure out how those beliefs influence what you prioritise.

Ultimately, the code you produce is the output generated by your priorities. And your priorities are driven by your purpose.

You can make those priorities tangible in the form of design principles.

You can make those design principles visible by publishing them.

Design sprints on the Clearleft podcast

The sixth episode of the Clearleft podcast is now live: design sprints!

It comes in at just under 24 minutes, which feels just about right to me. Once again, it’s a dive into one topic that asks “What is this?”, “What does this mean?”, and “Where did this come from?”

I could’ve invited just about any of the practitioners at Clearleft to join me on this one, but I setttled on Chris, who’s always erudite and sharp.

I also asked ex-Clearleftie Jerlyn to have a chat. You’ll notice that’s been a bit of theme on the Clearleft podcast; asking people who used to work at Clearleft to share their thoughts. I’d quite like to do at least an episode—maybe even a whole season—featuring ex-Clearlefties exclusively. So many great people have worked at the agency of the years, Jerlyn being a prime example.

I’d also like to do an episode some time with the regular contractors we’ve worked with at Clearleft. On this episode, I asked the super-smart Tom Prior to join me.

I recorded those three chats over the past couple of weeks. And it was kind of funny how there was, of course, a looming presence over the topic of design sprints: Jake Knapp. I had sent him an email too but I got an auto-responder saying that he was super busy and would take a while to respond. So I kind of mentally wrote it off.

I spent last week assembling and editing the podcast with the excellent contributions from Jerlyn, Chris, and Tom. But it did feel a bit like Waiting For Godot the way that Jake’s book was being constantly referenced.

Then, on the weekend, Godot showed up.

Jake said he’d have time for a chat on Wednesday. Aargh! That’s the release date for the podcast! I don’t suppose Monday would work?

Very graciously, Jake agreed to a Monday chat (at an ungodly early hour in his time zone). I got an excellent half hour of material straight from the horse’s mouth—a very excitable and fast-talking horse, too.

That left me with just a day to work the material into the episode! I felt like a journalist banging on the keyboard at midnight, ready to run into the printing room shouting “Stop the press!” …although I’m sure the truth is that nobody but me would notice if an episode were released a little late.

Anyway, it all got done in the end and I think it turned out pretty great!

Have a listen for yourself and see what you make of it.

This was the final episode of the first season. I’ll now take a little break from podcasting as I plot and plan for the next season. Watch this space! …and, y’know, subscribe to the podcast.

Design maturity on the Clearleft podcast

The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is zipping through the RSS tubes towards your podcast-playing software of choice. This is episode five, the penultimate episode of this first season.

This time the topic is design maturity. Like the episode on design ops, this feels like a hefty topic where the word “scale” will inevitably come up.

I talked to my fellow Clearlefties Maite and Andy about their work on last year’s design effectiveness report. But to get the big-scale picture, I called up Aarron over at Invision.

What a great guest! I already had plans to get Aarron on the podcast to talk about his book, Designing For Emotion—possibly a topic for next season. But for the current episode, we didn’t even mention it. It was design maturity all the way.

I had a lot of fun editing the episode together. I decided to intersperse some samples. If you’re familiar with Bladerunner and Thunderbirds, you’ll recognise the audio.

The whole thing comes out at a nice 24 minutes in length.

Have a listen and see what you make of it.

Design ops on the Clearleft podcast

The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is out. If you’re a subscriber, it will magically appear in your podcast software of choice using the power of RSS. If you’re not a subscriber, it isn’t too late to change that.

This week’s episode is all about design ops. I began contructing the episode by gathering raw material from talks at Leading Design. There’s good stuff from Kim Fellman, Jacqui Frey, Courtney Kaplan, and Meredith Black.

But as I was putting the snippets together, I felt like the episode was missing something. It needed a bit of oomph. So I harangued Andy for some of his time. I wasn’t just fishing for spicy hot takes—something that Andy is known for. Andy is also the right person to explain design ops. If you search for that term, one of the first results you’ll get is a post he wrote on the Clearleft blog a few years back called Design Ops — A New Discipline.

I remember helping Andy edit that post and I distinctly recall my feedback. The initial post didn’t have a definition of the term, and I felt that a definition was necessary (and Andy added one to the post).

My cluenessness about the meaning of terms like “design ops” or “service design” isn’t some schtick I’m putting on for the benefit of the podcast. I’m genuinely trying to understand these terms better. I don’t like the feeling of hearing a term being used a lot without a clear understanding of what that term means. All too often my understanding feels more like “I think I know it means, but I’m not sure I could describe it.” I’m not comfortable with that.

Making podcast episodes on these topics—which are outside my comfort zone—has been really helpful. I now feel like I have a much better understanding of service design, design ops and other topical terms. I hope that the podcast will be just as helpful for listeners who feel as bamboozled as I do.

Ben Holliday recently said:

The secret of design being useful in many places is not talking about design too much and just getting on with it. I sometimes think we create significant language barriers with job titles, design theory and making people learn a new language for the privilege of working with us.

I think there’s some truth to that. Andy disagrees. Strongly.

In our chat, Andy and I had what politicians would describe as “a robust discussion.” I certainly got some great material for the podcast (though some of the more contentious bits remain on the cutting room floor).

Calling on Andy for this episode was definitely the right call. I definitely got the added oomph I was looking for. In fact, this ended up being one of my favourite episodes.

There’s a lot of snappy editing, all in service of crafting a compelling narrative. First, there’s the origin story of design ops. Then there’s an explanation of what it entails. From around the 13 minute mark, there’s a pivot—via design systems—into asking whether introducing a new term is exclusionary. That’s when the sparks start to fly. Finally, I pull it back to talking about how Clearleft can help in providing design ops as a service.

The whole episode comes out at 21 minutes, which feels just right to me.

I’m really pleased with how this episode turned out, and I hope you’ll like it too. Have a listen and decide for yourself.

Wildlife Photographer Of The Year on the Clearleft podcast

Episode three of the Clearleft podcast is here!

This one is a bit different. Whereas previous episodes focused on specific topics—design systems, service design—this one is a case study. And, wow, what a case study! The whole time I was putting the episode together, I kept thinking “The team really did some excellent work here.”

I’m not sure what makes more sense: listen to the podcast episode first and then visit the site in question …or the other way around? Maybe the other way around. In which case, be sure to visit the website for Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.

That’s right—Clearleft got to work with London’s Natural History Museum! A real treat.

Myself and @dhuntrods really enjoyed our visit to the digitisation department in the Natural History Museum. Thanks, Jen, Josh, Robin, Phaedra, and @scuff_el!

This episode of the podcast ended up being half an hour long. It should probably be shorter but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the insights that Helen, James, Chris, and Trys were sharing. I’m probably too close to the subject matter to be objective about it. I’m hoping that others will find it equally fascinating to hear about the process of the project. Research! Design! Dev! This has got it all.

I had a lot of fun with the opening of the episode. I wanted to create a montage effect like the scene-setting opening of a film that has overlapping news reports. I probably spent far too long doing it but I’m really happy with the final result.

And with this episode, we’re halfway through the first season of the podcast already! I figured a nice short run of six episodes is enough to cover a fair bit of ground and give a taste of what the podcast is aiming for, without it turning into an overwhelming number of episodes in a backlog for you to catch up with. Three down and three to go. Seems manageable, right?

Anyway, enough of the backstory. If you haven’t already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should do that. Then do these three things in whichever order you think works best:

Service design on the Clearleft podcast

If you’re subscribed to the Clearleft podcast there’s a new episode winging its way across the airwaves to alight in your podcast software of choice.

This episode is all about service design. More precisely, it’s about me trying to understand what service design is. I don’t think I’m alone in being unsure of its meaning.

So in some ways, this is similar to the first episode, which involved a lot me asking “What exactly is a design system anyway?” But for the service design episode, rather than using interviews as my source material, I’ve dug into the archives of UX London. There are past talks on Clearleft’s Vimeo channel. I made plenty of use of presentations by Kerry Bodine, Jamin Hegeman, and Lou Downe.

That worked out well, but I felt there was still something missing from the episode. It needed a good story to wrap things up. So I cornered Rich for a chat about a project Clearleft worked on for Brighton council. That did the trick!

Again, there’s not much of me in this one. I’m there to thread the narrative together but my voice is not the one doing the explaining or the story-telling.

The episode ended up being almost half an hour long. Like I said before, rather than trying to squeeze each episode into a predefined timeslot, each episode will be as long as needs to be. And this one needed the time for Rich to tell his story.

Ooh, and I even tried adding in some sound effects during that part! It probably just sounds cheesy, but I’m still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, have a listen to this episode and see what you think. It’s got dead badgers, Downton Abbey, icebergs, and airplanes. Service design really does encompass a lot!

Putting design principles into action

I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.

At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.

I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.

You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:

In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).

My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.

When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.

I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:

Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.

There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Or Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.

It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:

Because of observation A, apply action B.

For example:

Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.

Or in its full form:

Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:

The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.

For example, even though devices, browsers, and networks are much, much better now than they were, say, ten years ago, that doesn’t mean that websites have become better or faster. Instead, it’s precisely because there’s more power available that people think nothing of throwing megabytes of JavaScript at users. See Scott’s theory that 5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe:

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:

Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.

Design systems on the Clearleft podcast

If you’ve already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, thank you! The first episode is sliding into your podcast player of choice.

This episode is all about …design systems!

I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, although as it’s the first one, I’m sure I’ll learn how to do this better. I may end up looking back at this first foray with embarrassment. Still, it’s fairly representative of what you can expect from the rest of the season.

This episode is fairly short. Just under eighteen minutes. That doesn’t mean that other episodes will be the same length. Each episode will be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Form follows function, or in this case, episode length follows content. Other episodes will be longer. Some might be shorter. It all depends on the narrative.

This flies in the face of accepted wisdom when it comes to podcasting. The watchword that’s repeated again and again for aspiring podcasters is consistency. Release on a consistent schedule and have a consistent length for episodes. I kind of want to go against that advice just out of sheer obstinancy. If I end up releasing episodes on a regular schedule, treat it as coincidence rather than consistency.

There’s not much of me in this episode. And there won’t be much of me in most episodes. I’m just there to thread together the smart soundbites coming from other people. In this episode, the talking heads are my colleagues Jon and James, along with my friends and peers Charlotte, Paul, and Amy (although there’s a Clearleft connection with all of them: Charlotte and Paul used to be Clearlefties, and Amy spoke at Patterns Day and Sofa Conf).

I spoke to each of them for about an hour, but like I said, the entire episode is less than eighteen minutes long. The majority of our conversations ended up on the cutting room floor (possibly to be used in future episodes).

Most of my time was spent on editing. It was painstaking, but rewarding. There’s a real pleasure to be had in juxtaposing two snippets of audio, either because they echo one another or because they completely contradict one another. This episode has a few examples of contradictions, and I think those are my favourite moments.

Needless to say, eighteen minutes was not enough time to cover everything about design systems. Quite the opposite. It’s barely an introduction. This is definitely a topic that I’ll be returning to. Maybe there could even be a whole season on design systems. Let me know what you think.

Oh, and you’ll notice that there’s a transcript for the episode. That’s a no-brainer. I’m a big fan of the spoken word, but it really comes alive when it’s combined with searchable, linkable, accessible text.

Anyway, have a listen and if you’re not already subscribed, pop the RSS feed into your podcast player.

Announcing the Clearleft podcast

I’ve been working on something new for the past few months and now I’d like to share it with you…

The Clearleft Podcast.

Now I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there enough podcasts in the world already? Well, frankly, no. Unless you also concede that there are enough books and records and films in the world already too (to be fair, this is a reasonable thought to have when you’re navigating Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix).

In any case, this podcast is going to be a bit different.

In our field, the usual podcast format is in the form of a conversation: a host or hosts interviewing a guest or guests. Those are great. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the guest on many a great podcast. But I wanted to do something a bit more like an audio documentary.

If you’ve seen a lot of documentaries you’ll know that there are two key factors to getting a great story:

  1. the source material and
  2. the editing.

That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.

For the source material, I’ve interviewed my colleagues at Clearleft as well as our peers in other companies. I’ve also gathered great material from conference talks—we’ve got a wealth of wonderful insights from multiple editions of events like UX London, Leading Design, Ampersand, Responsive Day Out, Patterns Day, and dConstruct.

A lot of work has gone into the editing. It probably works out at about an hour of work per minute of podcast. I know that seems excessive, but I really wanted to get a snappy feel for each episode, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints.

The focus of the episode will be around a particular topic rather than a person and will feature lots of different voices woven together. The really challenging part is threading a good narrative. It’s kind of like preparing a conference talk in that respect—I’ve always found the narrative thread to be the hardest but most rewarding part of putting a talk together.

It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking to put this out into the world. But I think you’re going to enjoy it.

Visit the website for the podcast and choose your preferred method of subscribing. There’s the RSS feed, but the Clearleft podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, and Overcast.

The first episode will go live later this week. In the meantime, there’s a short trailer to give you a taste of what’s to come.

The episodes will be grouped together into seasons. I reckon a season will around six episodes long. So you can expect the first season to be released over the next six weeks.

Hope you like it!

podcast.clearleft.com

Dark mode revisited

I added a dark mode to my website a while back. It was a fun thing to do during Indie Web Camp Amsterdam last year.

I tied the colour scheme to the operating system level. If you choose a dark mode in your OS, my website will adjust automatically thanks to the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.

But I’ve seen notes from a few friends, not about my site specifically, but about how they like having an explicit toggle for dark mode (as well as the media query). Whenever I read those remarks, I’d think “I’m really not sure I’ve got time to deal with adding that kind of toggle to my site.”

But then I realised, “Jeremy, you absolute muffin! You’ve had a theme switcher on your website for almost two decades now!”

Doh! I had forgotten about that theme switcher. It dates back to the early days of CSS. I wanted my site to be a demonstration of how you could apply different styles to the same underlying markup (this was before the CSS Zen Garden came along). Those themes are very dated now, but if you like you can view my site with a Zeldman theme or a sci-fi theme.

To offer a dark-mode theme for my site, all I had to do was take the default stylesheet, pull out the custom properties from the prefers-color-scheme: dark media query, and done. It took less than five minutes.

So if you want to view my site in dark mode, it’s one of the options in the “Customise” dropdown on every page of the website.

Hard to break

I keep thinking about some feedback that Cassie received recently.

She had delivered the front-end code for a project at Clearleft, and—this being Cassie we’re talking about—the code was rock solid. The client’s Quality Assurance team came back with the verdict that it was “hard to break.”

Hard to break. I love that. That might be the best summation I’ve heard for describing resilience on the web.

If there’s a corollary to resilient web design, it would be brittle web design. In a piece completely unrelated to web development, Jamais Cascio describes brittle systems:

When something is brittle, it’s susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure.

That sounds like an inarguably bad thing. So why would anyone end up building something in a brittle way? Jamais Cascio continues:

Things that are brittle look strong, may even be strong, until they hit a breaking point, then everything falls apart.

Ah, there’s the rub! It’s not that brittle sites don’t work. They work just fine …until they don’t.

Brittle systems are solid until they’re not. Brittleness is illusory strength. Things that are brittle are non-resilient, sometimes even anti-resilient — they can make resilience more difficult.

Kilian Valkhof makes the same point when it comes to front-end development. For many, accessibility is an unknown unknown:

When you start out it’s you, notepad and a browser against the world. You open up that notepad, and you type

<div onclick="alert('hello world');">Click me!</div>

You fire up your browser, you click your div and …it works! It just works! Awesome. You open up the devtools. No errors. Well done! Clearly you did a good job. On to the next thing.

At the surface level, there’s no discernable difference between a resilient solution and a brittle one:

For all sorts of reasons, both legitimate and, as always, weird browser legacy reasons, a clickable div will mostly work. Well enough to fool someone starting out anyway.

If everything works, how would they know it kinda doesn’t?

Killian goes on to suggest ways to try to make this kind of hidden brittleness more visible.

Furthermore we could envision a browser that is much stricter when developing.

This something I touched on when I was talking about web performance with Gerry on his podcast:

There’s a disconnect in the process we go through when we’re making something, and then how that thing is experienced when it’s actually on the web, which is dependent on network speeds and processing speeds and stuff.

I spend a lot of time wondering why so many websites are badly built. Sure, there’s a lot can be explained by misaligned priorities. And it could just be an expression of Sturgeon’s Law—90% of websites are crap because 90% of everything is crap. But I’ve also come to realise that even though resilience is the antithesis to brittleness, they both share something in common: they’re invisible.

We have a natural bias towards what’s visible. Being committed to making sure something is beautiful to behold is, in some ways, the easy path to travel. But being committed to making sure something is also hard to break? That takes real dedication.

A decade apart

Today marks ten years since the publication of HTML5 For Web Designers, the very first book from A Book Apart.

I’m so proud of that book, and so honoured that I was the first author published by the web’s finest purveyors of brief books. I mean, just look at the calibre of their output since my stumbling start!

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jason wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Mandy wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jeffrey wrote ten years ago.

They started something magnificent. Ten years on, with Katel at the helm, it’s going from strength to strength.

Happy birthday, little book! And happy birthday, A Book Apart! Here’s to another decade!

A Book Apart authors, 1-6

Principles and priorities

I think about design principles a lot. I’m such a nerd for design principles, I even have a collection. I’m not saying all of the design principles in the collection are good—far from it! I collect them without judgement.

As for what makes a good design principle, I’ve written about that before. One aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that a design principle shouldn’t be an obvious truism. Take this as an example:

Make it usable.

Who’s going to disagree with that? It’s so agreeable that it’s practically worthless as a design principle. But now take this statement:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh, now we’re talking! That’s controversial. That’s bound to surface some disagreement, which is a good thing. It’s now passing the reversability test—it’s not hard to imagine an endeavour driven by the opposite:

Profitability is more important than usability.

In either formulation, what makes these statements better than the bland toothless agreeable statements—“Usability is good!”, “Profitability is good!”—is that they introduce the element of prioritisation.

I like design principles that can be formulated as:

X, even over Y.

It’s not saying that Y is unimportant, just that X is more important:

Usability, even over profitability.

Or:

Profitability, even over usability.

Design principles formulated this way help to crystalise priorities. Chris has written about the importance of establishing—and revisiting—priorities on any project:

Prioritisation isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off exercise. The changing needs of your customers, the business environment and new opportunities from technology mean prioritisation is best done as a regular activity.

I’ve said it many times, but one on my favourite design principles comes from the HTML design principles. The priority of consitituencies (it’s got “priorities” right there in the name!):

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

Or put another way:

  • Users, even over authors.
  • Authors, even over implementors.
  • Implementors, even over specifiers.
  • Specifiers, even over theoretical purity.

When it comes to evaluating technology for the web, I think there are a number of factors at play.

First and foremost, there’s the end user. If a technology choice harms the end user, avoid it. I’m thinking here of the kind of performance tax that a user has to pay when developers choose to use megabytes of JavaScript.

Mind you, some technologies have no direct effect on the end user. When it comes to build tools, version control, toolchains …all the stuff that sits on your computer and never directly interacts with users. In that situation, the wants and needs of developers can absolutely take priority.

But as a general principle, I think this works:

User experience, even over developer experience.

Sadly, I think the current state of “modern” web development reverses that principle. Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience.

I feel like personal websites are an exception here. What you do on your own website is completely up to you. But once you’re taking a paycheck to make websites that will be used by other people, it’s incumbent on you to realise that it’s not about you.

I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.

I’d like to think that developers would follow a similar progression, and I’m sure that some do. But I’ve seen many senior developers who have grown more enamoured with technologies instead of honing in on the most appropriate technology for end users. Maybe that’s because in many organisations, developers are positioned further away from the end users (whereas designers are ideally being confronted with their creations being used by actual people). If a lead developer is focused on the productivity, efficiency, and happiness of the dev team, it’s no wonder that their priorities end up overtaking the user experience.

I realise I’m talking in very binary terms here: developer experience versus user experience. I know it’s not always that simple. Other priorities also come into play, like business needs. Sometimes business needs are in direct conflict with user needs. If an online business makes its money through invasive tracking and surveillance, then there’s no point in having a design principle that claims to prioritise user needs above all else. That would be a hollow claim, and the design principle would become worthless.

Because that’s the point with design principles. They’re there to be used. They’re not a nice fluffy exercise in feeling good about your work. The priority of constituencies begins, “in case of conflict” and that’s exactly when a design principle matters—when it’s tested.

Suppose someone with a lot of clout in your organisation makes a decision, but that decision conflicts with your organisations’s design principles. Instead of having an opinion-based argument about who’s right or wrong, the previously agreed-upon design principles allow you to take ego out of the equation.

Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.

Overlay gap

I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.

Around about the six minute mark she starts talking about gaps and overlaps.

Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.

Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.

This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).

When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:

Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.

I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.

Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:

There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.

How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?

PM/Legal/Marketing made me do it

I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.

It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:

Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.

Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.

So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.

I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.

Because the web can’t survive like this.

Utopia

Trys and James recently unveiled their Utopia project. They’ve been tinkering away at it behind the scenes for quite a while now.

You can check out the website and read the blog to get the details of how it accomplishes its goal:

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…

It’s collaborative

Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.

The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.

The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?

But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.

It’s intrinsic

If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.

On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.

If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”

This feels like a very declarative way of designing. It reminds me of the ethos behind Andy and Heydon’s site, Every Layout. They call it algorithmic layout design:

Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with @media breakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.

See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?

Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.

Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:

As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.

Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.

As Heydon said at Patterns Day:

Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.

This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.

Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…

It’s iterative

There isn’t actually much that’s new in Utopia. It’s a combination of existing techniques. I like that. As I said recently:

I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:

It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.

First of all, Utopia uses the idea of modular scales in typography. Tim Brown has been championing this idea for years.

Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.

On the code side, Utopia wouldn’t be possible without the work of Mike Reithmuller and his breakthroughs on responsive and fluid typography, which led to Tim’s work on CSS locks.

Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…

Are you using fluid type?

Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with @media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.

I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.

Are you using modular scales?

Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.

So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.

Are you using custom properties?

A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features: calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.

You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.

If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.

If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.

Design systems roundup

When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. 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.

Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning.

At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

As always, it depends.

Remember what Frank said:

A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

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.

Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems

Years ago, the world of web standards was split. Two groups—the W3C and the WHATWG—were working on the next iteration of HTML. They had different ideas about the nature of standardisation.

Broadly speaking, the W3C followed a specification-first approach. Figure out what should be implemented first and foremost. From this perspective, specs can be seen as blueprints for browsers to work from.

The WHATWG, by contrast, were implementation led. The way they saw it, there was no point specifying something if browsers weren’t going to implement it. Instead, specs are there to document existing behaviour in browsers.

I’m over-generalising somewhat in my descriptions there, but the point is that there was an ideological difference of opinion around what standards bodies should do.

This always reminded me of a similar ideological conflict when it comes to language usage.

Language prescriptivists attempt to define rules about what’s right or right or wrong in a language. Rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition.” Prescriptivists are generally fighting a losing battle and spend most of their time bemoaning the decline of their language because people aren’t following the rules.

Language descriptivists work the exact opposite way. They see their job as documenting existing language usage instead of defining it. Lexicographers—like Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary—receive complaints from angry prescriptivists when dictionaries document usage like “literally” meaning “figuratively”.

Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.

I’ve seen the prescriptive/descriptive divide somewhere else too. I’ve seen it in the world of design systems.

Jordan Moore talks about intentional and emergent design systems:

There appears to be two competing approaches in designing design systems.

An intentional design system. The flavour and framework may vary, but the approach generally consists of: design system first → design/build solutions.

An emergent design system. This approach is much closer to the user needs end of the scale by beginning with creative solutions before deriving patterns and systems (i.e the system emerges from real, coded scenarios).

An intentional design system is prescriptive. An emergent design system is descriptive.

I think we can learn from the worlds of web standards and dictionaries here. 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.

As Matthew Ström says, you should start with the design system you already have:

Instead of drawing a whole new set of components, start with the components you already have in production. Document them meticulously. Create a single source of truth for design, warts and all.

The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.

I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…

“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mina said:

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.

When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.

Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.

Sell

He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:

  • Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
  • Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
  • Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
  • Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
  • Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
  • Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
  • Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.

Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.

Kick off

Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.

How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.

Plan

Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.

How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.

Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.

Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?

You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.

Design and build

Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:

Embrace the snowflakes.

The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.

When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.

The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.

—Jina

Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.

It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.

The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.

Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.

You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.

Launch

What does it mean to “launch” a design system?

A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. Most integrated: consumable compents.

Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.

Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.

Maintain

Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.

A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.

—Nathan Curtis

What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.

That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.

Summary

This is hard.

  • Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
  • Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
  • Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
  • Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
  • Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
  • Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
  • Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.

You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.