Journal tags: design



Design transformation on the Clearleft podcast

Boom! The Clearleft podcast is back!

The first episode of season four just dropped. It’s all about design transformation.

I’ve got to be honest, this episode is a little inside baseball. It’s a bit navel-gazey and soul-searching as I pick apart the messaging emblazoned on the Clearleft website:

The design transformation consultancy.

Whereas most of the previous episodes of the podcast would be of interest to our peers—fellow designers—this one feels like it might of more interest to potential clients. But I hope it’s not too sales-y.

You’ll hear from Danish designer Maja Raunbak, and American in Amsterdam Nick Thiel as well as Clearleft’s own Chris Pearce. And I’ve sampled a talk from the Leading Design archives by Stuart Frisby.

The episode clocks in at a brisk eighteen and a half minutes. Have a listen.

While you’re at it, take this opportunity to subscribe to the Clearleft podcast on Overcast, Spotify, Apple, Google or by using a good ol’-fashioned RSS feed. That way the next episodes in the season will magically appear in your podcatching software of choice.

But I’m not making any promises about when that will be. Previously, I released new episodes in a season on a weekly basis. This time I’m going to release each episode whenever it’s ready. That might mean there’ll be a week or two between episodes. Or there might be a month or so between episodes.

I realise that this unpredictable release cycle is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do, but it’s actually the most sensible way for me to make sure the podcast actually gets out. I was getting a bit overwhelmed with the prospect of having six episodes ready to launch over a six week period. What with curating UX London and other activities, it would’ve been too much for me to do.

So rather than delay this season any longer, I’m going to drop each episode whenever it’s done. Chaos! Anarchy! Dogs and cats living together!


The last talk at the last dConstruct was by local clever clogs Anil Seth. It was called Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. It’s well worth a listen.

Anil covers a lot of the same ground in his excellent book, Being You. He describes a model of consciousness that inverts our intuitive understanding.

We tend to think of our day-to-day reality in a fairly mechanical cybernetic manner; we receive inputs through our senses and then make decisions about reality informed by those inputs.

As another former dConstruct speaker, Adam Buxton, puts it in his interview with Anil, it feels like that old Beano cartoon, the Numskulls, with little decision-making homonculi inside our head.

But Anil posits that it works the other way around. We make a best guess of what the current state of reality is, and then we receive inputs from our senses, and then we adjust our model accordingly. There’s still a feedback loop, but cause and effect are flipped. First we predict or guess what’s happening, then we receive information. Rinse and repeat.

The book goes further and applies this to our very sense of self. We make a best guess of our sense of self and then adjust that model constantly based on our experiences.

There’s a natural tendency for us to balk at this proposition because it doesn’t seem rational. The rational model would be to make informed calculations based on available data …like computers do.

Maybe that’s what sets us apart from computers. Computers can make decisions based on data. But we can make guesses.

Enter machine learning and large language models. Now, for the first time, it appears that computers can make guesses.

The guess-making is not at all like what our brains do—large language models require enormous amounts of inputs before they can make a single guess—but still, this should be the breakthrough to be shouted from the rooftops: we’ve taught machines how to guess!

And yet. Almost every breathless press release touting some revitalised service that uses AI talks instead about accuracy. It would be far more honest to tout the really exceptional new feature: imagination.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a mortgage.

Using AI, we will guess who should get hired.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a strict prison sentence.

Reframed like that, it’s easy to see why technologists want to bury the lede.

Alas, this means that large language models are being put to use for exactly the wrong kind of scenarios.

(This, by the way, is also true of immersive “virtual reality” environments. Instead of trying to accurately recreate real-world places like meeting rooms, we should be leaning into the hallucinatory power of a technology that can generate dream-like situations where the pleasure comes from relinquishing control.)

Take search engines. They’re based entirely on trust and accuracy. Introducing a chatbot that confidentally conflates truth and fiction doesn’t bode well for the long-term reputation of that service.

But what if this is an interface problem?

Currently facts and guesses are presented with equal confidence, hence the accurate descriptions of the outputs as bullshit or mansplaining as a service.

What if the more fanciful guesses were marked as such?

As it is, there’s a “temperature” control that can be adjusted when generating these outputs; the more the dial is cranked, the further the outputs will stray from the safest predictions. What if that could be reflected in the output?

I don’t know what that would look like. It could be typographic—some markers to indicate which bits should be taken with pinches of salt. Or it could be through content design—phrases like “Perhaps…”, “Maybe…” or “It’s possible but unlikely that…”

I’m sure you’ve seen the outputs when people request that ChatGPT write their biography. Perfectly accurate statements are generated side-by-side with complete fabrications. This reinforces our scepticism of these tools. But imagine how differently the fabrications would read if they were preceded by some simple caveats.

A little bit of programmed humility could go a long way.

Right now, these chatbots are attempting to appear seamless. If 80% or 90% of their output is accurate, then blustering through the other 10% or 20% should be fine, right? But I think the experience for the end user would be immensely more empowering if these chatbots were designed seamfully. Expose the wires. Show the workings-out.

Mind you, that only works if there is some way to distinguish between fact and fabrication. If there’s no way to tell how much guessing is happening, then that’s a major problem. If you can’t tell me whether something is 50% true or 75% true or 25% true, then the only rational response is to treat the entire output as suspect.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding behind the design of these chatbots that goes all the way back to the Turing test. There’s this idea that the way to make a chatbot believable and trustworthy is to make it appear human, attempting to hide the gears of the machine. But the real way to gain trust is through honesty.

I want a machine to tell me when it’s guessing. That won’t make me trust it less. Quite the opposite.

After all, to guess is human.

Brandolini’s blockchain

I’ve already written about how much I enjoyed hosting Leading Design San Francisco last week.

All the speakers were terrific. Lola’s talk was particularly …um, interesting:

In this talk, Lola will share her adventures in the world of blockchain, the hostility she experienced in her first go-round in 2018, and why she’s chosen to head back to a technology that is going through its largest reputational and social crisis to date.

Wait …I was supposed to stand on stage and introduce a talk that was (at least partly) about blockchain? I have opinions.

As it turned out, Lola warned me that I’d be making an appearance in her talk. She was going to quote that blog post. Before the talk, I asked her how obnoxious I could be about blockchain in her intro. She told me to bring it.

So in the introduction, I deployed all the sarcasm I had in me and said:

Listen, we designers have a tendency to be over-critical of things sometimes. There are all these ideas that we dismiss: phrenology, homeopathy, flat-earthism …blockchain. Haters gonna hate.

I remember somebody asking online a while back, “Why the hate for web3?” And someone I know responded by saying “We hate it because we understand it.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

But look, just because blockchains are powering crypto ponzi schemes and N F fucking Ts, it’s worth remembering that it’s also simply a technology. It’s a technological solution in search of a problem.

To be fair, it’s still early days. After all, it’s only been over a decade now.

It’s like the law of instrument says; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Blockchain is like that. Except the hammer is also made of glass.

Anyway, Lola is going to defend the indefensible and talk about blockchain. One thing to keep in mind is this: remember when everyone was talking about “The Cloud”? And then it turned out that you could substitute the phrase “someone else’s server” for “The Cloud?” Well, every time you hear Lola say the word “blockchain”, I’d like you to mentally substitute the phrase “multiple copies of a spreadsheet.”

Please give an open mind and a warm welcome to Lola Oyelayo Pearson!

I got some laughs. I also got lots of gasps and pearl-clutching, as though I were saying something taboo. Welcome to San Francisco.

Lola gave as good as she got. I got a roasting in her talk.

And just to clarify, Lola and I are friends—this was a consensual smackdown.

There was a very serious point to Lola’s talk. Cryptobollocks and other blockchain-powered schemes have historically been very bro-y, and exploitative of non-bro communities. Lola wants to fight that trend.

I get it. But it reminds me a bit of the justifications you hear from people who go to work at Facebook claiming that they can do more good from the inside. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

The crux of Lola’s belief is this: blockchain technology is inevitable, therefore it is uncumbent on us as ethical designers to ensure that the technology is deployed in a way that empowers people instead of exploiting them.

But I take issue with the premise. Blockchain technology is not inevitable. That’s the worst kind of technological determinism. It’s defeatist. It’s a depressing view of “progress” driven not by people, but by technological forces beyond our control.

I refuse to accept that anti-humanist deterministic view.

In any case, for technological determinism to have any validity, there needs to be something to it. At least virtual reality and machine learning are based on some actual technologies. In the case of cryptobollocks, there is no there there. There is nothing except the hype, which is why you’ll see blockchain enthusiasts trying to ride the coattails of trending technologies in a logical fallacy that goes something like this:

  1. There are technologies that will be really big in the future,
  2. blockchain is a technology, therefore
  3. blockchain will be really big in the future.

Blockchain is bullshit. It isn’t even very clever bullshit. And it certainly isn’t inevitable.

Home stream

Ben wrote a post a little while back about maybe organising his home page differently. It’s currently a stream.

That prompted Om to ask is “stream” as a design paradigm over? Mind you, he’s not talking about personal websites:

Across the web, one can see “streams” losing their preeminence. Social networks are increasingly algorithmically organized, so their stream isn’t really a free-flowing stream. It is more like a river that has been heavily dammed. It is organized around what the machine thinks we need to see based on what we have seen in the past.

Funnily enough, I’ve some recent examples of personal homepages become more like social networks, at least in terms of visual design. A lot of people I know are liking the recent redesigns from Adam and Jhey.

Here on my site, my home page is kind of a stream. I’ve got notes, links, and blog posts one after another in chronological order. The other sections of my site are ways of focusing in on the specific types of content links, short notes, blog posts in my journal.

Behind the scenes, entries those separate sections of my site are all stored in the same database table. In some ways, the separation into different sections of the site is more like tagging. So the home page is actually the simplest bit to implement: grab the latest 20 entries out of that database table.

I don’t make too much visual distinction between the different kinds of posts. My links and my notes look quite similar. And if I post a lot of commentary with a link, it looks a lot like a blog post.

Maybe I should make them more distinct, visually. Because I actually like the higgedly-piggedly nature of a stream of different kinds of stuff. I want the vibe to be less like a pristine Apple store, and more like a chaotic second-hand bookstore.

Going back to what Ben wrote about his site:

As of right now, the homepage is a mix of long-form posts, short thoughts, and links I consider interesting, presented as a stream. It’s a genuine representation of what I’m reading and thinking about, and each post’s permalink page looks fine to me, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. If you look at my homepage with fresh eyes, my stream is a hodgepodge. There’s no through line.

For me, that’s a feature, not a bug. There’s no through line on my home page either. I like that.


I’ve spent the last few days in San Francisco where I was hosting Leading Design.

It was excellent. Rebecca did an absolutely amazing job with the curation, and the Clearleft delivered a terrific event, as always. I’m continually amazed by the way such a relatively small agency can punch above its weight when it comes to putting on world-class events and delivering client work.

I won’t go into much detail on what was shared at Leading Design. There’s an understanding that it’s a safe space for people to speak freely and share their experiences in an open and honest way. I can tell you that there were some tough topics. Given the recent rounds of layoffs in this neck of the woods, this was bound to happen.

I was chatting with Peter at breakfast on the second day and he was saying that maybe there was too much emphasis on the negative, like we were in danger of wallowing in our own misery. It’s a fair point, but I offered a counterpoint that I also heard other people express: when else do these people get a chance to let their guard down and have a good ol’ moan? These are design leaders who need to project an air of calm reassurance when they’re at work. Leading Design is a welcome opportunity to just let it all out.

When we did Leading Design in New York in March of 2022, it was an intimate gathering and the overwhelming theme was togetherness. After two years of screen-based interactions, it was cathartic to get together in the same location to swap stories and be reminded you are not alone.

Leading Design San Francisco was equally cathartic, but the theme this time was change. Change can be scary. But it can also be energising.

After two days of introducing and listening to fascinating talks on the topic of change, I closed out my duties by quoting the late great Octavia Butler. I spoke the mantra of the secular Earthseed religion founded in Parable Of The Sower:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

Five websites

Some lovely people have recently made some lovely websites.

Dan has launched his type foundry, Simple Type Co. and it’s gorgeous!

For as long as I’ve been making websites, Dan’s designs have been an inspiration: Corkd, Dribbble, his own website; whenever he unveils something it always sits just right with me.

Oh, and I love the tagline for Simple Type Co.:

Never perfect. Always a-okay.

Someone who is a perfectionist is Marcin. He’s been working on his book about keyboards for years now (the Kickstarter project will launch in February) and he’s made a stunning website for the book called Shift Happens. Click around and find out.

Mandy has a lovely new professional website, courtesy of Ethan. It’s called everything changes. I love the subtletly of the different colour schemes for dark and light modes. It’s almost as if Ethan knows a thing or two about responsive design.

Look! Jason has new professional website too. The text is just scrumptious. It’s almost as if Jason knows a thing or two about typography.

And look! Lynn has done it again—a new site design for a new year. Beautiful stuff, as always—have a look through the archive if you want to the creativity she puts into this every single year.

All of these people are my web design heroes.

Leading Design San Francisco 2023

My upcoming appearance at An Event Apart next week to talk about declarative design isn’t the only upcoming trip to San Francisco in my calendar.

Two months from today I’ll be back in San Francisco for Leading Design. It’s on February 7th and 8th.

This event is long overdue. We’ve never had Leading Design in San Francisco before, but we were all set to go ahead with the inaugural SF gathering …in March 2020. We all know what happened next.

So this event will be three years in the making.

Rebacca is doing amazing work, as usual, putting together a fantastic line-up of speakers:

They’ll be sharing their insights, their stories and their ideas — as well as some of their pain from past challenges. It’s all designed to help you navigate your own leadership journey.

I’ll be there to MC the event, which is a great honour for me. And I reckon I’ll be up to the challenge, having just done the double whammy of hosting Leading Design London and Clarity back-to-back.

I would love to see you in San Francisco! If you’ve attended a Leading Design event before, then you know how transformational it can be. If you haven’t, then now is your chance.

Early bird tickets are still available until mid December, so if you’re thinking about coming, I suggest making that decision now.

If you know anyone in the bay area who’s in a design leadership position, be sure to tell them about Leading Design San Francisco—they don’t want to miss this!

Links for Declarative Design

At the end of next week, I will sally forth to California. I’m going to wend my way to San Francisco where I will be speaking at An Event Apart.

I am very much looking forward to speaking at my first in-person AEAs in exactly three years. That was also in San Francisco, right before The Situation.

I hope to see you there. There are still tickets available.

I’ve put together a brand new talk that I’m very excited about. I’ve already written about the prep for this talk:

So while I’ve been feeling somewhat under the gun as I’ve been preparing this new talk for An Event Apart, I’ve also been feeling that the talk is just the culmination; a way of tying together some stuff I’ve been writing about it here for the past year or two.

The talk is called Declarative Design. Here’s the blurb:

Different browsers, different devices, different network speeds…designing for the web can feel like a never-ending battle for control. But what if the solution is to relinquish control? Instead of battling the unknowns, we can lean into them. In the world of programming, there’s the idea of declarative languages: describing what you want to achieve without specifying the exact steps to get there. In this talk, we’ll take this concept of declarative programming and apply it to designing for the web. Instead of focusing on controlling the outputs of the design process, we’ll look at creating the right inputs instead. Leave the final calculations for the outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at. We’ll look at CSS features, design systems, design principles, and more. Then you’ll be ready to embrace the fluid, ever-changing, glorious messiness of the World Wide Web!

If you’d a glimpse into the inside of my head while I’ve been preparing this talk, here’s a linkdump of various resources that are either mentioned in the talk or influenced it…

Declarative Design



Design Tools

Design systems



Tweaking navigation sizing

Gerry talks about “top tasks” a lot. He literally wrote the book on it:

Top tasks are what matter most to your customers.

Seems pretty obvious, right? But it’s actually pretty rare to see top tasks presented any differently than other options.

Look at the global navigation on most websites. Typically all the options are given equal prominence. Even the semantics under the hood often reflect this egalitarian ideal, with each list in an unordered list. All the navigation options are equal, but I bet that the reality for most websites is that some navigation options are more equal than others.

I’ve been guilty of this on The Session. The site-wide navigation shows a number of options: tunes, events, discussions, etc. Each one is given equal prominence, but I can tell you without even looking at my server logs that 90% of the traffic goes to the tunes section—that’s the beating heart of The Session. That’s why the home page has a search form that defaults to searching for tunes.

I wanted the navigation to reflect the reality of what people are coming to the site for. I decided to make the link to the tunes section more prominent by bumping up the font size a bit.

I was worried about how weird this might look; we’re so used to seeing all navigation items presented equally. But I think it worked out okay (though it might take a bit of getting used to if you’re accustomed to the previous styling). It helps that “tunes” is a nice short word, so bumping up the font size on that word doesn’t jostle everything else around.

I think this adjustment is working well for this situation where there’s one very clear tippy-top task. I wouldn’t want to apply it across the board, making every item in the navigation proportionally bigger or smaller depending on how often it’s used. That would end up looking like a ransom note.

But giving one single item prominence like this tweaks the visual hierarchy just enough to favour the option that’s most likely to be what a visitor wants.

That last bit is crucial. The visual adjustment reflects what visitors want, not what I want. You could adjust the size of a navigation option that you want to drive traffic to, but in the long run, all you’re going to do is train people to trust your design less.

You don’t get to decide what your top task is. The visitors to your website do. Trying to foist an arbitrary option on them would be the tail wagging the dog.

Anway, I’m feeling a lot better about the site-wide navigation on The Session now that it reflects reality a little bit more. Heck, I may even bump that font size up a little more.


Speaking of in-person gatherings, I’ve got some exciting—if not downright nervewracking—events coming up soon.

Next week I’ll be in London for Leading Design. Looking at the line-up that Rebecca is assembled, I’m kind of blown away—it looks fantastic!

You’ll notice that I’m in that line-up, but don’t worry—I’m not giving a talk. I’ll be there as host. That means I get to introduce the speakers before they speak, and ask them a question or two afterwards.

Then, one week later, I do it all again at Clarity in New Orleans. I’m really honoured that Jina has invited me to MC. Again, it’s a ridiculously fantastic line-up (once you ignore my presence).

I really, really enjoy hosting events. And yet I always get quite anxious in the run-up. I think it’s because there isn’t much I can do to prepare.

During The Situation, I had something of an advantage when I was hosting UX Fest. The talks were pre-recorded, which meant that I could study them ahead of time. At a live event, I won’t have that luxury. Instead, I need to make sure that I pay close attention to each talk and try to come up with good questions.

Based on past experience, my anxiety is unwarranted. Once I’m actually talking to these super-smart people, the problem isn’t a lack of things to discuss, but the opposite—so much to talk about in so little time!

I keep trying to remind myself of that.

See, it’s different if I’m speaking at an event. Sure, I’ll get nervous, but I can do something about it. I can prepare and practice to alleviate any anxiety. I feel like I have more control over the outcome when I’m giving a talk compared with hosting.

In fact, I do have a speaking gig on the horizon. I’ll be giving a brand new talk at An Event Apart in San Francisco in December.

It was just a month ago when Jeffrey invited me to speak. Of course I jumped at the chance—it’s always an honour to be asked—but I had some trepidation about preparing a whole new talk in time.

I’ve mentioned this before but it takes me aaaaaaaages to put a talk together. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s worth it. I may not be good at much, but I know I can deliver a really good conference talk …once I’ve spent ridiculously long preparing it.

But more recently I’ve noticed that I’ve managed to shorten this time period. Partly that’s because I recklessly agree to prepare the talk in a shorter amount of time—nothing like a deadline to light a fire under my ass. But it’s also because a lot of the work is already done.

When I have a thought or an opinion about something, I write it down here on my own website. They’re brain farts, but their my brain farts. I consider them half-baked, semi-formed ideas.

For a conference talk, I need something fully-baked and well-formed. But I can take a whole bunch of those scrappy blog posts and use them as raw material.

There’s still a lot of work involved. As well as refining the message I want to get across, I have to structure these thoughts into a narrative thread that makes sense. That’s probably the hardest part of preparing a conference talk …and the most rewarding.

So while I’ve been feeling somewhat under the gun as I’ve been preparing this new talk for An Event Apart, I’ve also been feeling that the talk is just the culmination; a way of tying together some stuff I’ve been writing about it here for the past year or two.

It’s still entirely possible that the talk could turn out to be crap, but I think the odds are in my favour. I’ve been able to see how the ideas I’ve been writing about have resonated with people, so I can feel pretty confident that they’ll go down well in a talk.

As for the topic of the talk? All will be revealed.


There’s a repeated catchphrase used throughout Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet: ignorance is our ammunition.

There are certainly situations where knowledge is regrettable. The somewhat-silly thought experiment of Roko’s basilisk is one example. Once you have knowledge of it, you can’t un-know it, and so you become complicit.

Or, to use another example, I think it was Jason who told me that if you want to make someone’s life miserable, just teach them about typography. Then they’ll see all the terrible kerning out there in the world and they won’t be able to un-see it.

I sometimes wish I could un-learn all I’ve learned about cryptobollocks (I realise that the term “cryptocurrency” is the more widely-used phrase, but it’s so inaccurate I’d rather use a clearer term).

I sometimes wish I could go back to having the same understanding of cryptobollocks as most people: some weird new-fangled technology thing that has something to do with “the blockchain.”

But I delved too deep. I wanted to figure out why seemingly-smart people were getting breathlessly excited about something that sounds fairly ludicrous. Yet the more I learned, the more ludicrous it became. Bitcoin and its ilk are even worse than the occassional headlines and horror stories would have you believe.

As Jules says:

The reason I have such a visceral reaction to crypto projects isn’t just that they’re irresponsibly designed and usually don’t achieve what they promise. It’s also that the thing they promise sounds like a fucking nightmare.

Or, as Simon responded to someone wondering why there was so much crypto hate:

We hate it because we understand it.

I have yet to encounter a crypto project that isn’t a Ponzi scheme. I don’t mean like a Ponzi scheme. I mean they’re literally Ponzi schemes: zero-sum racing to the bottom built entirely on the greater fool theory. The only difference between traditional Ponzi schemes and those built on crypto is that crypto isn’t regulated. Yet.

I recently read The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel with the collapse of a Ponzi scheme at its heart. In the aftermath of the scheme’s collapse, there are inevitable questions like “How could you not know?” The narrator answers that question:

It’s possible to both know and not know something.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Design systems thinking

As you can probably tell from the stuff I’ve been linking to today and today’s Clearleft newsletter, I’ve got design systems on my mind.

What I like about design systems is they encourage systems thinking …in theory. I mean, it’s right there in the name, right? But in practice I see design sytems focusing on the opposite of systems thinking: analytical thinking.

Okay, I realise that’s a gross oversimplification of both systems and thinking and analytical thinking, but why stop now?

Analytical thinking is all about breaking a big thing down into its constituent parts. By examining the individual parts you gain an understanding of the whole.

This is a great approach to understanding the world, particularly when it comes to phenonema that work the same everywhere in the universe. But it doesn’t work so well with messy phenonema like, say, people doing things together.

Systems thinking takes the opposite approach. You look at the bigger picture with the understanding that the individual parts are all interconnected somehow and can’t really be viewed in isolation.

To put it very bluntly, analytical thinking is about zooming in whereas systems thinking is about zooming out.

When it comes to design systems—or design in general—you need to have a mix of both.

If you neglect the analytical thinking, you may end up with a design system that has well-documented processes for how it operates, but is lacking the individual components.

If you neglect the systems thinking, you may end up with a design system that’s a collection of components, but with no understanding of how they’re supposed to work together.

Ideally, you want a good mix of both.

But I’ve got to be honest: if I had to err on one side more than the other, I think I’d rather have less analytical thinking and more systems thinking.

Accessibility is systemic

I keep thinking about this blog post I linked to last week by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. It’s called Quality Is Systemic:

Software quality is more the result of a system designed to produce quality, and not so much the result of individual performance. That is: a group of mediocre programmers working with a structure designed to produce quality will produce better software than a group of fantastic programmers working in a system designed with other goals.

I think he’s on to something. I also think this applies to design just as much as development. Maybe more so. In design, there’s maybe too much emphasis placed on the talent and skill of individual designers and not enough emphasis placed on creating and nurturing a healthy environment where anyone can contribute to the design process.

Jacob also ties this into hiring:

Instead of spending tons of time and effort on hiring because you believe that you can “only hire the best”, direct some of that effort towards building a system that produces great results out of a wider spectrum of individual performance.

I couldn’t agree more! It just one of the reasons why the smart long-term strategy can be to concentrate on nurturing junior designers and developers rather than head-hunting rockstars.

As an aside, if you think that the process of nurturing junior designers and developers is trickier now that we’re working remotely, I highly recommend reading Mandy’s post, Official myths:

Supporting junior staff is work. It’s work whether you’re in an office some or all of the time, and it’s work if Slack is the only office you know. Hauling staff back to the office doesn’t make supporting junior staff easier or even more likely.

Hiring highly experienced designers and developers makes total sense, at least in the short term. But I think the better long-term solution—as outlined by Jacob—is to create (and care for) a system where even inexperienced practitioners will be able to do good work by having the support and access to knowledge that they need.

I was thinking about this last week when Irina very kindly agreed to present a lunch’n’learn for Clearleft all about inclusive design.

She answered a question that had been at the front of my mind: what’s the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?

The way Irina put it, accessibility is focused on implementation. To make a website accessible, you need people with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

But inclusive design is about the process and the system that leads to that implementation.

To use that cliché of the double diamond, maybe inclusive design is about “building the right thing” and accessibility is about “building the thing right.”

Or to put it another way, maybe accessibility is about outputs, whereas inclusive design is about inputs. You need both, but maybe we put too much emphasis on the outputs and not enough emphasis on the inputs.

This is what made me think of Jacob’s assertion that quality is systemic.

Imagine someone who’s an expert at accessibility: they know all the details of WCAG and ARIA. Now put that person into an organisation that doesn’t prioritise accessibility. They’re going to have a hard time and they probably won’t be able to be very effective despite all their skills.

Now imagine an organisation that priorities inclusivity. Even if their staff don’t (yet) have the skills and knowledge of an accessibility expert, just having the processes and priorities in place from the start will make it easier for everyone to contribute to a more accessible experience.

It’s possible to make something accessible in the absence of a system that prioritises inclusive design but it will be hard work. Whereas making sure inclusive design is prioritised at an organisational level makes it much more likely that the outputs will be accessible.

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Pace layers and design principles

I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.

I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.

Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:

My own little mash-up is applying pace layers to the World Wide Web. Tom even brought it to life as an animation.

See the Pen Web Layers Of Pace by Tom (@webrocker) on CodePen.

Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.

I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):

Purpose » Principles » Patterns

Your purpose is “why?”

That then influences your principles, “how?”

Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”

Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:

  • Production
  • Patterns
  • Principles
  • Purpose

Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.

As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.

I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.

Agile design principles

I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a bit of a nerd for design principles. Have I shown you my equivalent of an interesting rock collection lately?

If you think about design principles for any period of time, it inevitably gets very meta very quickly. You start thinking about what makes for good design principles. In other words, you start wondering if there are design principles for design principles.

I’ve written before about how I think good design principles should encode some level of prioritisation. The classic example is the HTML design principle called the priority of consitituencies:

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

It’s wonderfully practical!

I realised recently that there’s another set of design princples that put prioritisation front and centre—the Agile manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

And there’s this excellent explanation which could just as well apply to the priorty of constituencies:

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Yes! That’s the spirit!

Ironically, the Agile manifesto also contains a section called principles behind the Agile manifesto which are …less good (at least they’re less good as design principles—they’re fine as hypotheses to be tested).

Agile is far from perfect. See, for example, Miriam Posner’s piece Agile and the Long Crisis of Software. But where Agile isn’t fulfilling its promise, I’d say it’s not because of its four design principles. If anything, I think the problems arise from organisations attempting to implement Agile without truly internalising the four principles.

Oh, and that’s another thing I like about the Agile manifesto as a set of design principles—the list of prioritised principles is mercifully short. Just four lines.

Even more UX London speaker updates

I’ve added five more faces to the UX London line-up.

Irina Rusakova will be giving a talk on day one, the day that focuses on research. Her talk on designing with the autistic community is one I’m really looking forward to.

Also on day one, my friend and former Clearleftie Cennydd Bowles will be giving a workshop called “What could go wrong?” He literally wrote the book on ethical design.

Day two is all about creation. My co-worker Chris How will be speaking. “Nepotism!” you cry! But no, Chris is speaking because I had the chance to his talk—called “Unexpectedly obvious”—and I thought “that’s perfect for UX London!”:

Let him take you on a journey through time and across the globe sharing stories of designs that solve problems in elegant if unusual ways.

Also on day two, you’ve got two additional workshops. Lou Downe will be running a workshop on designing good services, and Giles Turnbull will be running a workshop called “Writing for people who hate writing.”

I love that title! Usually when I contact speakers I don’t necessarily have a specific talk or workshop in mind, but I knew that I wanted that particular workshop from Giles.

When I wrote to Giles to ask come and speak, I began by telling how much I enjoy his blog—I’m a long-time suscriber to his RSS feed. He responded and said that he also reads my blog—we’re blog buddies! (That’s a terrible term but there should be a word for people who “know” each other only through reading each other’s websites.)

Anyway, that’s another little treasure trove of speakers added to the UX London roster:

That’s nineteen speakers already and we’re not done yet—expect further speaker announcements soon. But don’t wait on those announcements before getting your ticket. Get yours now!

More UX London speaker updates

It wasn’t that long ago that I told you about some of the speakers that have been added to the line-up for UX London in June: Steph Troeth, Heldiney Pereira, Lauren Pope, Laura Yarrow, and Inayaili León. Well, now I’ve got another five speakers to tell you about!

Aleks Melnikova will be giving a workshop on day one, June 28th—that’s the day with a focus on research.

Stephanie Marsh—who literally wrote the book on user research—will also be giving a workshop that day.

Before those workshops though, you’ll get to hear a talk from the one and only Kat Zhou, the creator of Design Ethically. By the way, you can hear Kat talking about deceptive design in a BBC radio documentary.

Day two has a focus on content design so who better to deliver a workshop than Sarah Winters, author of the Content Design book.

Finally, on day three—with its focus on design systems—I’m thrilled to announce that Adekunle Oduye will be giving a talk. He too is an author. He co-wrote the Design Engineering Handbook. I also had the pleasure of talking to Adekunle for an episode of the Clearleft podcast on design engineering.

So that’s another five excellent speakers added to the line-up:

That’s a total of fifteen speakers so far with more on the way. And I’ll be updating the site with more in-depth descriptions of the talks and workshops soon.

If you haven’t yet got your ticket for UX London, grab one now. You can buy tickets for individual days, or to get the full experience and the most value, get a ticket for all three days.

Declarative design

I feel like in the past few years there’s been a number of web design approaches that share a similar mindset. Intrinsic web design by Jen; Every Layout by Andy and Heydon; Utopia by Trys and James.

To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.

As Andy puts it:

Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:

We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?

In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.

Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.

So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?

I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.

I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.

If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:

CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.

But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:

CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.

If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.

Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.

I wonder whether your path into web design and development might also factor into which end of the spectrum you’d identify with. Like, if your background is in declarative languages like HTML and CSS, maybe intrisic web design really resonates. But if your background is in imperative languages like JavaScript, perhaps Tailwind makes more sense to you.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.

Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.

UX London speaker updates

If you’ve signed up to the UX London newsletter then this won’t be news to you, but more speakers have been added to the line-up.

Steph Troeth will be giving a workshop on day one. That’s the day with a strong focus on research, and when it comes to design research, Steph is unbeatable. You can hear some of her words of wisdom in an episode of the Clearleft podcast all about design research.

Heldiney Pereira will be speaking on day two. That’s the day with a focus on content design. Heldiney previously spoke at our Content By Design event and it was terrific—his perspective on content design as a product designer is invaluable.

Lauren Pope will also be on day two. She’ll be giving a workshop. She recently launched a really useful content audit toolkit and she’ll be bringing that expertise to her UX London workshop.

Day three is going to have a focus on design systems (and associated disciplines like design engineering and design ops). Both Laura Yarrow and Inayaili León will be giving talks on that day. You can expect some exciting war stories from the design system trenches of HM Land Registry and GitHub.

I’ve got some more speakers confirmed but I’m going to be a tease and make you wait a little longer for those names. But check out the line-up so far! This going to be such an excellent event (I know I’m biased, but really, look at that line-up!).

June 28th to 30th. Tobacco Dock, London. Get your ticket if you haven’t already.