Tags: exercise

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Designing the Patterns Day site

Patterns Day is not one of Clearleft’s slick’n’smooth conferences like dConstruct or UX London. It’s more of a spit’n’sawdust affair, like Responsive Day Out.

You can probably tell from looking at the Patterns Day website that it wasn’t made by a crack team of designers and developers—it’s something I threw together over the course of a few days. I had a lot of fun doing it.

I like designing in the browser. That’s how I ended up designing Resilient Web Design, The Session, and Huffduffer back in the day. But there’s always the initial problem of the blank page. I mean, I had content to work with (the information about the event), but I had no design direction.

My designery colleagues at Clearleft were all busy on client projects so I couldn’t ask any of them to design a website, but I thought perhaps they’d enjoy a little time-limited side exercise in producing ideas for a design direction. Initially I was thinking they could all get together for a couple of hours, lock themselves in a room, and bash out some ideas as though it were a mini hack farm. Coordinating calendars proved too tricky for that. So Jon came up with an alternative: a baton relay.

Remember Layer Tennis? I once did the commentary for a Layer Tennis match and it was a riot—simultaneously terrifying and rewarding.

Anyway, Jon suggested something kind of like that, but instead of a file being batted back and forth between two designers, the file would passed along from designer to designer. Each designer gets one art board in a Sketch file. You get to see what the previous designers have done, leaving you to either riff on that or strike off in a new direction.

The only material I supplied was an early draft of text for the website, some photos of the first confirmed speakers, and some photos I took of repeating tiles when I was in Porto (patterns, see?). I made it clear that I wasn’t looking for pages or layouts—I was interested in colour, typography, texture and “feel.” Style tiles, yes; comps, no.

Jon

Jon’s art board.

Jon kicks things off and immediately sets the tone with bright, vibrant colours. You can already see some elements that made it into the final site like the tiling background image of shapes, and the green-bordered text block. There are some interesting logo ideas in there too, some of them riffing on LEGO, others riffing on illustrations from Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language. Then there’s the typeface: Avenir Next. I like it.

James G

James G’s art board.

Jimmy G is up next. He concentrates on the tiles idea. You can see some of the original photos from Porto in the art board, alongside his abstracted versions. I think they look great, and I tried really hard to incorporate them into the site, but I couldn’t quite get them to sit with the other design elements. Looking at them now, I still want to get them into the site …maybe I’ll tinker with the speaker portraits to get something more like what James shows here.

Ed

Ed’s art board.

Ed picks up the baton and immediately iterates through a bunch of logo ideas. There’s something about the overlapping text that I like, but I’m not sure it fits for this particular site. I really like the effect of the multiple borders though. With a bit more time, I’d like to work this into the site.

James B

Batesy’s art board.

Batesy is the final participant. He has some other nice ideas in there, like the really subtle tiling background that also made its way into the final site (but I’ll pass on the completely illegible text on the block of bright green). James works through two very different ideas for the logo. One of them feels a bit too busy and chaotic for me, but the other one …I like it a lot.

I immediately start thinking “Hmm …how could I make this work in a responsive way?” This is exactly the impetus I needed. At this point I start diving into CSS. Not only did I have some design direction, I’m champing at the bit to play with some of these ideas. The exercise was a success!

Feel free to poke around the Patterns Day site. And while you’re there, pick up a ticket for the event too.

Teaching in Porto, day four

Day one covered HTML (amongst other things), day two covered CSS, and day three covered JavaScript. Each one of those days involved a certain amount of hands-on coding, with the students getting their hands dirty with angle brackets, curly braces, and semi-colons.

Day four was a deliberate step away from all that. No more laptops, just paper. Whereas the previous days had focused on collaboratively working on a single document, today I wanted everyone to work on a separate site.

The sites were generated randomly. I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”

For a bit of fun, the first brainstorming exercise (run as a 6-up) was to come with potential names for this service—4 minutes for 6 ideas. Then we went around the table, shared the ideas, got feedback, and settled on the names.

Now I asked everyone to come up with a one-sentence mission statement for their newly-named service. This was a good way of teasing out the most important verbs and nouns, which led nicely into the next task: answering the question “what is the core functionality?”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first part of the three-step process I outlined in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

We did some URL design, figuring out what structures would make sense for straightforward GET requests, like:

  • /things
  • /things/ID

Then, once it was clear what the primary “thing” was (a car, a book, etc.), I asked them to write down all the pieces that might appear on such a page; one post-it note per item e.g. “title”, “description”, “img”, “rating”, etc.

The next step involved prioritisation. They took those post-it notes and put them on the wall, but they had to put them in a vertical line from top to bottom in decreasing order of importance. This can be a challenge, but it’s better to solve these problems now rather than later.

Okay. I know asked them to “mark up” those vertical lists of post-it notes: writing HTML tag names by each one. By doing this before doing any visual design, it meant they were thinking about the meaning of the content first.

After that, we did a good ol’ fashioned classic 6-up sketching exercise, followed by critique (including a “designated dissenter” for each round). At this point, I was encouraging them to go crazy with ideas—they already had the core functionality figured out (with plain ol’ client/server requests and responses) so they could all the bells and whistles they wanted on top of that.

We finished up with a discussion of some of those bells and whistles, and how they could be used to improve the user experience: Ajax, geolocation, service workers, notifications, background sync …the sky’s the limit.

It was a whirlwind tour for just one day but I think it helped emphasise the importance of thinking about the fundamentals before adding enhancements.

This marked the end of the structured masterclass lessons. Tomorrow I’m around to answer any miscellaneous questions (if I can) and chat to the students individually while they work on their term projects.

Storyforming

It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.

Workshopping

The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.

Flashback

Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”

Dialogue

Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).

Backstory

Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.