Tags: fractal

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The history of design systems at Clearleft

Danielle has posted a brief update on Fractal:

We decided to ask the Fractal community for help, and the response has been overwhelming. We’ve received so many offers of support in all forms that we can safely say that development will be starting up again shortly.

It’s so gratifying to see that other people are finding Fractal to be as useful to them as it is to us. We very much appreciate all their support!

Although Fractal itself is barely two years old, it’s part of a much longer legacy at Clearleft

It all started with Natalie. She gave a presentation back in 2009 called Practical Maintainable CSS . She talks about something called a pattern porfolio—a deliverable that expresses every component and documents how the markup and CSS should be used.

When Anna was interning at Clearleft, she was paired up with Natalie so she was being exposed to these ideas. She then expanded on them, talking about Front-end Style Guides. She literally wrote the book on the topic, and starting curating the fantastic collection of examples at styleguides.io.

When Paul joined Clearleft, it was a perfect fit. He was already obsessed with style guides (like the BBC’s Global Experience Language) and started writing and talking about styleguides for the web:

At Clearleft, rather than deliver an inflexible set of static pages, we present our code as a series of modular components (a ‘pattern portfolio’) that can be assembled into different configurations and page layouts as required.

Such systematic thinking was instigated by Natalie, yet this is something we continually iterate upon.

To see the evolution of Paul’s thinking, you can read his three part series from last year on designing systems:

  1. Theory, Practice, and the Unfortunate In-between,
  2. Layers of Longevity, and
  3. Components and Composition

Later, Charlotte joined Clearleft as a junior developer, and up until that point, hadn’t been exposed to the idea of pattern libraries or design systems. But it soon became clear that she had found her calling. She wrote a brilliant article for A List Apart called From Pages to Patterns: An Exercise for Everyone and she started speaking about design systems at conferences like Beyond Tellerrand. Here, she acknowledges the changing terminology over the years:

Pattern portfolio is a term used by Natalie Downe when she started using the technique at Clearleft back in 2009.

Front-end style guides is another term I’ve heard a lot.

Personally, I don’t think it matters what you call your system as long as it’s appropriate to the project and everyone uses it. Today I’m going to use the term “pattern library”.

(Mark was always a fan of the term “component library”.)

Now Charlotte is a product manager at Ansarada in Sydney and the product she manages is …the design system!

Thinking back to my work on starting design systems, I didn’t realise straight away that I was working on a product. Yet, the questions we ask are similar to those we ask of any product when we start out. We make decisions on things like: design, architecture, tooling, user experience, code, releases, consumption, communication, and more.

It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of design systems at Clearleft, accompanied by an evolution in language: pattern portfolios; front-end style guides; pattern libraries; design systems.

There’s been a corresponding evolution in prioritisation. Where Natalie was using pattern portfolios as a deliverable for handover, Danielle is now involved in the integration of design systems within a client’s team. The focus on efficiency and consistency that Natalie began is now expressed in terms of design ops—creating living systems that everyone is involved in.

When I step back and look at the history of design systems on the web, there are some obvious names that have really driven their evolution and adoption, like Jina Anne, Brad Frost, and Alla Kholmatova. But I’m amazed at the amount of people who have been through Clearleft’s doors that have contributed so, so much to this field:

Natalie Downe, Anna Debenham, Paul Lloyd, Mark Perkins, Charlotte Jackson, and Danielle Huntrods …thank you all!

Open source

Building and maintaining an open-source project is hard work. That observation is about as insightful as noting the religious affiliation of the pope or the scatological habits of woodland bears.

Nolan Lawson wrote a lengthy post describing what it feels like to be an open-source maintainer.

Outside your door stands a line of a few hundred people. They are patiently waiting for you to answer their questions, complaints, pull requests, and feature requests.

You want to help all of them, but for now you’re putting it off. Maybe you had a hard day at work, or you’re tired, or you’re just trying to enjoy a weekend with your family and friends.

But if you go to github.com/notifications, there’s a constant reminder of how many people are waiting

Most of the comments on the post are from people saying “Yup, I hear ya!”

Jan wrote a follow-up post called Sustainable Open Source: The Maintainers Perspective or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love Open Source:

Just because there are people with problems in front of your door, that doesn’t mean they are your problems. You can choose to make them yours, but you want to be very careful about what to care about.

There’s also help at hand in the shape of Open Source Guides created by Nadia Eghbal:

A collection of resources for individuals, communities, and companies who want to learn how to run and contribute to an open source project.

I’m sure Mark can relate to all of the tales of toil that come with being an open-source project maintainer. He’s been working flat-out on Fractal, sometimes at work, but often at home too.

Fractal isn’t really a Clearleft project, at least not in the same way that something like Silverback or UX London is. We’re sponsoring Fractal as much as we can, but an open-source project doesn’t really belong to anyone; everyone is free to fork it and take it. But I still want to make sure that Mark and Danielle have time at work to contribute to Fractal. It’s hard to balance that with the bill-paying client work though.

I invited Remy around to chat with them last week. It was really valuable. Mind you, Remy was echoing many of the same observations made in Nolan’s post about how draining this can be.

So nobody here is under any illusions that this open-source lark is to be entered into lightly. It can be a gruelling exercise. But then it can also be very, very rewarding. One kind word from somebody using your software can make your day. I was genuinely pleased as punch when Danish agency Shift sent Mark a gift to thank him for all his hard work on Fractal.

People can be pretty darn great (which I guess is an underlying principle of open source).

Fractal ways

24 Ways is back! That’s how we web nerds know that the Christmas season is here. It kicked off this year with a most excellent bit of hardware hacking from Seb: Internet of Stranger Things.

The site is looking lovely as always. There’s also a component library to to accompany it: Bits, the front-end component library for 24 ways. Nice work, courtesy of Paul. (I particularly like the comment component example).

The component library is built with Fractal, the magnificent tool that Mark has open-sourced. We’ve been using at Clearleft for a while now, but we haven’t had a chance to make any of the component libraries public so it’s really great to be able to point to the 24 Ways example. The code is all on Github too.

There’s a really good buzz around Fractal right now. Lots of people in the design systems Slack channel are talking about it. There’s also a dedicated Fractal Slack channel for people getting into the nitty-gritty of using the tool.

If you’re currently wrestling with the challenges of putting a front-end component library together, be sure to give Fractal a whirl.

On the side

My role at Clearleft is something along the lines of being a technical director. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it seems to be a way of being involved in front-end development, without necessarily writing much actual code. That’s probably for the best. My colleagues Mark, Graham, and Charlotte are far more efficient at doing that. In return, I do my best to support them and make sure that they’ve got whatever they need (in terms of resources, time, and space) to get on with their work.

I’m continuously impressed not only by the quality of their output on client projects, but also by their output on the side.

Mark is working a project called Fractal. It’s a tool for creating component libraries, something he has written about before. The next steps involve getting the code to version 1.0 and completing the documentation. Then you’ll be hearing a lot more about this. The tricky thing right now is fitting it in around client work. It’s going to be very exciting though—everyone who has been beta-testing Fractal has had very kind words to say. It’s quite an impressive piece of work, especially considering that it’s the work of one person.

Graham is continuing on his crazily-ambitious project to recreate the classic NES game Legend Of Zelda using web technology. His documentation of his process is practically a book:

  1. Introduction,
  2. The Game Loop,
  3. Drawing to the Screen,
  4. Handling User Input,
  5. Scaling the Canvas,
  6. Animation — Part 1,
  7. Levels & Collision — part 1, and most recently
  8. Levels — part 2.

It’s simultaneously a project that involves the past—retro gaming—and the future—playing with the latest additions to JavaScript in modern browsers (something that feeds directly back into client work).

Charlotte has been speaking up a storm. She spoke at the Up Front conference in Manchester about component libraries:

The process of building a pattern library or any kind of modular design system requires a different approach to delivering a set of finished pages. Even when the final deliverable is a pattern library, we often still have to design pages for approval. When everyone is so used to working with pages, it can be difficult to adopt a new way of thinking—particularly for those who are not designers and developers.

This talk will look at how we can help everyone in the team adopt pattern thinking. This includes anyone with a decision to make—not just designers and developers. Everyone in the team can start building a shared vocabulary and attempt to make the challenge of naming things a little easier.

Then she spoke at Dot York about her learning process:

As a web developer, I’m learning all the time. I need to know how to make my code work, but more importantly, I want to understand why my code works. I’ve learnt most of what I know from people sharing what they know and I love that I can now do the same. In my talk I want to share my highlights and frustrations of continuous learning, my experiences of working with a mentor and fitting it into my first year at Clearleft.

She’ll also be speaking at Beyond Tellerrand in Berlin later this year. Oh, and she’s also now a co-organiser of the brilliant Codebar events that happen every Tuesday here in Brighton.

Altogether that’s an impressive amount of output from Clearleft’s developers. And all of that doesn’t include the client work that Mark, Graham, and Charlotte are doing. They inspire me!