It’s great to see former Clearlefties like Nat, Paul and Anna rightly getting namechecked in this history of designing for the web in a systemic way. It’s a tradition that continues to this day with projects like Utopia.
The wood wide web has been a powerhouse metaphor for popularizing the mutualistic relationships of healthy forests. But like a struggling forest, the web is no longer healthy. It has been wounded and depleted in the pursuit of profit. Going online today is not an invigorating walk through a green woodland—it’s rush-hour traffic alongside a freeway median of diseased trees, littered with the detritus of late capitalism. If we want to repair this damage, we must look to the wisdom of the forest and listen to ecologists like Simard when they tell us just how sustainable, interdependent, life-giving systems work.
A beautiful piece by the brilliant Claire L. Evans.
The project of decentralizing the web is vast, and only just beginning. It means finding a way to uproot our expression and communication from the walled gardens of tech platforms, and finding novel ways to distribute the responsibilities of infrastructure across a collective network. But we needn’t start from nothing.
Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.
It isn’t even that great for means.
We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!
- Get the beat.
- Listen to the wisdom of the system.
- Expose your mental models to the open air.
- Stay humble. Stay a learner.
- Honor and protect information.
- Locate responsibility in the system.
- Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
- Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
- Go for the good of the whole.
- Expand time horizons.
- Expand thought horizons.
- Expand the boundary of caring.
- Celebrate complexity.
- Hold fast to the goal of goodness.
A great tool is not a universal tool it’s a tool well suited to a specific problem.
The more universal a solution someone claims to have to whatever software engineering problem exists, and the more confident they are that it is a fully generalized solution, the more you should question them.
I don’t agree with all of the mythbusting in this litany of life lessons, but this one is spot on:
The best thing that can be done to a problem is to solve it. False. The best thing that can be done to a problem is to dissolve it, to redesign the entity that has it or its environment so as to eliminate the problem.
Remember that next time you’re tempted to solve a problem by throwing more code at it.
This looks interesting: a free one-day Barcamp-like event online all about design systems for the public sector, organised by the Gov.uk design system team:
If you work on public sector services and work with design systems, you’re welcome to attend. We even have some tickets for people who do not work in the public sector. If you love design systems, we’re happy to have you!
Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.
I like this Long Now view of our dataome:
We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.
It’s good to hear stories like this—makes me feel like the slow-burn of the theoretical benefits of web components is starting to spark and flame up.
The level of authority and professionalism in a design system helps sell it so teams use it. But increases the perception things are fixed. Done. And not open to change.
An excellent explainer from Trys and James of their supersmart Utopia approach:
Utopia encourages the curation of a system small enough to be held in short-term memory, rather than one so sprawling it must be constantly referred to.
Robin makes a good point here about using dark mode thinking as a way to uncover any assumptions you might have unwittingly baked into your design:
Given its recent popularity, you might believe dark mode is a fad. But from a design perspective, dark mode is exceptionally useful. That’s because a big part of design is about building relationships between colors. And so implementing dark mode essentially forced everyone on the team to think long, hard, and consistently about our front-end design components. In short, dark mode helped our design system not only look good, but make sense.
So even if you don’t actually implement dark mode, acting as though it’s there will give you a solid base to build in.
I did something similar with the back end of Huffduffer and The Session—from day one, I built them as though the interface would be available in multiple languages. I never implemented multi-language support, but just the awareness of it saved me from baking in any shortcuts or assumptions, and enforced a good model/view/controller separation.
For most front-end codebases, the design of your color system shows you where your radioactive styles are. It shows you how things are tied together, and what depends on what.
I’d maybe simplify this people problem a bit: the codebase is easy to change, but the incentives within a company are not. And yet it’s the incentives that drive what kind of code gets written — what is acceptable, what needs to get fixed, how people work together. In short, we cannot be expected to fix the code without fixing the organization, too.
These survey results show that creating and maintaining an impactful design system comes with challenges such as planning a clear strategy, managing changes to the system, and fostering design system adoption across the organization. Yet the long-lasting value of a mature design system—like collaboration and better communication—awaits after the hard work of overcoming these challenges is done.
A great talk by Ethan called The Design Systems Between Us.
Don’t blame it on the COBOL:
It’s a common fiction that computing technologies tend to become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, because this sells more units of consumer electronics. But this has never been true when it comes to large-scale computing infrastructure. This misapprehension, and the language’s history of being disdained by an increasingly toxic programming culture, made COBOL an easy scapegoat. But the narrative that COBOL was to blame for recent failures undoes itself: scapegoating COBOL can’t get far when the code is in fact meant to be easy to read and maintain.
It strikes me that the resilience of programmes written in COBOL is like the opposite of today’s modern web stack, where the tangled weeds of nested dependencies ensures that projects get harder and harder to maintain over time.
In a field that has elevated boy geniuses and rockstar coders, obscure hacks and complex black-boxed algorithms, it’s perhaps no wonder that a committee-designed language meant to be easier to learn and use—and which was created by a team that included multiple women in positions of authority—would be held in low esteem. But modern computing has started to become undone, and to undo other parts of our societies, through the field’s high opinion of itself, and through the way that it concentrates power into the hands of programmers who mistake social, political, and economic problems for technical ones, often with disastrous results.
Before the hagiographical praise for working with an iPad Pro, Robin nails the fundamental shape of the design process:
I had forgotten that there are two modes of design, just as there is in writing.
The first mode is understanding the problem, getting a ten-thousand foot view of the land. It’s getting people to acknowledge that this really is the problem we need to agree upon. This work needs to happen in a sketchbook in the form of messy, back-of-the-napkin drawings or in writing. All this helps you to form a proper argument and focus your thoughts.
The second mode of design is taking that ten-thousand foot view and zooming all the way in to the hairs on the back of the rabbit; figuring out the precise UI and components, the copywriting, the animations, the everything else. This should be done in a design tool like Figma or Sketch. And this is when we should be talking about color palettes, icons, design systems, and consistency.
The problem with almost all design work is that first phase never really happens. People don’t take that ten thousand foot view of the problem and are focusing instead on the pixels; they’re trapped by the system they know too well.
Yes, yes, yes! Spot on:
I think people get stuck in that second mode because productivity in design is often tied to “how many pages or frames did I design today?” when productivity should instead be thought of as “how did my understanding of the problem change?
It all started at Patterns Day…
(Note: you’ll probably need to use Reader mode to avoid taxing your eyes reading this—the colour contrast …doesn’t.)
Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.
Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.