It’s fantastic that our web plumbing has gotten more powerful—tooling today is capable of so much. But all too often, that power comes with increased complexity that negatively impacts developer efficiency. Sometimes that’s unavoidable. The simplest approach doesn’t always win. But that should be the goal—to make things as simple as possible while still accomplishing what needs to be done. Like excellent plumbing, these systems should be as mostly invisible—chugging along, doing what we need them to do without getting in our way.
Thursday, July 25th, 2019
Friday, June 7th, 2019
Sunday, May 12th, 2019
Today was a good day …and here are the very good photos.
Wednesday, April 24th, 2019
Isn’t this just lovely?
Cassie made a visualisation of the power we’re getting from the solar panels we installed on the roof of the Clearleft building.
I highly recommend reading her blog post about the process too. She does such a great job of explaining how she made API calls, created SVGs, and calculated animations.
Friday, March 29th, 2019
I think we’re often guilty of assuming that because our tools are great solutions for some things, they’re automatically the solution for everything.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
I’m going to say no.
On the surface, our project has all the hallmarks of a design sprint. A group of people who don’t normally work together were thrown into an instense week of problem-solving and building, culminating in a tangible testable output. But when you look closer, the journey itself was quite different. A design sprint is typical broken into five phases, each one mapped on to a day of work:
- Understand and Map
- Demos and Sketch
- Decide and Storyboard
There was certainly plenty of understanding, sketching, and prototyping involved in our hack week at CERN, but we knew going in what the output would be at the end of the week. That’s not the case with most design sprints: figuring out what you’re going to make is half the work. In our case, we knew what needed to be produced; we just had to figure out how. Our process looked more like this:
- Understand and Map
- Research and Sketch
Now you could say that it’s a kind of design sprint, but I think there’s value in reserving the term “design sprint” for the specific five-day process. As it is, there’s enough confusion between the term “sprint” in its agile sense and “design sprint”.
Thursday, January 31st, 2019
New Adventures 2019
My trip to Nottingham for the New Adventures conference went very well indeed.
First of all, I had an all-day workshop to run. I was nervous. Because I no longer prepare slides for workshops—and instead rely on exercises and discussions—I always feel like I’m winging it. I’m not winging it, but without the security blanket of a slide deck, I don’t have anything to fall back on.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The workshop went great. Well, I thought it went great but you’d really have to ask the attendees to know for sure. One of the workshop participants, Westley Knight, wrote about his experience:
The workshop itself was fluid enough to cater to the topics that the attendees were interested in; from over-arching philosophy to technical detail around service workers and new APIs. It has helped me to understand that learning in this kind of environment doesn’t have to be rigorously structured, and can be shaped as the day progresses.
With the workshop done, it was time for me to freak out fully about my conference talk. I was set to open the show. No pressure.
Actually, I felt pretty damn good about what I had been preparing for the past few months (it takes me aaages to put a talk together), but I always get nervous about presenting new material—until I’ve actually given the talk in front of a real audience, I don’t actually know if it’s any good or not.
Clare was speaking right after me, but she was having some technical issues. It’s funny; as soon as she had a problem, I immediately switched modes from conference speaker to conference organiser. Instead of being nervous, I flipped into being calm and reassuring, getting Clare’s presentation—and fonts—onto my laptop, and making sure her talk would go as smoothly as possible (it did!).
My talk went down well. The audience was great. Everyone paid attention, laughed along with the jokes, and really listened to what I was trying to say. For a speaker, you can’t ask for better than that. And people said very nice things about the talk afterwards. Sam Goddard wrote about how it resonated with him.
You can peruse the slides from my presentation but they make very little sense out of context. But video of the talk is forthcoming.
The advantage to being on first was that I got my talk over with at the start of the day. Then I could relax and enjoy all the other talks. And enjoy them I did! I think all of the speakers were feeling the same pressure I was, and everybody brought their A-game. There were some recurring themes throughout the day: responsibility; hope; diversity; inclusion.
So New Adventures was already an excellent event by the time we got to Ethan, who was giving the closing talk. His talk elevated the day into something truly sublime.
Look, I could gush over how good Ethan’s talk was, or try to summarise it, but there’s really no point. I’ll just say that I felt the same sense of being present at something genuinely important that I felt when I was in the room for his original responsive web design talk at An Event Apart back in 2010. When the video is released, you really must watch it. In the meantime, you can read through the articles and books that Ethan cited in his presentation.
New Adventures 2019 was worth attending just for that one talk. I was very grateful I had the opportunity to attend, and I still can’t quite believe that I also had the opportunity to speak.
A really terrific piece from Garrett on the nature of the web:
Markup written almost 30 years ago runs exactly the same today as it did then without a single modification. At the same time, the platform has expanded to accommodate countless enhancements. And you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand or use the vast majority of it. Moreover, a well-constructed web page today would still be accessible on any browser ever made. Much of the newer functionality wouldn’t be supported, but the content would be accessible.
I share his concerns about the maintainability overhead introduced by new tools and frameworks:
I’d argue that for every hour these new technologies have saved me, they’ve cost me another in troubleshooting or upgrading the tool due to a web of invisible dependencies.
Saturday, January 26th, 2019
Here are the slides for the opening keynote I delivered at the New Adventures conference in Nottingham on Thursday. They make no sense out of context like this. You kinda had to be there (or suggest to some other conference that I should deliver this talk again—hint, hint).
Tuesday, January 15th, 2019
I have to admit, I’m kind of nervous about this talk. It’s been quite a while since the last New Adventures, but it’s always had quite the cachet. I think I went to most of them. It’s quite strange—and quite an honour—to shift gears from attendee to speaker.
The talk I’ll be giving is called Building. That might be a noun. That might be a verb. You decide:
Every new medium looks to what has come before for guidance. Web design has taken cues from centuries of typography and graphic design. Web development has borrowed metaphors and ideas from the world of architecture. Let’s take a tour of some of the most influential ideas from architecture that have crossed over into the web, from pattern languages to responsive design. Together we’ll uncover how to build resilient, performant, accessible and beautiful structures that work with the grain of the materials of the web.
This talk builds upon the talk I gave at last year’s An Event Apart called The Way Of The Web. It also reflects many of the ideas in Resilient Web Design. When I gave a run-through of the talk at Clearleft last week, Andy called it a “greatest hits.” For a while there, I was feeling guilty about retreading some ground I’ve covered in previous talks and writings. Then I realised it was pretty arrogant of me to think that anyone in the audience would be familiar with any of it.
Besides, I’ve got a whole new avenue of exploration in this talk. It’s about language and metaphor—how we talk about what we do on the web. I’ve just finished giving another run-through at the Clearleft studio and I’m feeling pretty good about it. That’s good, because I find that giving a talk in a small room to a handful of colleagues is way more stressful than giving a talk to hundreds of people at a conference.
Just as I put together links related to last year’s talk, I figured I’d provide some hyperlinks for anyone interested in the topics raised in this new talk…
- Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
- Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
- Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel
- Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockman
- 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick
- Architectural Intelligence by Molly Wright Steenson
- A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein with Ingrid King, Shlomo Angel and Max Jacobsen
- How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
- Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
- The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility by Stewart Brand
- A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp
- Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte
- Device Agnostic by Trent Walton
- The Work I Like by Ethan Marcotte
Monday, January 7th, 2019
Dave on the opaqueness of toolchains:
As toolchains grow and become more complex, unless you are expertly familiar with them, it’s very unclear what transformations are happening in our code. Tracking the differences between the input and output and the processes that code underwent can be overwhelming. When there’s a problem, it’s increasingly difficult to hop into the assembly line and diagnose the issue.
There’s a connection here to one of the biggest issues with what’s currently being labelled “AI”:
In the same way AI needs some design to show its work in how it came to its final answer, I feel that our automated build tools could use some help as well.
I really like this suggestion for making the invisble visible:
I sometimes wonder if Webpack or Gulp or [Insert Your Build Tool Here] could benefit from a Scratch-like interface for buildchains.
Tuesday, November 27th, 2018
The sentiment is that front-end development is a problem to be solved: “if we just have the right tools and frameworks, then we might never have to write another line of HTML or CSS ever again!” And oh boy what a dream that would be, right?
Well, no, actually. I certainly don’t think that front-end development is a problem at all.
What Robin said.
I reckon HTML and CSS deserve better than to be processed, compiled, and spat out into the browser, whether that’s through some build process, app export, or gigantic framework library of stuff that we half understand. HTML and CSS are two languages that deserve our care and attention to detail. Writing them is a skill.
Thursday, September 20th, 2018
This looks like a really interesting two-day event here in Brighton in November. Like Indie Web Camp, it features one day of talks followed by one day of making.
After a day of tech talks from project teams using their skills for social good, you’ll have the chance to take part in workshops and hackathons to use your own talents for a worthy cause.
And you get to go up the i360.
Monday, July 30th, 2018
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
Rachel goes into detail on how she uses pattern libraries—built with Fractal to build interfaces. I know it sounds like we paid her to say all the nice things about Fractal, but honestly, we didn’t even know she was writing this article!
After discovering Fractal two years ago, we have moved every new project — large and small — into Fractal.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
It is common to refer to universally popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest as “walled gardens.” But they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell. Some of these factories (Twitter, Tumblr, and more recently Instagram) have transparent walls, by which I mean that you need an account to post anything but can view what has been posted on the open Web; others (Facebook, Snapchat) keep their walls mostly or wholly opaque. But they all exercise the same disciplinary control over those who create or share content on their domain.
Professor Alan Jacobs makes the case for the indie web:
We need to revivify the open Web and teach others—especially those who have never known the open Web—to learn to live extramurally: outside the walls.
What do I mean by “the open Web”? I mean the World Wide Web as created by Tim Berners-Lee and extended by later coders. The open Web is effectively a set of protocols that allows the creating, sharing, and experiencing of text, sounds, and images on any computer that is connected to the Internet and has installed on it a browser that can interpret information encoded in conformity with these protocols.
This resonated strongly with me:
To teach children how to own their own domains and make their own websites might seem a small thing. In many cases it will be a small thing. Yet it serves as a reminder that the online world does not merely exist, but is built, and built to meet the desires of certain very powerful people—but could be built differently.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.
I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.
My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.
That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.
I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)
I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.
But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.
choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.
On that note…
Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Tuesday, February 27th, 2018
Although design gets conflated with creation, its the act of improving what already exists — organising a room, editing a text, refining an interface, refactoring a codebase — that I enjoy the most.
Friday, February 9th, 2018
I still find the landscape of build tools completely overwhelming, but I found this distinction to be a useful way of categorising the different kinds of build tools:
Build tools do two things:
- Install things
- Do things
So bower, npm and yarn install things, whereas grunt, gulp, and webpack do things.