Design systems can often ‘read’ as very top down, but need to be bottom up to reflect the needs of different users of different services in different contexts.
I’ve yet to be involved in a design system that hasn’t struggled to some extent for participation and contribution from the whole of its design community.
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
Design systems roundup
When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.
But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.
Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.
That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.
Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:
This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.
But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:
At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.
Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”
A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.
But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:
Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?
I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.
Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:
Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.
Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.
Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.
Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:
We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.
Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.
Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:
Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.
Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.
And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:
In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.
When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.
All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:
Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.
It’s just the beginning.
At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.
As always, it depends.
Remember what Frank said:
A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.
The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.
This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.
But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.
Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).
Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.
Aaaaaand the circle is now complete.
It is a crisis of care.
As with anything, it’s not about the technology itself:
A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.
Monday, December 2nd, 2019
Episode 226 – Create Your Own Website Write about What You Discover and Be Dependable with Jeremy Keith – IT Career Energizer
This was a really fun podcast chat—nice and snappy at just 20 minutes.
Monday, November 11th, 2019
Here, then, is my speculation. Work is something we struggle to get and strive to keep. We love-hate it (usually not in equal measure). Sometimes it seems meaningless. I’m told this is the case even for surgeons, teachers and disaster-relief workers: those with jobs whose worth seems indisputable. For the mere facilitators, the obscure cogs in the machinery of the modern economy whose precise function and value it takes some effort to ascertain, the meaning in what we do often seems particularly elusive (I should know). I contend, however, that while our lives need to be meaningful, our work does not; it only has to be honest and useful. And if someone is voluntarily paying you to do something, it’s probably useful at least to them.
Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
Tim ponders the hard work that goes into adding standards to browsers, giving us a system with remarkable longevity.
So much care and planning has gone into creating the web platform, to ensure that even as new features are added, they’re added in a way that doesn’t break the web for anyone using an older device or browser. Can you say the same for any framework out there?
His parting advice is perfect:
Use the platform until you can’t, then augment what’s missing. And when you augment, do so with care because the responsibility of ensuring the security, accessibility, and performance that the platform tries to give you by default now falls entirely on you.
Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019
I love the way that Amber is documenting her journey—I think this is so useful for others making the progression from junior to mid-level developer.
Thursday, May 9th, 2019
I used to get really down when people left. Over time I’ve learned not to take it as such a bad thing. I mean, of course it’s sad when someone moves on, but for them, it’s exciting. And I should be sharing in that excitement, not putting a damper on it.
Besides, people tend to stay at Clearleft for years and years—in the tech world, that’s unheard of. So it’s not really so terrible when they decide to head out to pastures new. They’ll always be Clearlefties. Just look at the lovely parting words from Harry, Paul, Ellen, and Ben:
Working at Clearleft was one of the best decisions I ever made. 6 years of some work that I’m most proud of, amongst some of the finest thinkers I’ve ever met.
(Side note: I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast where I chat to ex-Clearlefties. We could reflect on the past, look to the future, and generally just have a catch-up. Would that be self indulgent or interesting? Let me know what you think.)
So of course I’m going to miss working with Danielle, but as with other former ‘lefties, I’m genuinely excited to see what happens next for her. Clearleft has had an excellent three years of her time and now it’s another company’s turn.
In the spirit of “one door closes, another opens,” Danielle’s departure creates an opportunity for someone else. Fancy working at Clearleft? Well, we’re looking for a head of front-end development.
Do you remember back at the start of the year when we were hiring a front-end developer, and I wrote about writing job postings?
My first instinct was to look at other job ads and take my cue from them. But, let’s face it, most job ads are badly written, and prone to turning into laundry lists. So I decided to just write like I normally would. You know, like a human.
That worked out really well. We ended up hiring the ridiculously talented Trys Mudford. Success!
So I’ve taken the same approach with this job ad. I’ve tried to paint as clear and honest a picture as I can of what this role would entail. Like it says, there are three main parts to the job:
- business support,
- technical leadership, and
- professional development.
Now, I could easily imagine someone reading the job description and thinking, “Nope! Not for me.” Let’s face it: There Will Be Meetings. And a whole lotta context switching:
Within the course of one day, you might go from thinking about thorny code problems to helping someone on your team with their career plans to figuring out how to land new business in a previously uncharted area of technology.
I can equally imagine someone reading that and thinking “Yes! This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I can picture a few scenarios where this role could be the ideal career move…
Suppose you’re a lead developer at a product company. You enjoy leading a team of devs, and you like setting the technical direction when it comes to the tools and techniques being used. But maybe you’re frustrated by always working on the same product with the same tech stack. The agency world, where every project is different, might be exactly what you’re looking for.
Or maybe you’re an accomplished and experienced front-end developer, freelancing and contracting for years. Perhaps you’re less enamoured with being so hands-on with the code all the time. Maybe you’ve realised that what you really enjoy is solving problems and evaluating techologies, and you’d be absolutely fine with having someone else take care of the implementation. Moving into a lead role like this might be the perfect way to make the best use of your time and have more impact with your decisions.
You get the idea. If any of this is sounding intriguing to you, you should definitely apply for the role. What do you have to lose?
Also, as it says in the job ad:
If you’re from a group that is under-represented in tech, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Thursday, March 28th, 2019
This is such a lovely farewell from Ellen. We’re all going to miss having her around.
Clearleft really set an example to other companies when it comes to their mission to help their staff pursue their ambitions — their training has given me a much bolder confidence for public speaking, for developing my voice and for getting my ideas out there. The generous attitude to learning, sharing and bold experimentation at Clearleft is one of the best things about working there.
Thursday, January 31st, 2019
When we talk about HTML and CSS these discussions impact the entry point into this profession. Whether front or backend, many of us without a computer science background are here because of the ease of starting to write HTML and CSS. The magic of seeing our code do stuff on a real live webpage! We have already lost many of the entry points that we had. We don’t have the forums of parents teaching each other HTML and CSS, in order to make a family album. Those people now use Facebook, or perhaps run a blog on wordpress.com or SquareSpace with a standard template. We don’t have people customising their MySpace profile, or learning HTML via Neopets. We don’t have the people, usually women, entering the industry because they needed to learn HTML during that period when an organisation’s website was deemed part of the duties of the administrator.
I agree with every single word Rachel has written.
I care not a whit what tools or frameworks, or languages you use to build something on the web. But I really care deeply when particular tools, frameworks, or languages become mandatory for even getting a foot in the door.
This is for everyone.
I might be the “old guard” but if you think I’m incapable of learning React, or another framework, and am defending my way of working because of this, please get over yourself. However, 22 year old me would have looked at those things and run away. If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged. I have plenty of fight left in me to stand up against that.
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019
Something that I am increasingly uncomfortable with is our industry’s obsession with job titles. I understand that the landscape has gotten a lot more complex than when I started out in 2009, but I do think the sheer volume and variation in titles isn’t overly helpful in communicating what people actually do.
I share Andy’s concern. I kinda wish that the title for this open job role at Clearleft could’ve just said “Person”.
An excellent thorough analysis by Chris of the growing divide between front-end developers and …er, other front-end developers?
The divide is between people who self-identify as a (or have the job title of) front-end developer, yet have divergent skill sets.
On the other, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are focused on other areas of the front end, like HTML, CSS, design, interaction, patterns, accessibility, etc.
Saturday, September 1st, 2018
I share many of Cole’s concerns. I think we’re in fairly similiar situations. We even share the same job title: Technical Director …whatever that even means.
I worry about our over-reliance and obsession with tools because for many these are a barrier to our discipline. I worry that they may never really make our work better, faster or easier and that our attention is increasingly focussed not on the drawing but on the pencils. But I mostly worry that our current preoccupation with the way we work (rather than necessarily what we work on) is sapping my enthusiasm for an industry I love and care about immensely.
Friday, July 20th, 2018
There are of course things worth your time and deep consideration, and there are distractions. Profound new thinking and movements within our industry - the kind that fundamentally shifts the way we work in a positive new direction are worth your time and attention. Other things are distractions. I put new industry gossip, frameworks, software and tools firmly in the distractions category. This is the sort of content that exists in the padding between big movements. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t break new ground and it doesn’t make or break your ability to do your job.
Thursday, May 3rd, 2018
Following on from Ben’s post, this is also giving me the warm fuzzies.
I, in no uncertain terms, have become a better designer thanks to the people I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside at Clearleft. I’ll forever be thankful of my time there, and to the people who helped me become better.
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
Ben is moving on from Clearleft. I’m going to miss him. I found this summation of his time here very moving.
Working at Clearleft was one of the best decisions I ever made. 6 years of some work that I’m most proud of, amongst some of the finest thinkers I’ve ever met.
He also outlines the lessons he learned here:
- Writing and speaking will make you a better thinker and designer.
- Autonomy rules.
- Own stuff.
- Aim high.
Should you ever choose to work with, or work for Clearleft, I hope these words will give you some encouragement — it is an exceptional place to be.
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.
Wednesday, February 7th, 2018
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Design is more important and respected than ever, which means we have more agency to affect change. But at the same time, our priorities have been subverted, pushed towards corporate benefit over human benefit. It’s hard to reconcile those things.
Monday, September 11th, 2017
I like Chris’s list of criteria for the nebulous role of senior developer:
- A senior front end developer has experience.
- A senior front-end developer has a track record of good judgment.
- A senior developer has positive impact beyond the code.
- A senior developer is helpful, not all-knowing.
- A senior front-end developer is a force multiplier.
Friday, July 14th, 2017
This resonates a lot—we’ve been working on something similar at Clearleft, for very similar reasons:
We rode the folk knowledge train until it became clear that it was totally unscaleable and we struggled to effectively commute know-how to the incoming brains.
At Made By Many, they’ve sliced it into three categories: Design, Technology, and Product Management & Strategy. At Clearleft, we’re trying to create a skills matrix for each of these disciplines: UX, UI, Dev, Research, Content Strategy, and Project Management. I’m working on the Dev matrix. I’ll share it once we’ve hammered it into something presentable. In the meantime, it’s good to see exactly the same drivers are at work at Made By Many:
The levels give people a scaffold onto which they can project their personalised career path, reflecting their progression, and facilitating professional development at every stage.