Tags: creativity

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

Sunday, April 3rd, 2022

Notes, links, etc | 28 March - 2 April weeknotes

There’s a difference between creativity and production. I knit things but it’s not a creative process for me, it’s a physical one. I’m not interested in doing ‘something new’ with knitting (I don’t even call myself a ‘knitter’ to be honest. I don’t really think I’ve earned it). I haven’t learned the methods of construction. I’ve never tried to make something new out of the stitches I’ve learned. It’s not why I knit. I knit to relax. There’s joy in following a pattern and knowing that a more accomplished, knowledgeable person has done the hard creative work for me, and if I just do what they say, thing’s will probably work out fine. And I love the things I make. I put care into the production process - I take care to get the stitches neat, if I can. But when people look at the things I make and say “you’re so creative” - it’s just not true. In that context I can only ever say “no, I followed a pattern - it’s a good pattern. Do you want the link?”

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

morals in the machine | The Roof is on Phire

We are so excited by the idea of machines that can write, and create art, and compose music, with seemingly little regard for how many wells of creativity sit untapped because many of us spend the best hours of our days toiling away, and even more can barely fulfill basic needs for food, shelter, and water. I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

mmm.page

This is a fun drag’n’drop way to make websites. And I like the philosophy:

Websites shouldn’t all look the same. We prefer campy, kitschy, messy, imperfect.

Thursday, December 17th, 2020

Simon Collison | This used to be our playground

Tending this website keeps me sane. I think of it as a digital garden, a kind of sanctuary. … And if my site is a kind of garden, then I see myself as both gardener and architect, in so much as I make plans and prepare the ground, then sow things that grow in all directions. Some things die, but others thrive, and that’s how my garden grows. And I tend it for me; visitors are a bonus.

A thoughtful and impassioned plea from Colly for more personal publishing:

I know that social media deprived the personal site of oxygen, but you are not your Twitter profile, nor are you your LinkedIn profile. You are not your Medium page. You are not your tiny presence on the company’s About page. If you are, then you look just like everyone else, and that’s not you at all. Right?

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?

My favorite aspect of websites is their duality: they’re both subject and object at once. In other words, a website creator becomes both author and architect simultaneously. There are endless possibilities as to what a website could be. What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle? Whatever it is, there’s potential for a self-reflexive feedback loop: when you put energy into a website, in turn the website helps form your own identity.

Sunday, November 1st, 2020

Painting With the Web · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

By using static wireframes and static layouts, by separating design and development, we are often limiting our ability to have that creative dialogue with the Web and its materials. We are limiting our potential for playful exploration and for creating surprising and novel solutions. And, most importantly, we are limiting our ability to make conscious, well-informed decisions going forward. By adding more and more layers of abstraction, we are breaking the feedback loop of the creative process.

Monday, November 11th, 2019

FF Conf 2019

Friday was FF Conf day here in Brighton. This was the eleventh(!) time that Remy and Julie have put on the event. It was, as ever, excellent.

It’s a conference that ticks all the boxes for me. For starters, it’s a single-track event. The more I attend conferences, the more convinced I am that multi-track events are a terrible waste of time for attendees (and a financially bad model for organisers). I know that sounds like a sweeping broad generalisation, but ask me about it next time we meet and I’ll go into more detail. For now, I just want to talk about this mercifully single-track conference.

FF Conf has built up a rock-solid reputation over the years. I think that’s down to how Remy curates it. He thinks about what he wants to know and learn more about, and then thinks about who to invite to speak on those topics. So every year is like a snapshot of Remy’s brain. By happy coincidence, a snapshot of Remy’s brain right now looks a lot like my own.

You could tell that Remy had grouped the talks together in themes. There was a performance-themed chunk right after lunch. There was a people-themed chunk in the morning. There was a creative-coding chunk at the end of the day. Nice work, DJ.

I think it was quite telling what wasn’t on the line-up. There were no talks about specific libraries or frameworks. For me, that was a blessed relief. The only technology-specific talk was Alice’s excellent talk on Git—a tool that’s useful no matter what you’re coding.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed the framework-free nature of the day is that most talks—and conferences—that revolve around libraries and frameworks are invariably focused on the developer experience. Think about it: next time you’re watching a talk about a framework or library, ask yourself how it impacts user experience.

At FF Conf, the focus was firmly on people. In the case of Laura’s barnstorming presentation, those people are end users (I’m constantly impressed by how calm and measured Laura remains even when talking about blood-boilingly bad behaviour from the tech industry). In the case of Amina’s talk, the people are junior developers. And for Sharon’s presentation, the people are everyone.

One of the most useful talks of the day was from Anna who took us on a guided tour of dev tools to identify performance improvements. I found it inspiring in a very literal sense—if I had my laptop with me, I think I would’ve opened it up there and then and started tinkering with my websites.

Harry also talked about performance, but at Remy’s request, it was more business focused. Specifically, it was focused on Harry’s consultancy business. I think this would’ve been the perfect talk for more of an “industry” event, whereas FF Conf is very much a community event: Harry’s semi-serious jibes about keeping his performance secrets under wraps didn’t quite match the generous tone of the rest of the line-up.

The final two talks from Charlotte and Suz were a perfect double whammy.

When I saw Charlotte speak at Material in Iceland last year, I wrote this aside in my blog post summary:

(Oh, and Remy, when you start to put together the line-up for next year’s FF Conf, be sure to check out Charlotte Dann—her talk at Material was the perfect mix of code and creativity.)

I don’t think I can take credit for Charlotte being on the line-up, but I will take credit for saying she’d be the perfect fit.

And then Suz Hinton closed out the conference with this rallying cry that resonated perfectly with Laura’s talk:

Less mass-produced surveillance bullshit and more Harry Potter magic (please)!

I think that rallying cry could apply equally well to conferences, and I think FF Conf is a good example of that ethos in action.

Saturday, September 21st, 2019

Thinking vs Choosing – The Haystack

There seems to be a tendency to repurpose existing solutions to other people’s problems. I propose that this is the main cause of the design sameness that we encounter on the web (and in apps) today. In our (un)conscious attempts to reduce the effort needed to do our work, we’ve become experts in choosing rather than in thinking.

A very thoughtful piece from Stephen.

When we use existing solutions or patterns, we use a different kind of thinking. Our focus is on finding which pattern will work for us. Too quickly, we turn our attention away from closely examining the problem.

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

Into the Personal-Website-Verse · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

There is one alternative to social media sites and publishing platforms that has been around since the early, innocent days of the web. It is an alternative that provides immense freedom and control: The personal website. It’s a place to write, create, and share whatever you like, without the need to ask for anyone’s permission.

A wonderful and inspiring call to arms for having your own website—a place to express yourself, and a playground, all rolled into one.

Building and maintaining your personal website is an investment that is challenging and can feel laborious at times. Be prepared for that. But what you will learn along the way does easily make up for all the effort and makes the journey more than worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Cassie Evans [Bytes Conf 2019] - YouTube

Cassie’s terrific talk from Bytes Conf, featuring some wild CSS experiments.

(Conference organisers—you want Cassie on your stage!)

Limitation Breeds Creativity - Cassie Evans [Bytes Conf 2019]

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected | WIRED

Craig writes about reading and publishing, from the memex and the dynabook to the Kindle, the iPhone, and the iPad, all the way back around to plain ol’ email and good old-fashioned physical books.

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Puzzle Montage Art by Tim Klein

Jigsaw puzzle companies tend to use the same cut patterns for multiple puzzles. This makes the pieces interchangeable, and I sometimes find that I can combine portions from two or more puzzles to make a surreal picture that the publisher never imagined. I take great pleasure in “discovering” such bizarre images lying latent, sometimes for decades, within the pieces of ordinary mass-produced puzzles.

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

The Emperor’s New Tools?: pragmatism and the idolatry of the web | words from Cole Henley, @cole007

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.

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

A Talk with the Pioneering Internet Art Collective JODI -ARTnews

“It’s almost too easy now, and too unsatisfying that you only can put your work in a community full of advertisements and full of tracking,” she said. “I think there will be this urge, on the one hand, to have a local internet of small communities, and, on the other hand, a decentralized internet again.”

“You can still make websites nowadays,” Heemskerk said. “People think it’s complex, but it isn’t —you just register your domain and make your website and that’s about it.”

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

A better metaphor for technology - The Verge

The ideas and images that come to mind when you think of technology as an instrument are more useful than if you think of it as a tool. Instruments — I’m specifically talking about musical instruments — are a way to create culture.

You approach instruments with a set of expectations and associations that are more humane. It’s built into their very purpose. Instruments are meant to make something for other people, not making things. When you use an instrument, you have an expectation that it is going to take effort to use it well. Using an instrument takes practice. You form a relationship with that object. It becomes part of your identity that you make something with it. You tune it. You understand that there’s no such thing as a “best” guitar in the same way that there’s not necessarily a “best” phone.

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Solving Sol

Browser implementations of Sol LeWitt’s conceptual and minimal art, many of which only exist as instructions like this:

Vertical lines, not straight, not touching, covering the wall evenly.

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Stacking the Bricks: How the Blog Broke the Web

The title is quite clickbaity, but this is a rather wonderful retelling of web history on how Content Management Systems may have stifled a lot of the web’s early creativity.

Also, there’s this provocation: we like to rail against algorithmic sorting …but what if the reverse-chronological feed was itself the first algorithm?

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Superfan! — Sacha Judd

The transcript of a talk that is fantastic in every sense.

Fans are organised, motivated, creative, technical, and frankly flat-out awe-inspiring.