Ted Chiang’s hot takes are like his short stories—punchy, powerful, and thought-provoking.
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
Friday, March 27th, 2020
An interview with Joanne McNeil about her new book, Lurking:
Someone who was creating, say, a small decentralized community for a specific group of people would not have luck finding investors, as opposed to Facebook, which sought to build a platform for all.
‘Sfunny, when I was on Quarantine Book Club the other day, this is exactly what I talked about one point—how Facebook (and venture capital) moved the goalposts on what constitutes success and failure on the web.
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
I’ve come to accept that our current approach to remedy poor performance largely consists of engineering techniques that stem from the ill effects of our business, product management, and engineering practices. We’re good at applying tourniquets, but not so good at sewing up deep wounds.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that web performance isn’t solely an engineering problem, but a problem of people.
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.
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.
Tuesday, February 4th, 2020
Brad weighs in on what I wrote about design systems and automation. He rightly points out that the issue isn’t with any particular tool—and a design system is, after all, a tool—but rather with the culture and processes of the organisation.
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.
There’s a full-on rant here about the dehumanising effects of what’s called “agile” at scale:
I’ve come to the conclusion that “enterprise web development” is just regular web development, only stripped of any joy or creativity or autonomy. It’s plugging a bunch of smart people into the matrix and forcing them to crank out widgets and move the little cards to the right.
Monday, January 20th, 2020
It’s official. Microsoft’s Edge browser is running on the Blink rendering engine and it’s available now.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about my feelings on this decision:
I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.
The importance of browser engine diversity is beautifully illustrated (literally) in Rachel’s The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity.
But I was chatting to Amber the other day, and I mentioned how I can see the theoretical justification for Microsoft’s decision …even if I don’t quite buy it myself.
Picture, if you will, something I’ll call the bar of unity. It’s a measurement of how much collaboration is happening between browser makers.
In the early days of the web, the bar of unity was very low indeed. The two main browser vendors—Microsoft and Netscape—not only weren’t collaborating, they were actively splintering the languages of the web. One of them would invent a new HTML element, and the other would invent a completely different element to do the same thing (remember
There wasn’t enough collaboration. Our collective anger at this situation led directly to the creation of The Web Standards Project.
Eventually, those companies did start collaborating on standards at the W3C. The bar of unity was raised.
This has been the situation for most of the web’s history. Different browser makers agreed on standards, but went their own separate ways on implementation. That’s where they drew the line.
Now that line is being redrawn. The bar of unity is being raised. Now, a number of separate browser makers—Google, Samsung, Microsoft—not only collaborate on standards but also on implementation, sharing a codebase.
The bar of unity isn’t right at the top. Browsers can still differentiate in their user interfaces. Edge, for example, can—and does—offer very sensible defaults for blocking trackers. That’s much harder for Chrome to do, given that Google are amongst the worst offenders.
So these browsers are still competing, but the competition is no longer happening at the level of the rendering engine.
I can see how this looks like a positive development. In fact, from this point of view, Mozilla are getting in the way of progress by having a separate codebase (yes, this is a genuinely-held opinion by some people).
On the face of it, more unity sounds good. It sounds like more collaboration. More cooperation.
But then I think of situations where complete unity isn’t necessarily a good thing. Take political systems, for example. If you have hundreds of different political parties, that’s not ideal. But if you only have one political party, that’s very bad indeed!
There’s a sweet spot somewhere in between where there’s a base of level of agreement and cooperation, but there’s also plenty of room for disagreement and opposition. Right now, the browser landscape is just about still in that sweet spot. It’s like a two-party system where one party has a crushing majority. Checks and balances exist, but they’re in peril.
Firefox is one of the last remaining representatives offering an alternative. The least we can do is support it.
Sunday, January 19th, 2020
I feel like my problem with design in general today is that folks want to burn everything to the ground and start again all the time. Whether that’s with a website, or a new web standard, or a political policy. They don’t want to fix what’s wrong with things bit by bit, everyone wants Thing 2.0 whilst jumping over all the small improvements that are required to get there.
Wednesday, January 8th, 2020
- The developed world used less water, despite population growth
- The (whole) world became less transphobic than it once was
- The ozone layer started healing
- Investment in green energy far, far exceeded investment in fossil fuels
- The world got greener
- Homicide rates fell worldwide
- Weather forecasting became a lot more accurate
- The number of people without electricity fell below one billion
- Universal health care went from privileged ideal to global ambition
Thursday, November 7th, 2019
Craig compares and contrasts books to “attention monsters”:
That is, any app / service / publication whose business is predicated on keeping a consumer engaged and re-engaged for the benefit of the organization (often to the detriment of the mental and physical health of the user), dozens if not hundreds or thousands of times a day.
Wednesday, November 6th, 2019
Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
This isn’t a “the web is doomed, DOOMED, I tells ya” kind of blog post. It’s more in the “the web in its current form isn’t sustainable and will collapse into a simpler, more sustainable form, possibly several” genre.
Baldur points to the multiple causes of the web’s current quagmire.
I honestly have no idea on how to mitigate this harm or even how long the decline is going to take. My hope is that if we can make the less complex, more distributed aspects of the web safer and more robust, they will be more likely to thrive when the situation has forced the web as a whole to break up and simplify.
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
We construct top-10 lists for movies, games, TV—pieces of work that shape our souls. But we don’t sit around compiling lists of the world’s most consequential bits of code, even though they arguably inform the zeitgeist just as much.
This is a fascinating way to look at the history of computing, by focusing in on culturally significant pieces of code. The whole list is excellent, but if I had to pick a favourite …well, see if you can guess what it is.
Sunday, September 1st, 2019
As a resident of Brighton—home to the most beautiful of bandstands—this bit of background to their history is fascinating.
Saturday, August 24th, 2019
The web embodies principles of openness and portability and access that best align with the needs, and frankly the purpose, of the cultural heritage sector.
Aaron’s talk from the 2019 Museums and the Web conference.
In 2019 the web is not “sexy” anymore and compared to native platforms it can sometimes seems lacking, but I think that speaks as much to people’s desire for something “new” as it does to any apples to apples comparison. On measure – and that’s the important part: on measure – the web affords a better and more sustainable framework for the cultural heritage to work in than any of the shifting agendas of the various platform vendors.
Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
Fifteen years ago, I went to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay:
I’m back from the west of Ireland. I was sorry to leave. I had a wonderful, music-filled time.
I’m not sure why it took me a decade and a half to go back, but that’s what I did last week. Myself and Jessica once again immersed ourselves in Irish tradtional music. I’ve written up a trip report over on The Session.
On the face of it, fifteen years is a long time. Last time I made the trip to county Clare, I was taking pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. I had a phone with me, but it had a T9 keyboard that I could use for texting and not much else. Also, my hair wasn’t grey.
But in some ways, fifteen years feels like the blink of an eye.
I spent my mornings at the Willie Clancy Summer School immersed in the history of Irish traditional music, with Paddy Glackin as a guide. We were discussing tradition and change in generational timescales. There was plenty of talk about technology, but we were as likely to discuss the influence of the phonograph as the influence of the internet.
Outside of the classes, there was a real feeling of lengthy timescales too. On any given day, I would find myself listening to pre-teen musicians at one point, and septegenarian masters at another.
Now that I’m back in the Clearleft studio, I’m finding it weird to adjust back in to the shorter timescales of working on the web. Progress is measured in weeks and months. Technologies are deemed outdated after just a year or two.
The one bridging point I have between these two worlds is The Session. It’s been going in one form or another for over twenty years. And while it’s very much on and of the web, it also taps into a longer tradition. Over time it has become an enormous repository of tunes, for which I feel a great sense of responsibility …but in a good way. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s also something that gives me great satisfaction, in a way that’s hard to achieve in the rapidly moving world of the web. It’s somewhat comparable to the feelings I have for my own website, where I’ve been writing for eighteen years. But whereas adactio.com is very much focused on me, thesession.org is much more of a community endeavour.
I question sometimes whether The Session is helping or hindering the Irish music tradition. “It all helps”, Paddy Glackin told me. And I have to admit, it was very gratifying to meet other musicians during Willie Clancy week who told me how much the site benefits them.
I think I benefit from The Session more than anyone though. It keeps me grounded. It gives me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise get. And in a time when it feels entirely to right to question whether the internet is even providing a net gain to our world, I take comfort in being part of a project that I think uses the very best attributes of the World Wide Web.
Monday, July 15th, 2019
This is a great how-to from Darius Kazemi!
The main reason to run a small social network site is that you can create an online environment tailored to the needs of your community in a way that a big corporation like Facebook or Twitter never could. Yes, you can always start a Facebook Group for your community and moderate that how you like, but only within certain bounds set by Facebook. If you (or your community) run the whole site, then you are ultimately the boss of what goes on. It is harder work than letting Facebook or Twitter or Slack or Basecamp or whoever else take care of everything, but I believe it’s worth it.
There’s a lot of good advice for community management and the whole thing is a lesson in writing excellent documentation.
Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019
My hypothesis: these algorithms — driven by the all-consuming need for engagement in order to sell ads — are part of what’s destroying western liberal democracy, and my app will not contribute to that.
Monday, July 1st, 2019
The Decolonial Atlas is a growing collection of maps which, in some way, help us to challenge our relationships with the land, people, and state. It’s based on the premise that cartography is not as objective as we’re made to believe.
For example: Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet — a cartogram showing the location of decision makers in the top 100 climate-hostile companies.
This map is a response to the pervasive myth that we can stop climate change if we just modify our personal behavior and buy more green products. Whether or not we separate our recycling, these corporations will go on trashing the planet unless we stop them.
Thursday, June 27th, 2019
How to speak Silicon Valley: decoding tech bros from microdosing to privacy | US news | The Guardian
Every one of these is chef’s kiss.