A century of sci-fi book covers.
Sunday, June 5th, 2022
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.
Thursday, September 16th, 2021
Writing the Clearleft newsletter
I think it’s a really good newsletter, but then again, I’m the one who writes it. It just kind of worked out that way. In theory, anyone at Clearleft could write an edition of the newsletter.
To make that prospect less intimidating, I put together a document for my colleagues describing how I go about creating a new edition of the newsletter. Then I thought it might be interesting for other people outside of Clearleft to get a peek at how the sausage is made.
So here’s what I wrote…
The description of the newsletter is:
A round-up of handpicked hyperlinks from Clearleft, covering design, technology, and culture.
It usually has three links (maybe four, tops) on a single topic.
The topic can be anything that’s interesting, especially if it’s related to design or technology. Every now and then the topic can be something that incorporates an item that’s specifically Clearleft-related (a case study, an event, a job opening). In general it’s not very salesy at all so people will tolerate the occasional plug.
You can use the “iiiinteresting” Slack channel to find potential topics of interest. I’ve gotten in the habit of popping potential newsletter fodder in there, and then adding related links in a thread.
Imagine you’re telling a friend about something cool you’ve just discovered. You can sound excited. Don’t worry about this looking unprofessional—it’s better to come across as enthusiastic than too robotic. You can put real feelings on display: anger, disappointment, happiness.
That said, you can also just stick to the facts and describe each link in turn, letting the content speak for itself.
If you’re expressing a feeling or an opinion, use the personal pronoun “I”. Don’t use “we” unless you’re specifically referring to Clearleft.
But most of the time, you won’t be using any pronouns at all:
So-and-so has written an article in such-and-such magazine on this-particular-topic.
You might find it useful to have connecting phrases as you move from link to link:
Speaking of some-specific-thing, this-other-person has a different viewpoint.
On the subject of this-particular-topic, so-and-so wrote something about this a while back.
The format of the newsletter is:
- An introductory sentence or short paragraph.
- A sentence describing the first link, ending with the title of the item in bold.
- A link to the item on its own separate line.
- An excerpt from the link, usually a sentence or two, styled as a quote.
- Repeat steps 2 to 4 another two times.
Take a look through the archive of previous newsletters to get a feel for it.
Currently the newsletter is called dConstruct from Clearleft. The subject line of every edition is in the format:
dConstruct from Clearleft — Title of the edition
(Note that’s an em dash with a space on either side of it separating the name of the newsletter and the title of the edition)
I often try to come up with a pun-based title (often a punny portmanteau) but that’s not necessary. It should be nice and short though: just one or two words.
Monday, March 22nd, 2021
Vitaly has rounded up a whole load of accessibility posts. I think I’ve linked to most of them at some point, but it’s great to have them all gathered together in one place.
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
Sometimes a colleague will send a link to a Google Doc where they’ve written an article. I can then go through it and suggest changes. Using the “suggest” mode rather than the “edit” mode in Google Docs means that they can accept or reject each suggestion later.
But what works better—and is far more fun—is if we arrange to have a video call while we both have the Google Doc open in our browsers. That way, instead of just getting the suggestions, we can talk through the reasoning behind each one. It feels more like teaching them to fish instead of giving them a grammatically correct fish.
Some of the suggestions are very minor; punctuation, capitalisation, stuff like that. Where it gets really interesting is trying to figure out and explain why some sentence constructions feel better than others.
A fairly straightforward example is long sentences. Not all long sentences are bad, but the longer a sentence gets, the more it runs the risk of overwhelming the reader. So if there’s an opportunity to split one long sentence into two shorter sentences, I’ll usually recommend that.
Here’s an example from Chris’s post, Delivering training remotely – the same yet different. The original sentence read:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions on product design and research techniques with the design team at Duck Duck Go.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But maybe this is a little easier to digest:
I recently had the privilege of running some training sessions with the design team at Duck Duck Go. We covered product design and research techniques.
Perhaps this is kind of like the single responsibility principle in programming. Whereas the initial version was one sentence that conveyed two pieces of information (who the training was with and what the training covered), the final version has a separate sentence for each piece of information.
I wouldn’t take that idea too far though. Otherwise you’d end up with something quite stilted and robotic.
Speaking of sounding robotic, I’ve noticed that people sometimes avoid using contractions when they’re writing online: “there is” instead of “there’s” or “I am” instead of “I’m.” Avoiding contractions seems to be more professional, but actually it makes the writing a bit too formal. There’s a danger of sounding like a legal contract. Or a Vulcan.
Sometimes a long sentence can’t be broken down into shorter sentences. In that case, I watch out for how much cognitive load the sentence is doling out to the reader.
Here’s an example from Maite’s post, How to engage the right people when recruiting in house for research. One sentence initially read:
The relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide have a great impact on the quality of the insights that you get.
The verb comes quite late there. As a reader, until I get to “have a great impact”, I have to keep track of everything up to that point. Here’s a rephrased version:
The quality of the insights that you get depends on the relevance of the people you invite to participate in a study and the information they provide.
Okay, there are two changes there. First of all, the verb is now “depends on” instead of “have a great impact on.” I think that’s a bit clearer. Secondly, the verb comes sooner. Now I only have to keep track of the words up until “depends on”. After that, I can flush my memory buffer.
Here’s another changed sentence from the same article. The initial sentence read:
You will have to communicate at different times and for different reasons with your research participants.
I suggested changing that to:
You will have to communicate with your research participants at different times and for different reasons.
To be honest, I find it hard to explain why that second version flows better. I think it’s related to the idea of reducing dependencies. The subject “your research participants” is dependent on the verb “to communicate with.” So it makes more sense to keep them together instead of putting a subclause between them. The subclause can go afterwards instead: “at different times and for different reasons.”
Here’s one final example from Katie’s post, Service Designers don’t design services, we all do. One sentence initially read:
Understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments is key to creating a compelling user experience.
That sentence could be broken into shorter sentences, but it might lose some impact. Still, it can be rephrased so the reader doesn’t have to do as much work. As it stands, until the reader gets to “is key to creating”, they have to keep track of everything before that. It’s like the feeling of copying and pasting. If you copy something to the clipboard, you want to paste it as soon as possible. The longer you have to hold onto it, the more uncomfortable it feels.
So here’s the reworked version:
The key to creating a compelling user experience is understanding the relationships between these moments, digital and non-digital, and designing across and between these moments.
As a reader, I can digest and discard each of these pieces in turn:
- The key to creating a compelling user experience is…
- understanding the relationships between these moments…
- digital and non-digital…
- designing across and between these moments.
Maybe I should’ve suggested “between these digital and non-digital moments” instead of “between these moments, digital and non-digital”. But then I worry that I’m intruding on the author’s style too much. With the finished sentence, it still feels like a rousing rallying cry in Katie’s voice, but slightly adjusted to flow a little easier.
I must say, I really, really enjoy being a content buddy. I know the word “editor” would be the usual descriptor, but I like how unintimidating “content buddy” sounds.
I am almost certainly a terrible content buddy to myself. Just as I ignore my own advice about preparing conference talks, I’m sure I go against my own editorial advice every time I blurt out a blog post here. But there’s one piece I’ve given to others that I try to stick to: write like you speak.
Sunday, March 7th, 2021
This is easily my favourite use of a machine learning algorithm.
Thursday, January 28th, 2021
Saturday, December 26th, 2020
This explains rubber ducking.
Speaking out loud is not only a medium of communication, but a technology of thinking: it encourages the formation and processing of thoughts.
Monday, September 14th, 2020
A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.
From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.
We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.
We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.
Monday, July 13th, 2020
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.)
Wednesday, June 17th, 2020
Well, this is timely! Cassie mentioned recently that she was reading—and enjoying—the Earthsea books, which I had never got around to reading. So I’m reading them now. Then Craig mentioned in one of his newsletters that he’s also reading them. Now there’s this article…
To white protestors and accomplices, who say that they want to listen but are fearful of giving up some power so that we can all heal, I suggest you read the Earthsea cycle. You will need to learn to step away from the center to build a new world, and the Black majority in this fantasy series offers a better model than any white history.
Saturday, June 13th, 2020
I sometimes watch programmes on TG4, the Irish language broadcaster that posts most shows online. Even though I’m watching with subtitles on, I figure it can’t be bad for keeping my very rudimentary Irish from atrophying completely.
I’m usually watching music programmes but occassionally I’ll catch a bit of the news (or “nuacht”). Their coverage of the protests in America reminded me of a peculiar quirk of the Irish language. The Black community would be described as “daoine gorm” (pronunced “deenee gurum”), which literally translated would mean “blue people”. In Irish, the skin colour is referred to as “gorm”—blue.
This isn’t one of those linguistic colour differences like the way the Japanese word ao means blue and green. Irish has a perfectly serviceable word for the colour black, “dubh” (pronounced “duv”). But the term “fear dubh” (“far duv”) which literally means “black man” was already taken. It’s used to describe the devil. Not ideal.
In any case, this blue/black confusion in Irish reminded me of a delicious tale of schadenfreude. When I was writing about the difference between intentions and actions, I said:
Sometimes bad outcomes are the result of good intentions. Less often, good outcomes can be the result of bad intentions.
Back in 2017, the Geeky Gaeilgeoir wrote a post called Even Racists Got the Blues. In it, she disects the terrible translation job done by an Irish-American racist sporting a T-shirt that reads:
Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.
That’s completely nonsensical in Irish, but the intent behind the words was to say “Blue Lives Matter.” Except… even if it made grammatical sense, what this idiot actually wrote would translate as:
Black Lives Matter.
What a wonderful chef’s kiss of an own goal!
If only it were a tattoo.
Monday, June 1st, 2020
Sara shares how she programmes with custom properties in CSS. It sounds like her sensible approach aligns quite nicely with Andy’s CUBE CSS methodology.
Oh, and she’s using Fractal to organise her components:
I’ve been using Fractal for a couple of years now. I chose it over other pattern library tools because it fit my needs perfectly — I wanted a tool that was unopinionated and flexible enough to allow me to set up and structure my project the way I wanted to. Fractal fit the description perfectly because it is agnostic as to the way I develop or the tools I use.
Friday, May 29th, 2020
Chris has put together one of his indispensable deep dives, this time into responsive images. I can see myself referring back to this when I need to be reminded of the syntax of
Wednesday, May 13th, 2020
…for old CSS problems.
Monday, February 24th, 2020
Guidebooks to countries that no longer exist.
The first book will be on the Republic of Venice. There’ll be maps, infographics, and I suspect there’ll be an appearance by Aldus Manutius.
Our first guidebook tells the story of the Republic of Venice, la Serenissima, a 1000-year old state that disappeared in 1797.
Wednesday, January 8th, 2020
From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:
The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
Patterns Day video and audio
If you missed out on Patterns Day this year, you can still get a pale imitation of the experience of being there by watching videos of the talks.
On Twitter, Chris mentioned that “It would be nice if the talks had their topic listed,” which is a fair point. So here goes:
- Yaili’s talk is about design systems,
- Amy’s talk is about design systems,
- Danielle’s talk is about design systems,
- Varya’s talk is about design systems,
- Emil’s talk is about design systems, and
- Heydon’s talk is about a large seabird.
It’s fascinating to see emergent themes (other than, y’know, the obvious theme of design systems) in different talks. In comparison to the first Patterns Day, it felt like there was a healthy degree of questioning and scepticism—there were plenty of reminders that design systems aren’t a silver bullet. And I very much appreciated Yaili’s point that when you see beautifully polished design systems that have been made public, it’s like seeing the edited Instagram version of someone’s life. That reminded me of Responsive Day Out when Sarah Parmenter, the first speaker at the very first event, opened everything by saying “most of us are winging it.”
I can see the value in coming to a conference to hear stories from people who solved hard problems, but I think there’s equal value in coming to a conference to hear stories from people who are still grappling with hard problems. It’s reassuring. I definitely got the vibe from people at Patterns Day that it was a real relief to hear that nobody’s got this figured out.
There was also a great appreciation for the “big picture” perspective on offer at Patterns Day. For myself, I know that I’ll be cogitating upon Danielle’s talk and Emil’s talk for some time to come—both are packed full of ineresting ideas.
And if you’re itching for another event dedicated to design systems, I highly recommend snagging a ticket for the Clarity conference in San Francisco next month.
Friday, July 19th, 2019
Monday, July 1st, 2019
Patterns Day Two
Who says the sequels can’t be even better than the original? The second Patterns Day was The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and The Wrath of Khan all rolled into one …but, y’know, with design systems.
If you were there, then you know how good it was. If you weren’t, sorry. Audio of the talks should be available soon though, with video following on.
The talks were superb! I know I’m biased becuase I put the line-up together, but even so, I was blown away by the quality of the talks. There were some big-picture questioning talks, a sequence of nitty-gritty code talks in the middle, and galaxy-brain philosophical thoughts at the end. A perfect mix, in my opinion.
Words cannot express how grateful I am to Alla, Yaili, Amy, Danielle, Heydon, Varya, Una, and Emil. They really gave it their all! Some of them are seasoned speakers, and some of them are new to speaking on stage, but all of them delivered the goods above and beyond what I expected.
Big thanks to my Clearleft compadres for making everything run smoothly: Jason, Amy, Cassie, Chris, Trys, Hana, and especially Sophia for doing all the hard work behind the scenes. Trys took some remarkable photos too. He posted some on Twitter, and some on his site, but there are more to come.
And if you came to Patterns Day 2, thank you very, very much. I really appreciate you being there. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as I did, because I had a ball!
Once again, thanks to buildit @ wipro digital for sponsoring the pastries and coffee, as well as running a fun giveaway on the day. Many thank to Bulb for sponsoring the forthcoming videos. Thanks again to Drew for recording the audio. And big thanks to Brighton’s own Holler Brewery for very kindly offering every attendee a free drink—the weather (and the beer) was perfect for post-conference discussion!
It was incredibly heartwarming to hear how much people enjoyed the event. I was especially pleased that people were enjoying one another’s company as much as the conference itself. I knew that quite a few people were coming in groups from work, while other people were coming by themselves. I hoped there’d be lots of interaction between attendees, and I’m so, so glad there was!
You’ve all made me very happy.
Well done for yet another fantastic event. The calibre of speakers was so high, and it was reassuring to hear they have the same trials, questions and toil with their libraries. So insightful, so entertaining.— Barry Bloye (@barrybloye) June 29, 2019
Had the most amazing time at the #PatternsDay, catching up with old friends over slightly mad conversations. Huge thanks to @adactio and @clearleft for putting together such warm and welcoming event, and to all the attendees and speakers for making it so special ❤️— Alla Kholmatova (@craftui) June 29, 2019
Had a blast at #PatternsDay !!! Met so many cool ppl— trash bandicoot (@freezydorito) June 28, 2019
I’ve had a hell of a good time at #PatternsDay. It’s been nice to finally meet so many folks that I only get to speak to on here.— Andy Bell (@andybelldesign) June 28, 2019
As expected, the @clearleft folks all did a stellar job of running a great event for us.
An amazing day was had at #PatternsDay. Caught up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, made some new ones, and had my brain expand by an excellent set of talks. Big hugs to @adactio and the @clearleft team. Blog post to follow next week, once I’ve got my notes in order.— Garrett Coakley (@garrettc) June 28, 2019