How do you keep knowledge alive over centuries? Stuff that seems big enough for a group of people to worry about at the time, but not so big it makes world news. Not the information that gets in all the textbooks, but just the stuff that makes the world gently tick over.
Friday, July 30th, 2021
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Saturday, April 3rd, 2021
Always refreshing to see some long-term thinking applied to the web.
Sunday, November 22nd, 2020
Growing—that’s a word I want to employ when talking about my personal sites online. Like a garden, I’m constantly puttering around in them. Sometimes I plow and sow a whole new feature for a site. Sometimes I just pick weeds.
Most of my favorite websites out there are grown—homegrown in fact. They are corners of the web where some unique human has been nurturing, curating, and growing stuff for years. Their blog posts, their links, their thoughts, their aesthetic, their markup, their style, everything about their site—and themselves—shows growth and evolution and change through the years. It’s a beautiful thing, a kind of artifact that could never be replicated or manufactured on a deadline.
This part of the web, this organic part, stands in start contrast to the industrial web where websites are made and resources extracted.
Wednesday, November 18th, 2020
Monday, October 19th, 2020
More on battling entropy:
Ever needed to change “just a small thing” on an old page you build years ago? I recently had the pleasure and the simple task of changing some colors in CSS lead to a whole day of me wrangling with old deprecated Grunt tasks and trying to get the build task running.
I like this mindset:
Be boring by default and enhance on the way.
Monday, October 12th, 2020
This post really highlights one of the biggest issues with the convoluted build tools used for “modern” web development. If you return to a project after any length of time, this is what awaits:
I find entropy staring me back in the face: library updates, breaking API changes, refactored mental models, and possible downright obsolescence. An incredible amount of effort will be required to make a simple change, test it, and get it live.
Take a moment and think about this super power: if you write vanilla HTML, CSS, and JS, all you have to do is put that code in a web browser and it runs. Edit a file, refresh the page, you’ve got a feedback cycle. As soon as you introduce tooling, as soon as you introduce an abstraction not native to the browser, you may have to invent the universe for a feedback cycle.
Maintainability matters—if not for you, then for future you.
The more I author code as it will be run by the browser the easier it will be to maintain that code over time, despite its perceived inferior developer ergonomics (remember, developer experience encompasses both the present and the future, i.e. “how simple are the ergonomics to build this now and maintain it into the future?) I don’t mind typing some extra characters now if it means I don’t have to learn/relearn, setup, configure, integrate, update, maintain, and inevitably troubleshoot a build tool or framework later.
Friday, September 18th, 2020
Don’t blame it on the COBOL:
It’s a common fiction that computing technologies tend to become obsolete in a matter of years or even months, because this sells more units of consumer electronics. But this has never been true when it comes to large-scale computing infrastructure. This misapprehension, and the language’s history of being disdained by an increasingly toxic programming culture, made COBOL an easy scapegoat. But the narrative that COBOL was to blame for recent failures undoes itself: scapegoating COBOL can’t get far when the code is in fact meant to be easy to read and maintain.
It strikes me that the resilience of programmes written in COBOL is like the opposite of today’s modern web stack, where the tangled weeds of nested dependencies ensures that projects get harder and harder to maintain over time.
In a field that has elevated boy geniuses and rockstar coders, obscure hacks and complex black-boxed algorithms, it’s perhaps no wonder that a committee-designed language meant to be easier to learn and use—and which was created by a team that included multiple women in positions of authority—would be held in low esteem. But modern computing has started to become undone, and to undo other parts of our societies, through the field’s high opinion of itself, and through the way that it concentrates power into the hands of programmers who mistake social, political, and economic problems for technical ones, often with disastrous results.
Friday, July 31st, 2020
I probably need to upgrade the Huffduffer server but Maciej nails why that’s an intimidating prospect:
Doing this on a live system is like performing kidney transplants on a playing mariachi band. The best case is that no one notices a change in the music; you chloroform the players one at a time and try to keep a steady hand while the band plays on. The worst case scenario is that the music stops and there is no way to unfix what you broke, just an angry mob. It is very scary.
Monday, March 23rd, 2020
We’re all hunkering down in our homes. That seems to be true of our online homes too.
People are sharing their day-to-day realities on their websites and I’m here for it. Like, I’m literally here for it. I can’t go anywhere.
On an episode of the Design Observer podcast, Jessica Helfand puts this into context:
During times of crisis, people want to make things. There’s a surge in the keeping of journals when there’s a war… it’s a response to the feeling of vulnerability, like corporeal vulnerability. My life is under attack. I am imprisoned in my house. I have to make something to say I was here, to say I mattered, to say this day happened… It’s like visual graphic reassurance.
It’s not just about crisis though. Scott Kelly talks about the value of keeping a journal during prolonged periods of repitition. And he should know—he spent a year in space:
NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. Throughout my yearlong mission, I took the time to write about my experiences almost every day. If you find yourself just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive) instead try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses or write about memories. Even if you don’t wind up writing a book based on your journal like I did, writing about your days will help put your experiences in perspective and let you look back later on what this unique time in history has meant.
That said, just stringing a coherent sentence together can seem like too much during The Situation. That’s okay. Your online home can also provide relief and distraction through tidying up. As Ethan puts it:
let a website be a worry stone
It can be comforting to get into the zone doing housekeeping on your website. How about a bit of a performance audit? Or maybe look into more fluid typography? Or perhaps now is the time to tinker about with that dark mode you’ve been planning?
Whatever you end up doing, my point is that your website is quite literally an outlet. While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.
- Design systems haven’t “solved” inconsistency. Rather, they’ve shifted how and when it manifests.
- Many design systems have introduced another, deeper issue: a problem of visibility.
Ethan makes the case that it’s time we stopped taking a pattern-led approach to design systems and start taking a process-led approach. I agree. I think there’s often more emphasis on the “design” than the “system”.
In my experience, 99% of the time Web Performance boils down to two problems:
- “You have unoptimized images.”
But as Dave points out, the real issue is this:
I find that Web Performance isn’t particularly difficult once you understand the levers you can pull; reduce kilobytes, reduce requests, unblock rendering, defer scripts. But maintaining performance that’s a different story entirely…
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
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.
This is something we’ve learned at Clearleft—you can’t create a design system for an organisation, hand it over to them, and expect it to be maintained.
You can’t just hire an agency to create a design system and expect that the system alone will solve something. It won’t do much before the people in the organization align on this idea as well, believe in it, invest in it, and create a culture of collaboration around it.
The people who will be living with the design system must be (co-)creators of it. That’s very much the area we work in now.
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, June 10th, 2019
If we continue as we are, who will maintain the maintainers?
In the world of open source, we tend to give plaudits and respect to makers …but maintainers really need our support and understanding.
Users and new contributors often don’t see, much less think about, the nontechnical issues—like mental health, or work-life balance, or project governance—that maintainers face. And without adequate support, our digital infrastructure, as well as the people who make it run, suffer.
Monday, October 8th, 2018
Maintaining an open source project is a rollercoaster ride with high peaks and very low troughs.
Release frequency is down. Questions increasingly go unanswered. Issues remain in a triage, unresolved state. Uncertainty and frustration brew within the community room.
Brian’s experience with Pattern Lab very much mirrors Mark’s experience with Fractal. The pressure. The stress. But there’s also the community.
A maintainer must keep the needs of their project, their community, and their own needs in constant harmony.
This is hard!
Saturday, May 19th, 2018
Susan writes about the challenges when trying to get widespread adoption of a design system. Spoiler: the challenges aren’t technical.
Change is hard. Communication and collaboration are absolutely necessary to make a system work. And the more people you can get involved from various disciplines the better chance you have of maintaining your system.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
In the past, when I brushed off new advances or updates to technology and processes I preferred to stick with a simple path of “it still works fine,” but in doing so I realize now that I have l lost a lot beginning with the ability to function with current best practices in certain areas of my skill sets and the degradation a few projects, especially Airbag.