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.
Friday, July 20th, 2018
Tuesday, July 17th, 2018
It’s possible to create components in a vacuum, but ultimately you have no idea whether or not those components can successfully address your user and business needs. I’ve witnessed firsthand several design system initiatives crash and burn due to components created in isolation.
Thursday, July 12th, 2018
I’ve thought often of how our design and prototyping tools for the web are often not of the web. Tools like Photoshop and Sketch and Invision create approximations but need to walk the line between being a tool to build native apps and to build web apps. They do well in their ability to quickly validate designs but do little to validate technical approach.
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
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, June 18th, 2018
This really, really resonates with me:
I think the thing I struggle the most with right now is determining when something new is going to change the way our industry works for the better (like responsive web design did 5 or 6 years ago), and when it’s just a fad that will fade away in a year or three (which is how I feel about our obsession with things like Angular and React).
I try to avoid jumping from fad to fad, but I also don’t want to be that old guy who misses out on something that’s an important leap forward for us. I spend a lot of time thinking about the longer term impact of the things we make (and make with).
Thursday, June 7th, 2018
I think being simultaneously curious and skeptical of new technology is healthy attitude to have.
I want to learn new things in order to keep making good websites. I also think there’s a lot of value in talking about the difficulty in learning new things.
Thursday, May 31st, 2018
I know that Jeffrey and I sound like old men yelling at kids to get off the lawn when we bemoan the fetishisation of complex tools and build processes, but Jeffrey gets to the heart of it here: it’s about appropriateness.
As a designer who used to love creating web experiences in code, I am baffled and numbed by the growing preference for complexity over simplicity. Complexity is good for convincing people they could not possibly do your job. Simplicity is good for everything else.
And not to sound like a broken record, but once again I’m reminded of the rule of least power.
Monday, May 21st, 2018
The focus here is on performance, but these tools are equally useful for shining a light on just how bad the situation is with online surveillance and tracking.
Friday, May 18th, 2018
I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.
I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.
My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.
That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.
I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)
I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.
But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.
choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.
On that note…
Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
Choosing tools for scaling design
Tools and processes are intertwined. A company or a department or an individual has a way of doing things—that’s the process. They also have software to carry out the process—those are the tools.
Ideally, they should be loosely coupled. You should be able to change your tools without necessarily changing your process. So swapping out, say, one framework or library for another shouldn’t involve fundamentally changing the way you work. Likewise, trying a new way of working shouldn’t require you to use unfamiliar tools.
When it comes to scaling design within organisations, the challenges are almost always around switching processes (well, really it’s about trying to change culture, but that starts with changing processes—any sufficiently advanced process is indistinguishable from culture). All too often, though, I see people getting hung up on the tools.
We need to get more efficient in how we deliver designs …so let’s switch over to this particular design tool.
I understand this desire to shortcut the work of figuring out processes and jump straight to production solutions. For one thing, it allows you to create an easy list of requirements when it comes to recruiting talent: “Join our company—you must demonstrate experience and proficiency in this tool or that library.”
But when tools and processes become tightly coupled like this, there’s a real danger of stagnation. If a process can be defined as “the way we do things around here”, that’s not something you want to tie to any particular tool or technology. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re in the frustrating situation of using outdated tools, but you can’t swap them out for newer or better-suited technologies without disrupting everyone’s work.
This is technical debt (although it applies just as much to design). You’re paying a penalty in the present because of a decision that somebody made in the past. The problem isn’t so much with the decision itself, but with the longevity of its effects.
I think it’s important to remember what a tool is: it’s a piece of technology that enables you to work faster or better. You should enjoy using your tools, but you shouldn’t be utterly dependent on any particular one. Otherwise, the tail starts wagging the dog—you are now in service to the tool, instead of the other way around.
Treat your tools like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to any one technology to the detriment of missing out on others.
The tools you choose at any particular time should be suited to what you’re trying to accomplish at that time. In other words, you’ve got to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first (the vision), then figure out how you’re going to accomplish it (the process), and only then figure out which tools are the best fit. If you jump straight to choosing tools, you could end up trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.
Alas, I’ve seen plenty of consultants who conflate strategy with tooling. They’re brought in to solve process problems and, surprise, surprise, the solution always seems to involve purchasing the software that their company sells. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I see an organisation struggling to systemise their design patterns, and I think “Oh, they should use Fractal!” …but that’s jumping the gun. They might be better served with something simpler, or something more complex (I mean, Fractal is very, very flexible but it’s still just one option—there are plenty of other pattern library tools out there).
Once you separate out the tools from the process, there’s an added benefit. Making the right technology choice is no longer a life-or-death decision. You can suck it and see. Try out the technology and see if it works. If it’s working, great! Carry on using it. If it’s not working, that’s okay too. Try something different.
I realise I’m oversimplifying things, but I honestly believe that the real challenge is not choosing the right tools, but figuring out the right process for your team.
Monday, May 7th, 2018
Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.
The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.
This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:
Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?
In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.
I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.
Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”
Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”
But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.
Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.
I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.
I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.
One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined
- the problem being solved;
- when to use this pattern;
- when not to use this pattern.
Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.
I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:
What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?
Monday, April 30th, 2018
A good developer…
- follows the KISS principle (and respects YAGNI)
- knows how to research
- works well with others
- finds good developer tools
- tests code
Monday, April 23rd, 2018
Prompted by his recent talk at Smashing Conference, Mark explains why he’s all about the pace layers when it comes to design systems. It’s good stuff, and ties in nicely with my recent (pace layers obsessed) talk at An Event Apart.
Structure for pace. Move at the appropriate speed.
Wednesday, April 11th, 2018
The technologies you use, the tools you build with, are just that: tools. Learn to use them, and learn to use them well. But always remember that those tools are there to serve you, you are not there to serve your tools.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
An Event Apart Seattle just wrapped. It was a three-day special edition and it was really rather good. Lots of the speakers (myself included) were unveiling brand new talks, so there was a real frisson of excitement.
It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:
- CSS grid,
- variable fonts, and
- service workers.
From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.” Now, depending on your mindset, that understanding can be expressed as “Oh shit! These technologies are here!” or “Yay! Finally! These technologies are here!”
My reaction is very firmly the latter. That in itself is an interesting data-point, because (as discussed in my talk) my reaction towards new technological advances isn’t always one of excitement—quite often it’s one of apprehension, even fear.
I’ve been trying to self-analyse to figure out which kinds of technologies trigger which kind of reaction. I don’t have any firm answers yet, but it’s interesting to note that the three technologies mentioned above (CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers) are all additions to the core languages of the web—the materials we use to build the web. Frameworks, libraries, build tools, and other such technologies are more like tools than materials. I tend to get less excited about advances in those areas. Sometimes advances in those areas not only fail to trigger excitement, they make me feel overwhelmed and worried about falling behind.
Anyway, all of this helps me understand my feelings at the end of An Event Apart Seattle. I’m fired up and eager to make something with CSS grid, variable fonts, and—of course—service workers.
Wednesday, April 4th, 2018
Conceding that a typeface is a tool sounds dangerously close to an excuse: toolmakers cannot be held responsible for things made with their tools, or the tasks leading up to those things. They are only responsible for the making of the tool itself. If a person decides to use a hammer to drive home a screw, then so be it. The hammer was only designed for nails. It’s not our fault the typography doesn’t look good. The typeface is just a tool — you’re using it wrong.
Saturday, March 24th, 2018
Interviews with designers, where they talk about their backgrounds, tools, workflows, and day-to-day experiences.
Sunday, March 4th, 2018
A primer on accessible colour contrast with links to some handy tools for testing.
Saturday, February 24th, 2018
We talk about complexity, but it’s all opt-in. A wonderfully useful (and simple) website of a decade ago remains wonderfully useful and simple. Fortunately for all involved, the web, thus far, has taken compatibility quite seriously. Old websites don’t just break.
Friday, February 9th, 2018
I still find the landscape of build tools completely overwhelming, but I found this distinction to be a useful way of categorising the different kinds of build tools:
Build tools do two things:
- Install things
- Do things
So bower, npm and yarn install things, whereas grunt, gulp, and webpack do things.