Cole Peters — An Introduction to Constraint Based Design Systems
Design systems as codified constraints.
Design systems as codified constraints.
Everything old is new again:
In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.
But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.
Season three of the Clearleft podcast is here!
The first episode is a nice gentle one to ease into things. It’s about coaching …and training …and mentorship. Basically I wanted to find out what the differences are between those three things.
But I must confess, there’s a commercial reason why this episode is coming out now. There’s a somewhat salesy promotion of an upcoming coaching programme with Julia Whitney. This is definitely the most overt marketing I’ve done on the Clearleft podcast, but if you listen to the episode, I think you’ll agree that it fits well with the theme.
Fear not, future episodes will not feature this level of cross-promotion. Far from it. You can expect some very revealing podcast episodes that pull no punches in getting under the skin of design at Clearleft.
The stars of this episode are my colleagues Rebecca and Chris, who were an absolute joy to interview.
Have a listen and hear for yourself.
Like Bastian, I’m making a concerted effort now to fly less—offsetting the flights I do take—and to take the train instead. Here’s a description of a train journey to Nottingham for New Adventures, all the way from Germany.
It’s been a busy two weeks of travelling and speaking. Last week I spoke at Finch Conf in Edinburgh, Code Motion in Madrid, and Generate CSS in London. This week I was at Indie Web Camp, View Source, and Fronteers, all in Amsterdam.
The Edinburgh-Madrid-London whirlwind wasn’t ideal. I gave the opening talk at Finch Conf, then immediately jumped in a taxi to get to the airport to fly to Madrid, so I missed all the excellent talks. I had FOMO for a conference I actually spoke at.
I did get to spend some time at Code Motion in Madrid, but that was a waste of time. It was one of those multi-track events where the trade show floor is prioritised over the talks (and the speakers don’t get paid). I gave my talk to a mostly empty room—the classic multi-track experience. On the plus side, I had a wonderful time with Jessica exploring Madrid’s many tapas delights. The food and drink made up for the sub-par conference.
I flew back from Madrid to the UK, and immediately went straight to London to deliver the closing talk of Generate CSS. So once again, I didn’t get to see any of the other talks. That’s a real shame—it sounds like they were all excellent.
The day after Generate though, I took the Eurostar to Amsterdam. That’s where I’ve been ever since. There were just as many events as in the previous week, but because they were all in Amsterdam, I could savour them properly, instead of spending half my time travelling.
Indie Web Camp Amsterdam was excellent, although I missed out on the afternoon discussions on the first day because I popped over to the Mozilla Tech Speakers event happening at the same time. I was there to offer feedback on lightning talks. I really, really enjoyed it.
I’d really like to do more of this kind of thing. There aren’t many activities I feel qualified to give advice on, but public speaking is an exception. I’ve got plenty of experience that I’m eager to share with up-and-coming speakers. Also, I got to see some really great lightning talks!
Then it was time for View Source. There was a mix of talks, panels, and breakout conversation corners. I saw some fantastic talks by people I hadn’t seen speak before: Melanie Richards, Ali Spittal, Sharell Bryant, and Tejas Kumar. I gave the closing keynote, which was warmly received—that’s always very gratifying.
After one day of rest, it was time for Fronteers. This was where myself and Remy gave the joint talk we’ve been working on:
Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.
I’m happy to say that it went off without a hitch. Remy definitely had the tougher task—he did a live demo. Needless to say, he did it flawlessly. It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.
I’ve got some more speaking engagements ahead of me. Most of them are in Europe so I’m going to do my utmost to travel to them by train. Flying is usually more convenient but it’s terrible for my carbon footprint. I’m feeling pretty guilty about that Madrid trip; I need to make ammends.
I’ll be travelling to France next week for Paris Web. Taking the Eurostar is a no-brainer for that one. Straight after that Jessica and I will be going to Frankfurt for the book fair. Taking the train from Paris to Frankfurt will be nice and straightforward.
I’ll be back in Brighton for Indie Web Camp on the weekend of October 19th and 20th—you should come!—and then I’ll be heading off to Antwerp for Full Stack Fest. Anywhere in Belgium is easily reachable by train so that’ll be another Eurostar journey.
After that, it gets a little trickier. I’ll be going to Berlin for Beyond Tellerrand but I’m not sure I can make it work by train. Same goes for Web Clerks in Vienna. Cities that far east are tough to get to by train in a reasonable amount of time (although I realise that, compared to many others, I have the luxury of spending time travelling by train).
Then there are the places that I can only get to by plane. There’s the United States. I’ll be speaking at An Event Apart in San Francisco in December. A flight is unavoidable. Last time we went to the States, Jessica and I travelled by ocean liner. But that isn’t any better for the environment, given the low-grade fuel burned by ships.
And then there’s Ireland. I make trips back there to see my mother, but there’s no alternative to flying or taking a ferry—neither are ideal for the environment. At least I can offset the carbon from my flights; the travel equivalent to putting coins in the swear jar.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not moaning about the amount of travel involved in going to conferences and workshops. It’s fantastic that I get to go to new and interesting places. That’s something I hope I never take for granted. But I can’t ignore the environmental damage I’m doing. I’ll be making more of an effort to travel by train to Europe’s many excellent web events. While I’m at it, I can ask Paul for his trainspotter expertise.
If you treat data as a constraint in your design and development process, you’ll likely be able to brainstorm a large number of different ways to keep data usage to a minimum while still providing an excellent experience. Doing less doesn’t mean it has to feel broken.
The cosmonaut counterparts of the Mercury women astronauts: Zhanna Yorkina, Irina Solovyova, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, and Valentina Tereshkova.
Ponomareva recalled there being no envy between the women in the squad. According to her, it was a healthy spirit of competition. Everyone did their best to be number one, but also supported each other’s efforts.
One of those cosmonauts went to space: none of the women training for the Mercury missions did. There would be a shockingly gap of twenty years between the launch of Valentina Tereshkova and the launch of Sally Ride.
Designing your design process:
- Know your strengths and focus resources on your weaknesses.
- Learn to identify the immovable objects.
- What has to be perfect now and what can be fixed later?
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
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?
The slides from a presentation by Drew on all the functionality that browsers give us for free when it comes to validating form inputs.
An astoundingly great piece of writing from Paul Ford, comparing the dot-com bubble and the current blockchain bubble. This resonates so hard:
I knew I was supposed to have an opinion on how the web and the capital markets interacted, but I just wanted to write stuff and put it online. Or to talk about web standards—those documents, crafted by committees at the World Wide Web consortium, that defined the contract between a web browser and a web server, outlining how HTML would work. These standards didn’t define just software, but also culture; this was the raw material of human interaction.
And, damn, if this isn’t the best description the post-bubble web:
Heat and light returned. And bit by bit, the software industry insinuated itself into every aspect of global enterprise. Mobile happened, social networks exploded, jobs returned, and coding schools popped up to convert humans into programmers and feed them to the champing maw of commerce. The abstractions I loved became industries.
Oof! That isn’t even the final gut punch. This is:
Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets.
Hit this URL to give yourself a design constraint (or obstruction). Kind of like Brian Eno’s oblique strategies but with different categories of constraints: formal, methodological, and conceptual.
JP Rangaswami also examines the rise of the platforms but he’s got some ideas for a more sustainable future:
A part of me wants to evoke Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander when it comes to building sustainable platforms. The platform “community” needs to be cared for and looked after, the living spaces they inhabit need to be designed to last. Multipurpose rather than monoculture, diverse rather than homogeneous . Prior industrial models where entire communities would rely on a single industry need to be learnt from and avoided. We shouldn’t be building the rust belts of the future. We should be looking for the death and life of great platforms, for a pattern language for sustainable platforms.
I frequently see web developers struggling to become better, but without a path or any indication of clear direction. This repository is an attempt to sharing my experiences, and any contributions, that can help provide such a direction.
It’s broken down into four parts:
I don’t necessarily agree with everything here (and I really don’t like the “rockstar” labelling), but that’s okay:
Anything written here is open to debate and challenges are encouraged.
I love, love, *love, traintimes.org.uk—partly because it’s so useful, but also because it’s so fast. I know public transport is the clichéd use-case when it comes to talking about web performance, but in this case it’s genuine: I use the site on trains and in airports.
Matthew gives a blow-by-blow account of the performance optimisations he’s made for the site, including a service worker. The whole thing is a masterclass in performance and progressive enhancement. I’m so glad he took the time to share this!
A write-up of the BrightSparks programme that Clearleft is taking part in.
Each company agreed to help support one local child from a low-income family, on free school meals or with a yearly household income of under £25k.
An online training course that will banish all fear of the command line, expertly delivered by the one and only Remy Sharp.
For designers, new developers, UX, UI, product owners and anyone who’s been asked to “just open the terminal”.
Take advantage of the special launch price—there are some serious price reductions there.
I really enjoyed teaching in Porto last week. It was like having a week-long series of CodeBar sessions.
Whenever I’m teaching at CodeBar, I like to be paired up with people who are just starting out. There’s something about explaining the web and HTML from first principles that I really like. And people often have lots and lots of questions that I enjoy answering (if I can). At CodeBar—and at The New Digital School—I found myself saying “Great question!” multiple times. The really great questions are the ones that I respond to with “I don’t know …let’s find out!”
CodeBar is always a very rewarding experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to try teaching. And having tried it, I can now safely say that I like it. It’s also a great chance to meet people from all walks of life. It gets me out of my bubble.
I can’t remember when I was first paired up with Amber at CodeBar. It must have been sometime last year. I do remember that she had lots of great questions—at some point I found myself explaining how hexadecimal colours work.
I was impressed with Amber’s eagerness to learn. I also liked that she was making her own website. I told her about Homebrew Website Club and she started coming along to that (along with other CodeBar people like Cassie and Alice).
I’ve mentioned to multiple CodeBar students that there’s pretty much an open-door policy at Clearleft when it comes to shadowing: feel free to come along and sit with a front-end developer while they’re working on client projects. A few people have taken up the offer and enjoyed observing myself or Charlotte at work. Amber was one of those people. Again, I was very impressed with her drive. She’s got a full-time job (with sometimes-crazy hours) but she’s so determined to get into the world of web design and development that she’s willing to spend her free time visiting Clearleft to soak up the atmosphere of a design studio.
We’ve decided to turn this into something more structured. Amber and I will get together for a couple of hours once a week. She’s given me a list of some of the areas she wants to explore, and I think it’s a fine-looking list:
- I want to gather base, structural knowledge about the web and all related aspects. Things seem to float around in a big cloud at the moment.
- I want to adhere to best practices.
- I want to learn more about what direction I want to go in, find a niche.
- I’d love to opportunity to chat with the brilliant people who work at Clearleft and gain a broad range of knowledge from them.
Seeing as we’ll only have a couple of hours every week, this won’t be quite like the masterclass I just finished up in Porto. Instead I imagine I’ll be laying some groundwork and then pointing to topics to research. I guess it’s a kind of homework. For example, after we talked today, I set Amber this little bit of research for the next time we meet: “What is the difference between the internet and the World Wide Web?”
I’m excited to see where this will lead. I find Amber’s drive and enthusiasm very inspiring. I also feel a certain weight of responsibility—I don’t want to enter into this lightly.
I’m not really sure what to call this though. Is it mentorship? Or is it coaching? Or training? All of the above?
Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to documenting the journey. Amber will be writing about it too. She is already demonstrating a way with words.