Samantha Warren. What a cutie-pie. Anybody who starts a talk with a story about bananas and monkeys is a gold star in my books.
Design tiles are her way of building a pattern library for clients.
In her talk, “Faster Design Decisions with Style Tiles,” Samantha brought up a really big shift in how we handle websites today. I don’t know exactly when this thing exploded, but D-I-Y has stretched itself from handymen and Martha Stewart floral arrangements to how we all manage ourselves online. Whether it’s a personal blog, portfolio, or a giant conglomerate’s website, we all want control over our content.
It’s not enough to have a static HTML page that you set and forget like a Ronco Rotisserie anymore. And with good reason. We’re all realizing what we’re capable of, and long gone are the little lines of text that say, “Questions? Contact the webmaster.”
We’re all fucking webmasters now! (I mean “fucking” in the descriptive sense, not as a verb.)
In her talk, Samantha points out that we aren’t just putting together mock-ups for people, but systems for them to work with.
Websites aren’t just store-fronts to display our wares. They’ve now become actual platforms for communication, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. I love this idea because it’s a focus on exchanging information and growing together, rather than just throwing your hat in the ring and hoping for the best.
There is push and pull content, not just push alone.
It’s easy to fall back on blaming the client for their lack of creativity or imagination. And I know there are tough discussions about that. But the more I think about it, the more I think it a poor excuse for doing a bad job.
In most cases, projects can go to hell because everyone is looking out for their own best interests. And of course if something is always someone else’s fault, then everyone ends up sucking monkey balls on a hot day.
Her suggestions about abstracting a website’s look and feel goes much further than avoiding “franken-comps” and fights with the client. Style tiles and other such methods give value to the designer-client relationship, in my opinion. It becomes less about giving someone a product, and more about engaging them in an actual conversation.
We then allow ourselves to reflect and consider different options, rethink certain decisions, and maybe get to better solutions than what we first pitched.
I like the notion of working with your clients as people who have their own thoughts and ideas, and giving them the platform to share this—not just giving them a product in a box. It makes the job sound less stupid and a little more meaningful.
Just as we are realizing that the web is fluid and alive and organic, I think we should be transferring that idea into how we treat the people we work with, too.
The client shouldn’t be some kind of cartoon in a suit talking to a car-phone. The same way designers shouldn’t be thought of as pixel-pushers and drones in black turtlenecks.
How much confidence and good will can you foster with this approach? I think a lot. The same way you have charities and organizations empowering women, kids, minorities that change social perspectives; giving anyone a great set of tools and the opportunity can set so many things in motion.
While design can ultimately seen as a service, I think it also helps to see it as a relationship. There is trust needed and guidance involved from both parties. It isn’t one person pushing their expertise on another, but equals with each something to offer.
And if we start with that common ground, instead of “I am here to fix things for you,” then we all get to have a nice time at the party. Nobody wants to talk to that asshole who thinks they know everything. And nobody wants to be said asshole, either.
If there were two things to take away about Nick Sherman, they were that he liked pizza very much and that he liked to complain. This was how his introduction was prefaced, and there was something fantastic about this man’s grievances.
Here’s the great thing about what we’re doing, which I think is what Nick’s talk helped me realize:
We’re in an industry that has the ability to address dissatisfaction, and we have the means to make these solutions totally universal.
Just take a second to think about that.
If the default calendar app on my phone looks like shit, which it does, I have the means and resources to build a new one for myself. If this Dolly Parton ultimate fan site is not to my satisfaction, I can create an entirely different interface for it and make the woman proud.
And as long as our version of this is out there, as a free reference for another dissatisfied person, he or she can then take it version and make it better. They can take Calendar App V2 and create Calendar App V3. They can make DollyPartonLove.biz it’s own native app.
It’s a world where your concerns are legitimate, as long as you actively address them. Knowledge will always run free, and the only thing to stop you is your own fears and lack of common sense.
How empowering is that?
When responsive web started blowing people’s minds a few years back, I remember having a conversation with my buddy Ross about it and mentioning some slight concerns I had about the effect it had on the fluidity of measures. If the measures of a page are unknown, how do you… what does… golden ratios… Bringhurst, I… how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
Coming from a print design background, this made me nervous. It was a specific thing, and it seemed nitpicky to pursue it. And I knew that if I did, there was a very huge possibility that it would lead to more bad things to make me nervous and I didn’t want to take that pill. I, the awful coward that I am, decided to stay inside the Matrix.
Because responsive web and fluid grids were so amazing. The hype was REAL, dudes!
And then I ate a sandwich and carried on with my life.
But each time I would think about this idea of fixed type size on fluid measures, I would just kind of groan inwardly. Whenever I would test out my type sizes on websites, I could feel my butt clenching as I saw things break on smaller viewports.
Rivers formed, terrible rags that hurled widowed women and orphaned children off their awful, crooked edges. My paragraphs turned into the Mt. Pinatubo landslides of the 1990s and in my mind I knew there was nothing to be done about it.
I’m not proud of it at all, and I know it makes me look really bad. Like, wearing sweatpants and Uggs kind of bad. But guys, I did it. I compromised the design because I didn’t know how to deal with it.
I was Jodie Foster and I was trapped in that panic room of fluid walls with that chick from Twilight and everything was terrible but I didn’t know what to do.
And suddenly, ideas from people like this pizza man started popping up. Different people from all over the world were discovering new things to try, and setting the world on fire with them. They weren’t all perfect, and a lot of them were in beta mode, but it was there.
Some people were addressing widows and fixing them. Others were looking at resizing type on headlines. Other people cared about this shit as much as (or perhaps even more than) I did!
And it’s like how the cops bust in and everyone starts yelling and everyone has guns pointed and there’s something on my shirt I don’t know if it’s blood or BBQ sauce FLUSH THE WEED, LORNA—it’s mayhem for a moment, and then everyone gets a grip on the situation and then we all start thinking, “Hey, maybe this can work.”
And from this idea of banding together and knowing people who are smarter than you at other things, they made interesting things happen. With Math. And interpolation. And the Pythagorean fucking Theorem. What. The.
Suddenly there is hope. And really, all you need to do is ask. But ask nicely.
Hey, this kind of sucks. Can someone help me make this not awful?
It is this constant dissatisfaction that should really help drive this vehicle. It makes for better work, and helps idiots like me not forget what we went to school for.
So that’s kind of what I wanted to say, Nick Sherman, when I tried to start an awful conversation with you. Thanks for reminding me that it’s okay to be dissatisfied with how things are, even though everything seems amazing. Because that small bit of unease is always a gateway to something even better.
Tried to thank @NickSherman at #aeasea the other day after 5 cups of coffee. It just came out as, "Hey, Nick, f\alskejfn;ah;befh.. type."
I don’t know if this will work out well, but I’ve set myself up with the task goal of writing entries for each talk from An Event Apart, a conference I attended this week in Seattle, WA.
So in short, this will be long.
“These eggs look really weird.”
That was the first thing that was said to me on the first morning of An Event Apart in Seattle. I looked up from my cup of coffee and found a man offering a view of two very sorry looking hard-boiled eggs. They were nested rather awkwardly inside his little white bowl. He was wearing a suit, all black, and looking quite pro.
Immediately, I was made very aware of my Nike runners and that my hair was probably sticking up in some weird way or another. I tried my best to look nice. It’s just that I don’t pack for travel very well. And the blow dryer in the hotel was really strong and I didn’t use any conditioner that morning. My guess was that the heat from the blow dryer had somehow chemically compounded to lightly shellack the wisps of hair behind my ears. Did I look like Wolverine? Possibly.
“Beware!” I joked, offering him a casual bump of my elbow. Jesus Christ. Less than five minutes in and I was already literally rubbing elbows. That warning seemed more appropriate for me than his eggs, at this point.
“Oh, I’m very wary,” he replied as he gave me a friendly nod of his head and walked away.
And no sooner did I get settled down into my seat when I discovered that my friend with the doubtful eggs was actually the first speaker of the day, Jeffrey Zeldman.
It’s an interesting experience to witness people “in real life.” I put those in quotes because I feel like I sound less crazy when it’s put that way. Real life is still real life, but there’s so much discussion about “the online realm” and “profiles” and “avatars” and “digital presence.”
And my introduction to Jeffrey Zeldman at that point hand only been a pixel-based Twitter profile image of a bearded man with a toque.
And so, as our brains tend to fill in blanks (read: assume and create weird cartoonish versions of what we perceive), I had this image of Jeffrey Zeldman perpetually wearing this blue toque, walking around in parachute pants, a white sweatshirt and holding up a boom box. I don’t know. My brain works like that. I’m sorry, Mr. Zeldman. I hope that didn’t offend you. I used to wear parachute pants as well.
Anyway, my point being… I think we all have ways of looking at things as they are, or what they could be, or what we want them to be. And for me, attending An Event Apart was one of those times where the blurred lines become distinct for a moment, and the blood, sweat and tears somehow part rather pleasantly to reveal bits and gems of clarity.
I hope I’m not elevating the event to anything more than it is, like some beautiful womanly journey to self-discovery and self-awareness directed by Gary Marshall. If anything, it was more like Harry and Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber. I’m saying I’m Lloyd, my view of my career was Harry, the actual industry I was in was Mary, and Seattle was Aspen.
The Meat & Potatoes
Mr. Zeldman’s opening talk was a good primer for the event, in my opinion. It struck a chord with me—as I’m sure it did with other folks—particularly when it came to describing what we do. Describing our profession. He went on to talk about actually owning our profession—whatever we choose to call it or however we choose to define it—with the important distinction of what it is for.
To me, it’s this weird Hydra-ish monster with a billion heads, where we build things, we design things. We solve problems, we suggest fixes. We innovate, but we also tend to inundate.
And so how do you do a job, which is based almost completely on communication, when it is this difficult to communicate the very idea to someone else?
How do you communicate the act of facilitating communication? How meta.
I think the issue still stands, and particularly for me, it will probably take much longer for me to figure this shit out than the rest of the people in that room. At least they knew what the hell an SVG was on March 30th, 2014. I did not.
But I did uncover a tiny piece of the puzzle, though. And it seems to boil down to a group of misunderstood people misunderstanding a subset of their own group.
Designers have enough trouble explaining what they do to their clients. Now it seems that web designers, interaction designers, UX designers, whatever—we also have trouble explaining what we do to other designers.
We’re all designers. You’re just a different kind of designer from me.
And perhaps therein lies part of the problem. Maybe we just get too caught up in labels and roles and titles, in that we forget that we actually have shit we need to do. “Do” being the operative word.
We pile ourselves with the pressures of winning awards and accolades to help clients recognize our worth. We invent words and abbreviations that make it sound like we’re Tom Cruise in Minority Report. We’re constantly printing different versions of business cards with titles that range from “problem-solver” to “interaction designer” to “director” to “thought-gooder-doer” to “pizza-pepperoni-measurer” when all that really matters is that some person is just trying to launch a fucking nail salon with your input.
As Jeffrey pointed out, what we do is for people. Not products, not browsers, and definitely not for ourselves. Or at least it really shouldn’t be.
But how can we be evangelists of our profession, tasked with spreading the word, when all we do is check ourselves out in the mirror?
“I’m a web designer. I like to make things. I love turtlenecks and white desks. I like straight lines and a perfect grid.”
Who doesn’t like making things? What makes making things so special? My dad makes walking around in his shorts an art from.
I’m not saying defining who you are and what you love are terrible things. I love making sandwiches. I love making sweaters. I love making waffles. It’s wonderful to know these things either about you or about me. If you love typography, that is awesome. Let’s have a pint and talk about it until we die. Or let’s have a conference about it in Seattle and be comfortable speaking the same language. We’ll be in a safe space there. And there will be candy, I hear.
But all I’m saying is, in the context of our professions, our careers, our industry, to our clients and their end goals… does it, you know… matter?
Really, I don’t think it’s about us and what we do. It’s not about us at all. It’s about other people and what we can do for them. Jeffrey talked about type design and architecture, their respective products becoming vessels for meaning.
Without users, a typeface is just a bunch of letters. A skyscraper is just a tall box that gets in the way of my view of the mountains.
Good typefaces empower a graphic designer to create that bitchin’ dental office brochure. Wonderfully built houses allow parents to raise kids in them without fear that they’ll die by falling off a staircase or some shit.
Both these end products matter to someone else in the world, and we can now carry on talking about the best Sublime Text theme to use. We do our jobs and then carry on.
There’s this constant whining discussion I haveignoretune out hear from designers, both from those I know personally and those I admire from afar, and it’s always this weird complaint about how nobody understands what we do and what our profession means to the world.
Well maybe it’s because all everyone hears is, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
I don’t want to be mean-spirited, and I especially don’t want to place blame on anyone. I’m guilty of it too.
But again, there should be a safe, but separate, space for that.
Maybe we just all love what we do so much that we want other people to love it too. But guys, I’ve been telling everyone that Reba is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, and it’s just as difficult to convince other people of that. I have all the DVD’s and I think Barbra Jean is an amazing character. But again, nobody cares.
And does it matter that I love Reba and you don’t?
We all struggle with how we present ourselves. (Clearly. It’s three days later, and my hair is still sticking up funny.) But as we all slog through the same shit, there’s one nugget I’ve come to realize: Maybe we’re going about it the wrong way, in that we shouldn’t be tasked with defining ourselves and pushing this onto others. Maybe we should let ourselves be defined by what we do.
Let our profession be the empty vessels that our clients can offer meaning to.
So instead of trying to quantify and box ourselves into these plastic name tags that we can all magically refer to and understand, maybe when somebody asks us what we do for a living, we can respond with more verbs than nouns, and adding “because” to put things into perspective.
“I help this guy make apps about hockey because he fucking loves sports.”
“I help these two women run an events company about knitting because they fucking love knitting.”
“I help these music nerds show off their performances online because they are fucking amazing.”
Aren’t these more interesting to talk about? It brings everyone on the same level and makes it easier to get shit done.
And then we can stop relying on clever catchphrases we invent, and instead count on the kind words that our clients extend to their friends and colleagues.