The Designer As Writer and Public Speaker

I’M ALWAYS telling my colleagues and students that a designer who wants to make a difference and enjoy a long career must master writing and public speaking. I’ve seen way too many designers with far greater natural gifts than I possess struggle in early, mid-, and late career, because, despite their great talent and the thoughtful rigor of their work, they lack the practiced, confident communications ability that every designer needs to sell their best work.

Few designers currently working better exemplify the designer-as-communicator than Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design and author of two great design books (so far). If you’ve heard Monteiro speak, or if you’ve read his books, you already know this. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat: last month, because he loves designers and clients, and with the blessing of his publisher, Mike posted an entire chapter of his latest book, You’re My Favorite Client, for your free reading pleasure; now he has done the same thing with his best-selling first book, Design Is A Job.

Chapter 1 of Design Is A Job, posted for free last night on Medium, poses the question, just what exactly is a designer, anyway? After dispensing with the myth of the magical pixie creative and explaining why it is destructive, Mike settles in to explain what a good designer actually does—and why design, in its role as societal gatekeeper, is a high calling with a tough ethical mandate.

Reading good writing about design, by someone who actually works as a designer, is a rare pleasure. What are you waiting for? Enjoy Chapter 1 of Design Is A Job.

(And, heck, if you want more, you can always buy the book.)


Top animation by Mike Essl for Mike Monteiro.

Publishing Versus Performance: Our Struggle for the Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”


Also published in Medium.

A List Apart Summer Reading

SUMMER is halfway over. Have you hid out for a day of reading yet? Grab a shady spot and a picnic blanket (or just park it in front of the nearest AC unit), turn off your notifications, and unwrap this tasty treat: our 2015 summer reader.

Refresh your mind, heart, and spirit with this curated list of articles, videos, and other goodies from the recent past—from A List Apart and across the web.

Our 2015 compilation of articles, blogs, and other gems from across the web: perfect summer reading, poolside and beyond.

Source: 2015 Summer Reading Issue · An A List Apart Article

Co-Design, Not Redesign, by Kevin M. Hoffman – An Event Apart Video

Kevin M. Hoffman

MOVE from the nightmare of design by committee to the joys of design collaboration.

In this 60-minute video captured live at An Event Apart Orlando: Special Edition, Kevin M. Hoffman explains how service design thinking, lean approaches to user experience, and co-design processes offer an alternative to the usual (expensive) design project frustrations, and deliver experiences to delight your users.

Source: An Event Apart News: Co-Design, Not Redesign, by Kevin M. Hoffman – An Event Apart Video

A Beautiful Life

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.

The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”

Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.

A List Apart 424: Convert visitors to customers, and stakeholders to passionate believers.

A List Apart № 424

TURN visitors into committed community members, and decision makers into ardent advocates of web performance. It’s easy, with the info in today’s A List Apart for people who make websites:


Performance: Showing Versus Telling

by Lara Hogan

The technical aspects of performance optimization are indisputably important. But the social work—convincing peers, managers, and clients that performance optimization merits their attention—often gets short shrift. Lara Hogan shows us how we can go beyond charts, graphs, and numbers to show performance rather than merely tell it—and effect a genuine culture shift in the process.



The Risky Business of Onboarding

by Rick Pastoor

Attracting—and keeping—new users is a delicate dance. Too many obstacles and people don’t sign up; too little interaction and they don’t come back. The ideal onboarding process turns potential users into loyal ones—by thoughtfully identifying new users, teaching them to use your product, and giving them a reason to return. Rick Pastoor shares his onboarding framework and what he’s learned about the difference between a good onboarding process and a great one.


This Week In The Death of Publishing & The Web

FAST COMPANY writes:

Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.

Source: Apple Saves Publishing… For Itself

N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:

⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.

Give me file hierarchies, or give me chaos.

IN “HOW DROPBOX Remains Relevant,” Khoi Vinh explains why Dropbox owes much of its success to subtly faceted, user-focused design:

Even in an age when the biggest operating systems in the world actively eschew file hierarchies, Dropbox is thriving—its service matters deeply to countless users. Why? In part it’s because the company works hard at making file hierarchies useful, that they focus on the outcomes of file management and not just on the files and folders.

Absolutely. Dropbox sweats the user experience details as commendably as it masters the considerable engineering challenges required to reliably sync files everywhere a user may need them.

But there’s another reason Dropbox succeeds. And it isn’t despite its emphasis on old-fashioned file hierarchies. It’s because of that emphasis.


⇛ ALTHOUGH Khoi may well be right that “smart passive management of design assets and working files seems inevitable,” I, for one, do not look forward to the day I no longer have direct access to my files and the ability to control where and how they are stored. To my way of thinking, passive management of file assets is okay for screwing around with iPads, where we’re mainly watching TV on Netflix or obsessive-compulsively checking the popularity of our Instagram uploads. But for real work, and even for passionate hobby work (like managing family photos), give me files and folders any day.

Stay with photos a moment. Consider snapshots. For my money, apps like Photos (and, formerly, iPhoto) that “save” me from the “inconvenience” of knowing where my images are do me no favors. Thanks, but no thanks. Let me save photos where I want to save them, not where the system thinks I should save them—typically on a laptop’s rapidly filling solid state hard drive with minimal storage capacity.

Dropbox, with its emphasis on good old-fashioned hierarchies, is superb at automatically saving one original of each photo I take, whether shot with a phone or a fancy camera. No loops, no duplicates, no confusion. In contrast, Photo’s cloud sync options, designed to spare the user the trouble of thinking, always trip me up. Like when, after syncing my phone to my home desktop computer, I tell Photos to delete the photos I’ve just sync’d from my phone. Photos obeys my command, and then instantly restores the photos to my phone from the “cloud.”

Why would a system expect a user who has deleted files to want those files restored a moment later? In what universe of scenarios can that possibly be what the user expects? [Your system may work differently from mine. Your deletes may stick. If so, good on you. You may have checked a different box in a hidden drawer of a preferences dialog, possibly in the app preferences you can set in the app itself, or possibly in the app preferences you set in the phone’s Settings app, or possibly online—say, in iCloud, or possibly in the iCloud settings in the phone’s Settings app. This is simplicity?]

Because my phone and iCloud restore photos as soon as they’re deleted, my Camera Roll is an unwieldly monster—despite my applying common sense, logic, years of design and computer using experience, and hours of conversation with a rapidly dwindling circle of friends—not to mention the hours I’ve spent scouring the web for hints. The whole situation reminds me of an article I saw on the cover of PC World years ago: “Plug ‘n Play: How To Make It Work.” (Hint: If you have to learn how to make it work, it ain’t plug ‘n play. And that’s kind of how I feel about the current state of passive file management.)


⇛ SYSTEMS designed to relieve you of thinking too often end up forcing you to think, and think, and think, without ever solving the problems their supposed simplicity has created for you. How much easier would photo maintenance on my phone be if Photos, like Dropbox, used file hierarchies? I could solve the problem myself in a second, with the click of a checkbox, if only Apple weren’t committed to chasing a future where nobody needs to know anything about how their computer works—and, as a result, some of us have no clue what to do when the computer doesn’t work quite right.


⇛ I UNDERSTAND that these are difficult problems to solve, and that confusion and frustration are the price consumers pay for innovation that may benefit them in the long run, once all the kinks are out. I’m not anti-innovation or anti-Apple.

But I’m a web person. I like files. I like editing a CSS file without necessarily having to edit an HTML file. I like fixing a problem by replacing a corrupted file with a clean one. Maybe I’m set in my ways, but I don’t consider it a hardship to open a folder or replace a file. I wouldn’t be quite as happy with a web where I didn’t “need” to “bother” writing CSS.

In the same way, I like deciding where files go—saving an image for Project A in a Project A folder, a text document for Project B in a Project B folder (and all of it in Dropbox). I’m glad Adobe Lightroom maintains a picture of my photo folder hierarchy in a sidebar of its interface, enabling me to see where my files live, and instantly choose a group of photos by date (instead of, say, scrolling through thousands of files visually). When it’s time to get dressed in the morning, I don’t throw myself into a giant room full of clothes. I pull socks from my sock drawer and shirts from my shirt drawer. I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. It’s not a challenge.

Khoi ends his excellent Dropbox piece thusly:

Maybe we’re all just set in our ways, but people seem at least resigned, and more likely just plain comfortable with managing their files. It may not be what future workflows are built around, but for working designers, the future is hypothetical, and Dropbox works today.

To which I say Amen. And add the hope that, so long as my career lasts, I can keep using a workflow I find easy and comprehensible.

Don’t make me think.” Absolutely. But, equally, don’t treat me like an idiot. Folders über alles.



Also published in Medium

The Nation, America’s oldest weekly news magazine, launches responsive, large-type redesign.

ON ITS 150th anniversary, The Nation (“a magazine of ideas and values”) relaunches its website, created in partnership with Blue State Digital and Diaspark. As one would expect of an editorially focused web entity in 2015, the new site is responsive, and uses big type and clean layouts designed for readability. It also incorporates social media innovations first seen in Medium, such as the ability to tweet or email any brief passage of text you select.

Executive Editor Richard Kim’s mini-article introducing the new site explains how the editorial process has changed—and how it has stayed the same—since the launch of the magazine’s first site in 1997:

Back then, writing for the magazine was a comparatively monastic experience. You’d work for weeks on an article, defend its arguments against vigorous but loving critiques from the editors, and gratefully accept changes from fact-checkers and copy editors. Finally, the issue would ship to the printer. And then: the vast silence. If you were lucky, a few weeks later, someone might approach you at a party and say how much they liked (or hated) your piece. Some letters from impassioned subscribers would eventually come in via the Postal Service, but encounters with actual readers were rare and cherished events.

We continue to publish the print magazine under these rigorous standards, and it will remain an essential part of our identity, offering readers a considered and curated take on matters of critical interest. The digital revolution, however, has allowed us to connect to vastly more people, and to get to know them better. Today, The Nation publishes about 70 articles a week online, which go out to more than 420,000 Twitter followers, almost 290,000 Facebook fans, and 200,000 e-mail subscribers. And believe me, we always hear back from you….

There’s also a multi-tiered approach to reading and commenting:

For the next few months, there’s no paywall: All of our articles will be free to everyone—our gift to you in The Nation’s 150th-anniversary year. Later, we’ll introduce a metered system that continues to put The Nation in front of new readers, but also asks our regular visitors to contribute to the cost of independent journalism. Finally, only subscribers will be able to leave comments—and they’ll be asked to identify themselves with a first and last name. We realize this will be controversial to some, but keeping the comments free of trolls and bots has taken an increasing amount of effort. We think it’s only fair that commenters stand by what they write, and give something to the community in return.