This year more than ever, Blue Beanie Day matters

Donald Trump mocks reporter with disability. Photo: CNN.

AT FIRST GLANCE, November 2016 has bigger fish to fry than a small, cult holiday celebrated by web developers and designers.

Each day since November 8, 2016 has brought new, and, to some of us, unimaginable challenges to the surface. Half of America is angry and terrified. The other half is angry and celebrating. At a time like now, of what possible use is an annual holiday celebrated mainly on social media by a tiny posse of standards- and accessibility-oriented web developers and designers?

From Blue Beanies to Black Hats

Many web developers have “moved on” from a progressive-enhancement-focused practice that designs web content and web experiences in such a way as to ensure that they are available to all people, regardless of personal ability or the browser or device they use.

Indeed, with more and more new developers entering the profession each day, it’s safe to say that many have never even heard of progressive enhancement and accessible, standards-based design.

For many developers—newcomer and seasoned pro alike—web development is about chasing the edge. The exciting stuff is mainly being done on frameworks that not only use, but in many cases actually require JavaScript.

The trouble with this top-down approach is threefold:

Firstly, many new developers will build powerful portfolios by mastering tools whose functioning and implications they may not fully understand. Their work may be inaccessible to people and devices, and they may not know it—or know how to go under the hood and fix it. (It may also be slow and bloated, and they may not know how to fix that either.) The impressive portfolios of these builders of inaccessible sites will get them hired and promoted to positions of power, where they train other developers to use frameworks to build impressive but inaccessible sites.

Only developers who understand and value accessibility, and can write their own code, will bother learning the equally exciting, equally edgy, equally new standards (like CSS Grid Layout) that enable us to design lean, accessible, forward-compatible, future-friendly web experiences. Fewer and fewer will do so.

Secondly, since companies rely on their senior developers to tell them what kinds of digital experiences to create, as the web-standards-based approach fades from memory, and frameworks eat the universe, more and more organizations will be advised by framework- and Javascript-oriented developers.

Thirdly, and as a result of the first and second points, more and more web experiences every day are being created that are simply not accessible to people with disabilities (or with the “wrong” phone or browser or device), and this will increase as  standards-focused professionals retire or are phased out of the work force, superseded by frameworkistas.

#a11y is Code for “Love Your Neighbor”

This third point is important because people with disabilities are already under attack, by example of the U.S. president-elect, and as part of of a recent rise in hate crimes perpetrated by a small but vocal fringe. This fringe group of haters has always been with us, but now they are out of the shadows. They are organized and motivated, and to an unmeasured degree, they helped Donald Trump win the White House. Now that he’s there, people of good will ardently hope that he will condemn the worst bigots among his supporters, and fulfill his executive duties on behalf of all the people. I’m not saying I expect him to do this today. I’m saying I hope he does—and meantime it behooves us to find ways to do more than just hope. Ways to make change.

One small thing designers and developers can do is to make accessibility and usability Job 1 on every project. And to take a broad view of what that means. It means taking people’s messy humanity into account and designing for extreme ends of the bell curve, not just following accessibility authoring guidelines. (But it also means following them.)

In doing those things, we can love our neighbors through action. That—and not simply making sure your HTML validates—is what designing with web standards was always about.

On November 30, I will put on my blue hat and renew my commitment to that cause. Please join me.

 

Also published on Medium.

Do Not Go Gentle into that iTunes Store

AT HOME, sick with a cold and bored, my daughter buys a single packet of “My School Dance” in a freemium iTunes game. The manufacturer charges her (well, charges me) for ten packets. This same “accidental” 10x overcharge happens across three different games by the same manufacturer in the span of about an hour.

American Express notifies me of the spurious charges, but won’t let me dispute them until they are “posted.” I spend half an hour on the phone with a very nice gentleman at Amex learning this. Why would Amex notify customers about a charge days before they can do anything to resolve it? I don’t know. And I don’t ask the gentleman on the phone. His job is hard enough.

A few days pass. Amex “posts” the false charges and emails me with a link to resolve the problem on Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service.

Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service “encounters an error” when I try to use it to resolve the problem.

This happens every time I try. I try for three days.

So I call Amex, but I can’t resolve the problem because I don’t have the card in my wallet.

So I head to iTunes, where I should have gone in the first place, and click through two or three generations of iTunes “Report a Problem” interfaces: visually different generations of iTunes software, with different user paths, all still being served by Apple. Generations of iTunes software that, when they fail, link to other generations of iTunes software, which also fail.

I click and click my way through five years of iTunes interfaces.

Finally I find an iTunes page where I can manually “Report a problem” for each of the 27 false charges. (Three of the charges, remember, were legitimate. I’m willing to pay for the three items my daughter intended to buy. But not 30.)

If one software product overcharges your kid by a multiple of 10, that could be a software bug. When three products from the same manufacturer all do it, that’s not a bug, it’s a deliberate attempt to defraud families, by overcharging on purpose and hiding behind the opacity of iTunes’s purchase reporting. Simply put, the manufacturer is dishonest, and figures iTunes’s support section is impenetrable enough that you’ll eventually give up trying to get a refund.

But they didn’t count on my tenacity. I’m the Indiana Jones of this motherfucker. I have studied maps and bribed natives and found my way to the hidden iTunes refund page that actually, sometimes, works.

On this page, I inform Apple of the fraud 27 times, in 27 different boxes. Each time, after reporting, I click a blue button, which generally returns an error message that iTunes was unable to process my request. So I enter the data and click the button again. It’s only 27 boxes of shit. I’ve got all the time in the world.

The page tells me that only two refunds went through. Every other request ends with an error message saying iTunes could not process my request, and encouraging me to try again later.

Instead, I leave the page open, and, about ten minutes later, I manually reload it. When I do so, the display updates—I guess this generation of iTunes software preceded “Ajax”—and I learn that most of my refunds have gone through.

So the software actually works about 33% of the time, even though it indicates that it only works 5% of the time. Remember that wait-ten-minutes-then-randomly-reload-to-see-if-anything-changed trick. It’s the sign of excellently designed consumer software.

I’ve put over two hours of my time into this. Going on billable hours, I’ve probably lost money, even if I get all my overcharges refunded. But there’s a principle here. Several principles, actually. Tricking kids is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Building a beautiful front-end but neglecting customer service is wrong. Mainly, I’ve just had enough of 2016’s bullshit.

Fuck you, 2016.


Also published in Medium.

Val Head: Web Animation in the Design Process

Val Head12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 5: Val Head was the 9th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco last week. Her session, Motion In Design Systems: Animation, Style Guides, and the Design Process, led us through everything designers and developers need to make web animation work for our whole team.

Val covered guidelines for designing animation that fits your brand, making animation part of your design process, and documenting your animation decisions in your style guide for future use.

It takes a village

Animation works best when the whole team plans for it. If it’s simply a wish—say on the part of the designer—everyone in the chain will be too busy with higher priority tasks, and the animation won’t get made.

Which is a pity, because well-considered animations (such as Val showed) can make interactions much easier to understand. Additionally, if choreographed by the entire team as part of a bigger picture, animations can reinforce your brand. (Done without consideration, and without the support of the entire team, they’re more likely to contradict important brand attributes.)

Better animation requires good communication, comprised of…

  • Shared vocabulary
  • Established animation values
  • Documentation and repeatability

Deliverables – the things that start conversations

The first deliverables for animation are conversation starters: storyboards and sketches that help the team envision where there is potential for animation in their user flow, see how an animation could make the screen easier for users to understand, and begin to plan how to animate between screens. Best of all, anyone can create a sketch or storyboard: artistic talent is not required (these are not Pixar animations but simple conveyors of ideas).

In every storyboard, we should draw or describe a trigger (what starts the action?), an action (what takes place?), and a quality (how does it happen?).

Motion comps and interactive prototypes

Motion comps answer questions about how the animations should look, move, and behave, and allow for quick iteration. When handing them off to the development team, it’s important to include the duration and delay values; details of the easing used; repeat values, and iteration counts.

Interactive prototypes come next. They allow the team to explore what the interaction will be like to use, decide if it feels right in context, and determine how animations interact with input or real data. Val took us through a number of tools that can be used for prototyping, from apps like Atomic to good old HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Define and document – save future you time and effort

Interface animations are most effective when they work in concert as part of the bigger picture. Designing and choreographing your web animation efforts from the top down leads to more effective animations that integrate into your design system. And, defining a motion language for your brand can help your team to develop a shared vision from which to work.

Don’t just create animations—define and document them. Define your brand in motion with the same care you take for your logo, style guide, and pattern libraries. Use design principles to inform motion decisions. Study Brand Pillars, Voice & Tone, and Experience Pillars, and build your animation guidelines from there. Animations are best when they’re brand-appropriate and repeatable.

Get input from everyone

Having brought us through the rationale for animations and a variety of potential workflows, Val took us deeply into the details that make for effective animations, and ended with a game plan enabling everyone on the team to become an undercover animation superhero.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with more top takeaways from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017

 

Also published in Medium

See also: 4 tools for designing better UI animation by Val Head.

Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Introducing studio.zeldman

STUDIO.ZELDMAN is open for business. It’s a vision I’ve been cooking up, a new studio supported by some of the most talented people in our industry and everything I’ve learned in two-plus decades of web and interaction design. And now it’s here. studio.zeldman designs digital experiences and provides strategic consulting. We don’t have a portfolio yet, but we landed our first client before we launched. Come on down!

The Design

Heading in this direction meant leaving the studio I founded in 1999 (we’re on the best of terms, and it’s an excellent company in great hands). My rise to an almost purely strategic position there taught me a lot about my business—but it also kept me from designing new projects. And I’ve been itching to get back to my roots. Three factors shaped my design for the new studio’s website:

  1. I wanted to try something different: something that was conceptual and art directional. Jen Simmons’s An Event Apart presentations (like this one from last year) inspired me to break out of the columnar rut of current design and create something that didn’t look like it came pre-baked in a framework.
  2. Because I am contrary, I thought it might be fun to allude to an outdated design approach (like, say, skeuomorphism) in a responsive web layout—if the content supported such a gambit.
  3. Most of all, my design had to come out of content.

Let’s unpack that third point a bit more. Normally, design studio websites discuss the customer’s business problems and posit design (and their particular skills) as the solution. It’s a strategy David Ogilvy pioneered for print advertising in the 1950s (“problem/solution”).

Every mention of an achievement or capability exists to show how it solved a client’s business problem: “our redesign increased conversion by 20%” or “our testing and iterative process reduced shopping cart abandonment by 37%,” and so on. Such sites talk about the company’s expertise, positioning it within a framework of client needs. Almost every design studio says the same two or three things at the top of their home page, leaving the real selling to their site’s case studies section. But studio.zeldman is new. No portfolio yet; no company history.

But first, a little something about me

With no portfolio, our strategy—at least for the launch—couldn’t be about our body of work. At least for now, it had to be about me: what I believe, what I’ve done. I came to that realization very reluctantly: I wanted to create a studio that was bigger than any one person. (My original name for the company was simply “studio,” and my plan for the design was that it should be as clean and basic as water.)

But Jason Fried of Basecamp, who is one of my smartest friends, persuaded me that what was unique about this new studio was me, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Jason convinced me to write simply and directly, in my own voice, about what I believe design is and does—and to support that message by showing some of the things I’ve done that reach beyond my portfolio.

As if I were sitting down to send you a personal note about this new company I’m starting, the best way to express those thoughts on the site was in a letter. That was the strategy. The letter was the idea. And the idea shaped the design.

A new angle on an old design idea

In 2007, if I were designing a site that began with a letter to the reader, I would have used drop shadows and paper textures to suggest that context. Back in 1995, I’d have made an image of a letter on a table or desk top, and the letter would have been at a slight angle, as if the writer had just left it there. Could I allude to these old-fashioned ideas in a way that was subtle and modern?

The 1995 technique of a photorealistic letter was out. But a slightly angled “paper” was feasible; Jen Simmons had shown me and hundreds of other people how this kind of thing could be achieved in modern CSS.

Of course, whether something is possible in modern browsers and whether it actually reads well can be two different things. So while I was comping in pen and paper and in Photoshop, we also ran tests. My collaborator Roland Dubois set up a CSS3 font-smoothing test for angled text in JSFiddle, while my friend Tim Murtaugh of MonkeyDo put together a quick prototype of the top portion of my initial design. Everything checked out.

Once I knew an angled letter could work, I made the angled placement and angular cropping of images a guiding principle and unifying idea for the rest of the design. On the calendar, it took me from January through April of this year to land on a design idea I liked. But once I had it, the site seemed to design itself in just days.

I confess: yes, I designed in Photoshop. (Don’t tell anyone, but I even started with a grid.) And, yes, to your horror, on this project I designed for big screens first, because that’s where these particular design ideas could be most impactful. I knew we could make the design sing on any size screen, but designing for big-screen-first brought this particular project’s biggest coding challenges to the fore and provided the excitement I needed to get to the finish line. Nothing brings a smile to a designer’s lips like seeing your web idea completely fill a 27-inch screen (and do it responsibly, even).

The best part

The best part of the page is the part I didn’t design. Roland did. It’s that magical form. I could play with that thing forever, and I hope potential clients feel the same.

Some folks who checked out the beta asked why we didn’t focus on specific capabilities or budget ranges. Fair question. We certainly could have launched as, say, a redesign shop, or a web-only studio, or a content-focused studio. Any of those would have been credible, coming from me, and differentiating ourselves right out of the gate would not have been a stupid move. We really thought about it.

But we decided it would be more interesting to be less specific and find out what our potential clients are actually looking for. Consider it research that might sometimes lead to a gig.

studio.zeldman thanks you

Mica McPheeters and Jason Fried checked out my copy and kept me honest. Tim Murtaugh coded an early prototype of the site. Roland Dubois coded the final from scratch. Noël Jackson set up the repository and CDN, and ran sophisticated tests that uncovered everything from bugs to performance issues, rebuilding and re-coding with Roland to squeeze every byte of performance we could out of a site with full-screen Retina images. An article by Roland and Noël on the experiments and techniques they used to code this site would be infinitely more interesting than what you’ve just read.

Hoefler & Co. designed the reliable letter font which you will all recognize as Sentinel; DJR created Forma, which I think of as sexy Helvetica, and let us use it even though it is still in beta. Before launch, to save bandwidth, we tried recreating the site design using system fonts. Wasn’t the same. (And with WOFF and CDNs and subsetting, we were able to deliver these wonderful faces without choking your pipes.)

Our thanks to the beta testers: Andrew Kirkpatrick (above and beyond the call of duty on matters of web accessibility), Rachel Andrew, Jen Simmons again, Anna Debenham, Jeremy Seitz, and Nicholas Frota. And to Anil Dash, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand, and Khoi Vinh, who gave us design feedback prior to launch.

Most of all, thanks to the “Royal Advisors” who put up with my endless changes of mind, and who always acted as if they were pleased to check out my newest brainstorm, or listen to my latest circular argument: Sarah Parmenter, Jason Fried, Fred Gates, Jen Simmons, and Mike Pick.

Has Design Become Too Hard? – transcription

What follows is a transcription of Has Design Become Too Hard?, which I wrote for Communication Arts in June 2016. I transcribe it here against the day CA takes down its content.

 

WE DESIGNERS love to complain. It’s our nature. After all, if we were satisfied with the way things work, feel, and look, we wouldn’t have become designers in the first place. But lately, particularly among web and interaction designers, our griping has taken on a grim and despairing flavor. Digital design is not what it used to be, we say. The fun has gone out of it. An endless deluge of frameworks and technologies has leached the creativity out of what we make and do, and replaced the joy of craft with a hellish treadmill of overly complicated tools to master.

Many of us feel this way, but is it true?

Consider responsive web design, proposed six years ago (video) by Ethan Marcotte at An Event Apart, and subsequently turned into an article and then a book. In twenty-plus years, I’ve never seen a design idea spread faster, not only among designers but even clients and entire corporations. Companies brag about having responsive designs for advertising, for crying out loud. Yet, after a euphoric honeymoon, designers soon began complaining that responsive design was too hard, that we’d never faced such challenges as visual people before. But haven’t we?

In the early days of web design, beginning in 1995, pixels were not standardized between PC and Macintosh; monitor aspect ratios were not standardized, period; and when we got a standardized layout language for the web, every browser supported it differently for years.

We tried “liquid layout” to work around the fact that every monitor was different. Our clients demanded we put everything above the fold, and we acted as if there was one—a consensual hallucination, when there were as many folds as there were screens, browsers, and user-adjustable settings.

Later, when standards were better supported in browsers, some of us pretended that “everybody” had a 600 x 400 monitor (and then an 800 x 600, and then 1024 x 768), but these too were consensual hallucinations. And even in those rose-colored fixed-width days, there was always a client or a QA tester whose user preference settings, outdated browser, or wonky operating system blew our carefully constructed fixed-width layouts to hell.

THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT WORK
Good design was never easy. The difference between now and then is that today, instead of pretending or wishing that everyone used the same platform with the same settings to view print-perfect digital masterpieces, we acknowledge that people will access our content however they choose, and with whatever device they have close at hand—and we design accordingly. For the first time since people first argued over how to pronounced “GIF,” we’re designing with the medium instead of against it.

Designers say, “okay, I’m down with responsive design—in a world of phones and watches, I have to be—but today’s code is too hard.” Yet is it? And was it ever easy?

At the web’s beginning, we wrote gibberish markup, using table cells, spacer pixel GIFs, and chicken wire to rig our digital design experiences together. Then came what many think of as a golden age, when browsers supported web standards well enough that we could use them—and nothing much changed in the browser universe for years, meaning that once we had mastered our CSS, HTML, and maybe a little JavaScript, our education in the front-end design department was complete, and we would not have to learn much of anything new.

DESIGNING INVISIBLE STRUCTURES
That has changed, to be sure, but not the way you may think, and not for the worse. Certainly there are a few new elements in HTML5 to learn—elements that add structural semantics to our content precisely when we need them. New elements like aside and article are perfect for a world in which we aren’t designing “pages” so much as systems, and where we’re taking an increasingly modular approach to design as well as content. New standard tools like Flexbox enable designers to separate content from presentation at the atomic level, which can be extremely beneficial to our clients and (more importantly) to the people who want to read and interact with their content. For an example of how this works, turn, again, to our friend Ethan Marcotte, who wrote about this very thing in November of last year.

You should read Ethan’s article, but here’s a quick summary of what he did. In redesigning a large content site, he first focused on creating a host of tiny, reusable patterns—such as headline, deck, and thumbnail. Several of these headline, deck, and thumbnail units were combined into a “teaser” module that promoted internal content elsewhere in the site, a common design pattern on media sites. Ethan then wrote markup based on the pattern he had visually designed—just like we all do.

But then came the fresh insight: what if a user doesn’t access the site’s content the same way Ethan does? For instance, what about blind or low-vision users who navigate web content as non-visual hypertext? Would the HTML structure Ethan had designed work perfectly for them? Or could it be improved?

It turned out the design of the HTML structure could be modified to better serve folks who browse content that way. As a plus—and this almost always happens when we design with the “stress case” user in mind—the site also worked better for other kinds of users, such as folks who access content via watches (on the high end) or not-so-smartphones (on the low end). In the same way you design visual elements to guide people through an experience, you can (and should) design your markup to create a compatible experience, even when this means the HTML does not follow the same order as the visual stream. HTML5 and Flexbox helped Ethan make better design decisions.

THAT FEELING OF INADEQUACY
Okay. So HTML is a bit richer than it used to be. And CSS is more powerful. But does a designer need to learn a lot more than that? Must you master Sass? Must you use Bootstrap or other frameworks? (For this is the source of many designers’ anxiety.) The answer is maybe … and maybe not.

Maybe if you’re specializing more and more in front-end code, it makes sense for you to learn Sass, as it gives your CSS superpowers and makes updating your code easier. For instance, when a client changes their brand colors, it may be easier to change one instance in Sass (and have Sass update all your code), rather than hunt-and-peck your way through hundreds of lines of CSS. Obviously, many designers have adopted Sass because of these benefits. Less obviously, some equally brilliant designers have not. We judge designers by their work, not by the tools they use to do that work, right? If learning something new excites you, go for it. If it’s causing undue anxiety, don’t force yourself to learn it now. You are still a good person.

As to frameworks like Bootstrap, they’re great if prototyping is part of your team’s design process—and in the world of apps, it surely should be. Such frameworks make it very easy to quickly launch a working design and test it on real human beings. But after a few iterations have improved your design, it’s time to dump Boostrap and code from scratch.

That’s because launching sites and applications based on Bootstrap or any other heavy framework is like using Microsoft Word to send a text message. Lean, performant sites—the kind smartphone users love (and desktop users love, too)—rely on tight, semantic markup and progressive enhancement: a fancy phrase that means everything works even in crummy browsers or when there is no JavaScript. And progressive enhancement is just not baked into any popular framework. The frameworks are huge, and heavy, and come with an expectation that the user has access to “the right” browser or device, and that everything works. Whereas in the real world, something is always breaking. So whether you use a framework as part of your design process or not, when it’s time to go public, nothing will ever beat lean, hand-coded HTML and CSS.

That’s a truth that hasn’t changed in 20 years, and probably won’t change in our lifetimes.

So relax. Quit tearing yourself down for not knowing every framework that’s out there. Stop worrying about where the fun went. And go design something useful and beautiful. Same as you always have.

Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) is the co-founder of An Event Apart design conference; founder and publisher of A List Apart magazine; and the author of Designing With Web Standards.

Has Design Become Too Hard? | Jeffrey Zeldman in Communication Arts

Digital design is not what it used to be, we say. The fun has gone out of it. An endless deluge of frameworks and technologies has leached the creativity out of what we make and do, and replaced the joy of craft with a hellish treadmill of overly complicated tools to master. Many of us feel this way, but is it true?

Has Design Become Too Hard?—Jeffrey Zeldman in Communication Arts

Position Wanted: Front-End Director

WE have creative directors and design directors, but we don’t seem to have any front-end directors. And maybe we should.

For years at big companies, people in different silos have written CSS with no information or understanding about each other’s work. This results in huge, sloppy files that have a negative impact on site performance, as folks write more and more complex rules trying to override pre-existing ones … or “solve” the problem by adding dozens or even hundreds of classes to their CSS and markup.

Professionals with serious front-end chops have tried to solve the problem by coming up with complex rules and systems which, by the time they filter their way down to less experienced developers, get turned into dogma. Every time I see a front-end article’s comments section rapidly fill with absolute statements about whether it’s okay or not to use id, I recognize that someone’s good idea has turned into somebody else’s religion.

And while I commend my colleagues who craft approaches to CSS that help avoid the inevitable problems large-scale enterprises encounter when many coders in many silos work on many components without talking to each other, I think there may be another way to look at the problem.

We all know having many people in many silos write CSS any old way doesn’t work, unless you consider bloat and poor performance working.

And while restricting how you allow people to write code solves some of these problems, it introduces others: too many class names is just another word for bloat.

So how about following the example of other creative endeavors, and putting a single mind in charge? After all, no matter how many disparate photographers, teamed with how many art directors, work on a given issue of a periodical, there’s always a lead art director who advises, helps plan shoots, and ultimately approves the work. Every orchestra requires a conductor. And no matter how many animators work on a film, there’s always a director. There’s a reason for that.

Imagine shooting a film with no director and no storyboards, in which each scene was written by a different screenwriter, and nobody knew the shape of the overall story. It wouldn’t make a coherent movie, much less a good one. Yet that’s how too many big organizations still approach front-end design and development.

So here’s a thought, big orgs. Instead of throwing a thousand front-end developers at your problem and seeing what sticks, consider creating a front-end director position as empowered as any other director at your organization.

Abandon Hope!

THE FILTHIEST men’s room in New York is on the 8th floor of 291 Broadway. You would think the men’s room at Penn Station or the bus terminal would beat any other for filth and stench but you’d be wrong. 291 Broadway’s is worse. There are five years of crushed insects on the walls. They never get scraped or cleaned away. There is stranger’s urine in every porcelain receptacle in the place. Weeks of it. It never gets flushed. You can try flushing it, sure, but it never goes down. Men urinate fresh streams atop gallons of other men’s stale urine in perpetuity ad infinitum. It sickens the soul. Chills the blood. Is enough to make the pope doubt God’s existence.

This bathroom is not in a slum. It is not in a poor third world favela. This bathroom is in a fancy NYC skyscraper, a stone’s throw from the historic Woolworth Building. I visit this bathroom once a week from the waiting room of a fancy office where, this being New York, I drop $250 per session. This is a court appointed specialist so I can’t choose another—say, one in a building with a clean and functioning restroom. This specialist deals with serious human misery. The kind that comes when families are torn apart. She does a good job of helping people. I doubt she has visited the men’s room here. If she had been to it, even once, even just for a moment, I doubt she could find the will to carry on in her good works. There are many filthy places in New York. Places that breed addiction, crime, and despair. Places no sane person would willingly go. Cesspools of the human spirit. Places where hope dies and light is extinguished. They are all better than the men’s room on the eighth floor at 291 Broadway.