#AEASea 2014: “Understanding Web Design” by Jeffrey Zeldman

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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.07.56 PM

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 have ignore tune 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.

Ginger as a noun, no verbs.
Ginger as a noun, no verbs.

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.

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