#AEASea: “Faster Decisions With Style Tiles” by Samantha Warren

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” as a gerund, not 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.

Restlessness & Youth & Independence

So I have to admit I went a little bananas. I never thought I would, but over a year and something of working alone in my home office, but okay—I totally went apeshit.

I don’t know if that is a bad thing or a good thing, but I do know that there was one night where I was talking to my manfriend and just totally burst into tears. I didn’t even feel it come up. One second I was talking normally, and when my manfriend turned to get something from the fridge, I was already bawling.

And suddenly I was looking at flights to Korea to see my sister, looking at fitness classes at the community centre, and attempting to make peanut butter cookies at ten to midnight. Oh, and I think I moved some furniture, too.

It felt like I was stuck in this one pace and place, where I just let things happen over and over. I didn’t notice the gnawing feeling until it felt similar to how you let go of taking care of an ulcer.

I would wake up, go to my corner, feed the cat, work until dinnertime, and then Netflix and then go to bed. Washing, rinsing, repeating, and suddenly I’m in the tub, having scrubbed myself raw and I’m bald.

While solitude is still something I very much enjoy, there are also times where I really miss my family. I feel so grown up admitting that, and would never had expected it from myself five, ten years ago.

All that mattered then was my independence, and this illogical need to make that point. That’s why teenagers are so shitty, for the most part. And I like to think that I earned my independence at a much earlier age than people like me. That is, sheltered, Chinese-Filipino, middle-class and trained in a Catholic School with Jesus biscuits as treats.

And then, I suppose I got lazy.

It's like we don't talk anymore, Hugo.
It’s like we don’t talk anymore, Hugo.

I guess it takes a toll on you, being alone. I still don’t mind it, and I really don’t think it was totally because of the home office situation. My family is across the Pacific Ocean. My good friends were all moving to different cities/getting married. It just hit me how quiet things were all of a sudden. And without that noise, I succumbed to keeping to myself like the natural mountain man that I am.

It’s also more the matter of missing this place, rather than being there. Perhaps it’s a common thing for Third-Culture Kids, but there’s a weird mix of dissatisfaction with where I am and longing for it at the same time. I like to move around so that I get the opportunity to miss it. You stay in a place long enough and you start taking it for granted.

I went home to Manila recently, and it was a bit of a surprise to see how different I had become from when I first left at seventeen/eighteen years old. Anything we leave behind gets stuck in a time-warp, I think, and all that usually holds up are your memories of it. Some are bad, good, totally inaccurate, but somewhere in there lies the truth of how you feel about the place.

I sound like a fickle housewife, forced to choose between a loving husband and the pizza delivery guy.

Routine is a struggle for me sometimes, as I’m not happy with seeing the same thing over and over. Perhaps this is also just residual feelings from youth, and something that I’m still growing out of. I’m not that old yet, and really, if there’s anything I’ve learned, there doesn’t seem to be a threshold for youth anyway.

And so I’ve taken it upon myself to build on new routines, ones that don’t feel too contrived, and am more aware of creating options throughout my day. The feeling breaks once in a while, but independence really is something we need to maintain, not just achieve. Because when we get lazy, we kind of stop deserving it.

Relaxy Parts of Work

I feel pretty nerdy saying this, but there are some parts of my job that kind of relaxes me.

It’s a difficult feeling to describe, because I still end up feeling super tired at the end of the night, but at the same time, my brain feels like it’s on fire. In the good way.

Physically, I guess I don’t look that much different from when I am working on front-end markup and figuring out how to do the right query from a database. To me, the latter is totally nerve-wracking and draining in a way that I have to take angry sandwich breaks from time to time.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like it because I like the challenge and problem-solving aspect of it, but I like it in a different way. Front-end stuff… I don’t know. I never realize what time it is unless I actually set an alarm or launch f.lux to tell me it’s dinnertime. Without these signals, I’d probably work well into the night and not even know it’s been two days since.

I’d still be on the same desk, wearing the same power suit (e.g., striped pyjamas with pockets) and drinking the same cup of coffee from my little yellow Bodum mug with a cat on it.

But one makes me nervous and kind of excited, while the other totally pulls me into a comfort zone of goose-down duvet proportions.

There is something really awesome about doing front-end work for me. I love doing markup and working on HTML/CSS. From figuring out how to create a grid structure that works, to slowly nudging numbers on my Chrome Developer panel to make things line up.

It’s like if you hooked up my brains to a visualization machine, it would kind of look like Robin Williams running through that crazy field in What Dreams May Come. Actually I’ve never seen that movie. So I’m hoping it’s a good and happy scene, and nothing like The Cell with Jennifer Lopez.

What Dreams May Come
This is good, right?

I’ve likened it to hairdressing in the past. And I think I get the same feeling as when I move furniture around my apartment to get a new layout. The idea that this whole canvas is so malleable and completely up to my own manipulation is pretty cool. I feel like one of those kids in those Douglas College ads or Vancouver Film School ads, where they do a weird stroke movement and some type of animated shit barfs out of their pens or their fingers.

SUPER LAME TO DESCRIBE IT THIS WAY but sometimes it really does feel like that. And what do I live for but to embarrass my fellow design professionals?

I remember my colleagues at Kaldor blanching whenever I’d mention how much I love Reba. I also based one of our major projects from a scene I remembered from Gilmore Girls. The project worked out well, but nobody really asked me to explain the screen grab of Rory Gilmore looking at her Harvard Wall and holding a Yale shirt. Whatever. I get results.

So anyway, yes. Front end work. I love it. My brain just goes into jelly-mode and I can honestly sit here for five hours working on one page. I feel so comfortable and happy just plugging away when I’m in the thick of things.

Of course there are different facets to anyone’s work which one is bound to love, kind of like, and really hate. And I think a lot of us talk about the bad parts and how we stress out and how busy we are, but I’m trying this thing out where I look into the shit I love instead. And I mean LOVE. Not just shit I kind of enjoy or shit I think I’m pretty good at.

I mean shit I really don’t mind doing even if someone asks me to do it in the middle of the night or shit I will always make time for.

This shit list includes things like re-arranging my furniture to maximize space, capacity and sunlight; spooning with my cat; making roast beef sandwiches; watching Face/Off on Netflix; watching Demolition Man… ANYTIME ANYWHERE; eating sashimi salad and as already established, building and adjusting HTML/CSS files.



Curious Oyster Catering

I was asked by Ellen Lee to lend a hand in building a website she had designed. And as is Ellen’s character, the layout was as lovely and delicate as anything I’d expect from her.

Curious Oyster is a full-service oyster catering company. In other words, they will come to your party and make it 10000x better than you can ever dream of. Also, Richard, the owner, was so fantastically nice and wonderful. It really was a treat to work with both of them.

Curious Oyster is actually a great illustration of my recent thoughts on designing and coding. The experience was very different in what I’ve been accustomed to, and I was more than happy to take part in building it.

Curious Oyster Index

It was an exercise in communication as well, as I had not really worked with anyone outside of the web capacity for a long while. Even at Free Agency, I mainly worked with Tak, who was in charge of the interactive and web components of the projects.


Being used to talking freely about “web stuff” without worry of having to explain myself, I came to realize how much I had assumed in terms of what we both understood from each other.

But Ellen came in from a totally different part of design, one that I really appreciate. It was wonderful to be able to focus on the little details on the “web stuff” because I knew that she would be just as meticulous about the “layout stuff.”

Not to say that I am careless about my work (you jerks), but sometimes when there are too many moving little pieces, it really makes a difference to have someone spot the precarious elements. I was glad that she was able to catch all of those little things such as spacing and typography, and offer some alternatives where the technology came up a little short.


It’s difficult to establish a good partnership in any context, and it’s so important to be able to play to each others’ strengths when it comes down to it.

Here’s an image that I think best represents how we worked together:

New Directions (No Relation to Awful Boy Band I Prefer Hanson OK I’ll Stop)

You know, talking to people really is amazing.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a some side projects, and mostly just helping out in getting websites made. That stuff is normal, sure. But the great thing is the exchange that happens whenever you start any collaboration with a person.

Far be it from me to elevate design into anything more than it is, but I guess I’ve noticed an experience when I sit down with a person for a job.

Once they start talking about their business or their website and what they want to happen, I really like that part where they get excited about it. I do too.

It’s almost like therapy, where the person you’re talking to is just trying to make you understand where they are coming from. At the same time, it’s also like a secret club, in that you get let into the back room where their plans are kept. Or some kind of adult-sized dollhouse where the E-Z Bake Oven is kept.

Whether it’s these two young moms really excited about a knitting event they are putting together, or a guy who just wants to shuck oysters for you at a party (more on that soon), whatever I’m trying to create with them is so obviously important that it’s almost insulting to not try your best.

That’s what I love about my job right now. There is nothing between me and this other person, and it feels like a conversation and an exchange of enthusiasm, information, knowledge and passion. And from the other side of things, I also hope that they see how excited I am to lend a hand or just be part of it.

A large part of what I do depends on how convincing the client is, and how much they can make me believe in what they want to do or sell. If it’s 110% important to at least one person, then that’s already enough. That extra 10% carries over to my side of the table almost all the time.

I don’t think the outcome matters as much or what trends are followed at any point in time. Those things ebb and flow so quickly that it makes my mind spin sometimes. If you think your business or your website is essential to who you are and what you want to accomplish—and you make me feel the same way—there will definitely be an obvious feeling of love and labour that will go into the final outcome.

I believe a lot of us can tell if that exists whenever we encounter a product or a company or a person. It matters.

And just as that feeling shouldn’t really die after launch, the want and the need to improve should also be there. Web is such a fluid medium these days. It’s easy to update a website. It’s difficult to keep that passion alive when it’s not 100% there.

And that’s what I got to thinking about as I was updating my website.

We all have reasons to be designers or whatever we are, and again, some people love making beautiful things. I was always so jealous of that.

But the recent realization for me is that to me, beautiful things are absolutely relative and subjective. I like knowing the story behind things, and carrying on conversations about it. It’s the stories I find beautiful.

So while a project won’t win any awards or accolades, the more interesting part for me is the fact that there is a person or group of people willing to dissect and study its growth for improvement. What do you use as the yardstick?

This is very difficult to show as a collection of screenshots and images.

Maybe this is why I felt so dissatisfied with having to just choose between an image-based portfolio site and a more thought-process-based model of approach. Like I said before, I want to be a content creator, but the way I was thinking about content was completely one-sided.

What is this website about? What do I want more of in my life?

It’s not more crap, obviously.

I want more people to work with. More ongoing relationships, and more partnerships. I want to get to know a lot of people through their work, and be a part of that growth. I want other people to know who these people are, and support their endeavours and businesses, the same way they support mine in working with  me.

This is the important thing for me, and in the end, this version of the site will reflect this gratitude.

It’s far from done. I have a few more things to add, and more content to create, but just as how I speak about the great people I work with, I hope you guys can also tell that this is what gets me really excited.