#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.

#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.

Ladies Learning Code (Um, Yes, We Had Sandwiches)

I did a really cool thing last weekend.

Jane and I went to a Ladies Learning Code Workshop; an introduction to JavaScript, led by Angelina Fabbro.

I don’t usually sign up for workshops or gatherings or meet-ups or things like this. I get kind of anxious going by myself and I turn into the weird wallflowery person with a juice in their hands. The fact that Jane was with me was great. I was thinking we could at least hold the juices in our hands together and talk about knitting instead, if it didn’t work out.

Held in the lunch room at the Hootsuite offices in Vancouver, the workshop started out in a very casual way. Meredith, who I had assumed was the organizer, flashed us a bright smile, swung the door open and in we went, out of the rainy weather and into a toasty room that totally looked like Yogi Bear’s house but with beer taps.

There were no forced name-tags, no registration bars to scan, or any type of weird, “What are you doing here?” sort of situations. Thank God. People just walked in and set up shop. Just the way I liked my gatherings. I fucking hate small talk. I hate when people ask me what’s up or how my weekend went. Anyway, let’s not get into that.

This workshop was for people who had zero knowledge of JavaScript. And the thing is, I’ve tried to learn this time and time again.

I know Ben had been ready to punch me in the mouth for the way I’d been going about this, but there had just been this inexplicable force of resistance on my part to get things going.

The cool thing was that for me, it all kind of came together on this day. It was like Ben actually came up out of nowhere and physically punched me in the mouth. (He didn’t.)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I couldn’t get into JavaScript as much as HTML/CSS. It was weird, but each time I would open up these Sportsbutter .js files, something inside of me would sort of deflate and I would just start doing my laundry instead. I could sort of understand the basics of what was going on, and I was okay when it came to jQuery elements. I could make things slide and fade and shit, but that was kind of it.

But for me to actually get started and build a structure or an app out of JavaScript… I don’t know.

It was around the time Angelina was sharing her experiences about being a lady-programmer that it hit me.

She spoke about how she had turned down her first opportunity to lead a lecture about it because she instinctively felt like she wasn’t good enough.

I kind of sat there, holding a wonderful curried chicken wrap in my hands (instead of a juice), and let that story sink in. It definitely resonated with me. It wasn’t about being humble or not knowing what to do, really, but essentially, I came to realize that I couldn’t get started mainly because I felt exactly the same way.

The fact that I categorized myself as someone who knew absolutely nothing about JavaScript even though I’ve been with Mainsocial for over two years said something.

I didn’t think I was good enough to get this JavaScript shit.

When I work with Ben, it just always looked like magic to me. I would mention something that was broken, and I’d try to fix it, but would ultimately end up spinning my wheels. But when Ben would deal with it, it almost always usually gets fixed in a day. One time he fixed a bug in the time it took me to get a glass of water.

Of course B-ballz would be gracious about it, and he has taken great (great) pains to teach and mentor me. And I am definitely not saying that he is the reason I was so dumb about it, but I guess it’s just difficult to not be intimidated in this kind of situation.

What changed for me during this workshop was the context of my own experience. I honestly thought that I was going into a workshop with zero knowledge, just like everyone else.

But as soon as Angelina started talking through the slides and discussing basic things like variables and while loops, I found myself looking around and seeing that… erm, I kind of know this shit, too.

So a second wave of realization came upon me, and that was that… there was no secret sauce behind JavaScript.

The code presented to us was of course a hundred times simpler than what I would see in our Butterpool apps, but as Angelina walked us through it, I found the basic patterns and principles behind it.

It was like looking at a really big complicated robot machine powered by a Flux-Capacitor that writes out your grocery lists automatically for you and realizing that you can achieve the same results by using a pencil and paper.

The workshop had me building from the bottom up.

I think in my experience, I was introduced to JavaScript from the top down. The app was already working, and my job was to go in there with a wrench and hit stuff inside the big complicated robot machine powered by a Flux-Capacitor. And I didn’t know where Ben kept the pencils. And I couldn’t ask because I didn’t know that all I needed was to know where the pencils were. I didn’t know what I knew and if I didn’t know, then I didn’t know what I didn’t know either.

Are you following me?

And so as the day went on, I found myself talking through things with Jane. The quick exercises proved very useful to both of us because on one end Jane was getting a great intro from Angelina, and on the other, I was gaining an opportunity to test myself in talking it out with her.

It felt like I was putting polyfill into these odd cracks and crevices in my brain, and smoothing it out with a spackle knife. It was empowering.

I guess I just didn’t realize how much I knew until a bigger and more complete picture was laid out before me.

It’s like that story about a bunch of blind guys touching an elephant and talking about trees and horns and shit. I was one of the blind guys, and I think I just had my hand in the elephant’s balls the whole time thinking it was a jaguar’s mouth, afraid that it would bite me if I moved.

Just like my past weirdness about people trusting my skills, I think I had another set of issues about my own confidence in them.

Mainly because I’ve come across web development from a self-taught angle, rather than “having gone to school for it”, I think I just got used to thinking that I was a little bit less talented than those with actual formal training, or people who have been coding websites since they were nine years old. It’s also quite a big thing to be working in a vacuum for so long, and not really knowing your place within an industry.

With design shit, I feel fine. I recognize my peers and colleagues, and I know what they’re up to because I grew out of the same seeds of community. I may not necessarily know who the director of Burnkit is, and I may make a total ass out of myself in front of him and his ladyfriend during a birthday BBQ in a park. But I like to think that I can hold my own with fellow designers.

When it comes to web development, though, it’s completely different for me. I don’t have the same connections or the same experiences with people who I should consider my peers. Because I have no fucking clue who they are.

But now, armed with this knowledge and a new perspective, I’m pretty keen on changing that.

I came back super excited about what I can do with JavaScript, and immediately started plans for an awesome knitting app. This has since grown into a monsterish idea and now needs to be pruned and trimmed.

It goes back to my wallflowery personality, for sure. But if anything, I’m just glad that I was able to attend something like Ladies Learning Code. I feel like I got way more out of it that I expected. Jane even suggested that I try and be one of the mentors for the next event. We’ll see if I can gather up the courage for that…