#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.

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.

 

Self-Regulation and Timing

Obviously one of the main reasons this site is forever in flux and fluxes so often is that I can’t quite decide what I want to do.

I want to be content creator, but I don’t think showing images of my work is enough. I want to be able to show my thought process and involve more writing into this. I’ve always found it difficult to keep an image-based Tumblr blog because I don’t have the ability to just post images. It’s certainly easier, but somewhat less satisfying. I’ve probably started over a dozen Tumblr blogs, all ending the same way—cancelled.

I want to be able to write. Not sure if I need to write, as I clearly don’t do it often enough, but I like having introductions and explanations to things. I like built out thoughts and composed entities. I also have this narcissistic assumption that you will read what I write. You probably won’t, but that’s not the point.

The point is catharsis, I suppose. Maybe I’ve been taking too much of Steven Pressfield’s blog to heart, but a lot of what we do can probably be chalked up to catharsis. Just the need to do something, to release some kind of monster or entity into the world. Usually we don’t know the consequences of it, and while it ranges from Pandora’s Box to a lunchbag letdown, the important thing is the action of it. This is all theoretically speaking, of course. If anything, this monster should probably first be released in the confines of one’s home or some kind of private space before being launched into the public realm. It’s just safer that way. Have an axe-pick handy, just in case you need to kill it.

Nobody wants to relive the movie Possession with Sam Neil.

Thus the importance of drafts, sketches and editing. It’s part of the cathartic process. Not just the spitting-it-out part, but also the reflective moment that (hopefully) occurs when you see it face to face. And again, hopefully it doesn’t look like that sick-ass squid shit monster from Possession with Sam Neil.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’ve been very affected by this movie, Possession with Sam Neil. It may very well be one of the weirdest batshit-insane movies my eyes and ears and senses have ever beheld. There are few movies I would say I really, really hate. Possession with Sam Neil is one of them. The second is a toss-up between Demon Seed with Julie Christie and The Back-up Plan with Jennifer Lopez.

Once in a while I’ll have these thoughts of which I’m too afraid to put on my website. I keep putting this pressure on myself. There is “professional” me and “idiot” me, I guess, and it’s been a constant battle to make these two play nice.

I get bored with the standards of portfolio sites, and I become inclined to break shit around the site, put up pictures of John Stamos and curse like a sailor.

And then suddenly a potential job comes along and I feel like I’ve been hanging out in a basement with Jenga pieces and pizza crusts stuffed in weird crevices. Then it’s a mad rush to make things pristine once again. First impressions and all of that.

On the other hand, whenever I do regulate my idiot self into its own space, the area feels too free and I get equally bored with the freedom and lack of restrictions. And lack of pants.

To me, neither of these personas are insincere. I do think I have a professional side, and I also think that I am an idiot at various points of the day. I don’t think I’m pretending to be one or the other, but I suppose the larger issue may be more of timing than sincerity.

It feels a bit like Jekyll and Hyde at times, and the dangerous part is that sometimes I find the internet too forgiving. Abandon my changes? Right here? Sure. I can rebuild it. Can I change my mind about starting this? Yes. Am I able to unregister? Unsubscribe? Usually.

The danger I talk about is that while the medium may be forgiving, I can’t be too sure about the people receiving the contents. It’s so difficult to make a good first impression, and you can never really tell who is looking at what and when. If only there were media queries for real life!

Oh, sorry. That was both very melodramatic and absolutely nerdy.

Do I have any good thoughts to offer? Am I actively making the internet a better place? Am I hurting anyone? In this case, am I Sam Neil/Julie Christie/Jennifer Lopez? Will I look back on this and feel like Taylor Swift at the Grammys?

Just a few questions that I know are important and very difficult to answer.

My Dad Is Awesome

I usually write about my mum, but that’s just because I like to spoil her with my words. My dad is actually equally awesome, in the way that most Chinese dads are. Where my mother has taught me to be strong, my father has taught me proper hygiene and embracing my ghetto fab roots.

Gildo, my good man, is a man of… many words. And very few tshirts. He grew up in Manila’s Chinatown, selling paper fans and eggs as a child. Slowly, he worked his way up and became one of those fab businessmen in the 70s with bell bottoms and tan suits. He used to know Japanese (or says he did) and had the most fantastic haircut.

Now, the suits are ill-fitting (but that’s okay), and he’s settling in quite well with the idea of being a senior citizen. He flashes his laminated “OVER 60” pass at the ladies at the McDonald’s and smiles proudly to himself when they give him his free small coffee.

I joke around and call him my shirtless father most of the time, and of course he would never pose for a photo shirtless. It’s just the other times in between. Who could blame him, anyway? Manila has a hot sun. The clouds are sparse, and the electric bills run high.

“If you have to save a centavo, you save a centavo. But if you have to spend a whole peso, you spend the whole peso.” (Unless you have a senior citizen card.)

He says that a lot. But I can’t really see him really living these words. My mum held a garage sale once, without telling him, and sold all of his little Bhudda trinkets and figurines. I think we made a fortune, because my mum was able to afford to send me to Canada for college. He has a digital alarm clock that greets you “Good morning!” in two different languages. A very traditional man, he has things to remind him of his spirituality, like the wooden baby Jesus statue. Which sits next to a smiling Bhudda.

Actually I’m not sure what the house looks like anymore, but my childhood is filled with memories of him and trinkets. He’s like the Little Mermaid in her underwater hoarder’s cave.

Similar to my mum, he also likes giving gifts to people. Small items of appreciation. Where my mum liked giving food and treats, my dad had a broader list. But he likes to assign gifts to people, which makes says a lot more about what he thinks about you than anything else.

Case in point; he likes giving t-shirts to my friends. I know, for a shirtless man, he really enjoys giving people clothing. Whenever he sends over things for me, he always disclaims it with, “Okay, so this one Papa got for you to give to your best friends. So you can make lots of friends in Canada.”

It’s a sweet thought, really, and I do appreciate it. But not as much as my friends who are the recipients of these sweet gifts. The great thing is that these tokens, while they do seem ironic coming from me, are completely sincere coming from my dad.

I told him once that Manny Pacquiao was really big among my buddies, just in passing. This year, he brought over three Manny Pacquiao t-shirts “to give to me best friends.” I gave one two to Trung, and another to Stokoe. From what I can tell, both of these guys really like these shirts.

They were these black shirts with Pacquiao’s face emblazoned all across the whole fronts and whole backs, screaming, “GUYS I REALLY LIKE MANNY!!!”

“Tell them na the printing on this tshirts are really nice, ha. They printed the tshirts in Thailand. That’s why the ink sticks so well to the material!”

He also sends over dried mangoes, which we are awfully proud of. Firstly because it’s Filipino, and secondly, they are amazingly delicious. They aren’t the kinds of mangoes that are dried up and hairy and taste all nasty. These ones he gets are soft and sweet and mysteriously juicy, for dried fruit. They also come in unmarked bags, which concerned me in the beginning, but I’ve now come to ignore due to the glorious treats that lay inside.

Again, I don’t know where it comes from, and he’s given me vague answers in the past, like an aunt’s friend in Chinatown or something. But these mangoes are also one of the things he suggests I use in order to grow my collection of lifelong peers.

Usually he sends them in large plastic bags, each one weighing maybe a kilo or two. He’ll also include a note (written in all caps): “THESE MANGO FOR YOU. DISTRIBUTE TO AMONG YOUR FRIENDS. PAPA LOVE YOU TAKE CARE.” Inside, with the mangoes, will also be a wad of smaller empty zip-lock bags for me to put said distributions into; zip-lock bags of which he never runs out of.

He calls me once in a while just to chat, mostly because he’s bored. But I like that he does, because I get a little homesick sometimes. And to hear his broken English-Chinese-Tagalog instantly brings me back home. I imagine him shirtless, wearing his boxers and ripped slippers, sitting cross-legged on our orange paisley sofa, with his iPhone pressed against his hear.

My dad, while not the perfect man, always had a good heart, I think. While sometimes he says things that are terrible or insulting, the key thing about him is that he really doesn’t mean it that way.

He just genuinely thinks that you’ve gained weight. No, it really is a terrible thing to be that age and still unmarried. Maybe go on a trip to Europe and see if men respond better there. But try to get a Chinese man. Or at the very least Asian. Well, no, women shouldn’t really drive. Or go to college, for that matter, but well, it’s not like you’ll listen anyway. And maybe you’ll meet a nice boyfriend there.

Yes, he gets into lots of trouble. Like, a lot. But Gildo Ngo has always been a resilient man. And he’s quick to apologize, as he knows he possesses this trait, just not when it is invoked. Like someone walking around with their fly down, it’s just that he never notices it hanging out until someone tells him. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure a lot of my friends who have met him agree. My dad is pretty awesome.

A Week of Detox

If I could name a theme for what I’ve been up to this week, I’d say it was “detox.” I feel like I went on Jenny Craig, but for other aspects of my life. No, don’t worry, I won’t be singing that awful “IF YOU WANT IT YOU GOT IT” bullshit jingle. Argh, I hate that song.

What the...?

Futonless!

Every university student or anyone who has gone through their early twenties will have had to had slept in/passed out on/thrown up over/stupidly purchased a futon of some kind. It’s as much of a staple to independent youth as it is living off Kraft dinner for a prolonged period of time. They come cheap, they fold up into seating, and they’re great for reading comics on your belly on a nice summer afternoon.

I had bought my own gem on my first year of living on my own, when I moved to a little bachelor suite in South Granville. It was a great companion, and we’d become good friends over the last little while. I even made it a little custom sheet to minimize the wear and tear.

And then it just kind of sat there; a floppy, awkward, hunchy reminder of years that I personally don’t find so exciting.

Today it was picked up, and I suddenly see my room in an entirely different and very spacious light. I’ve essentially gained about a plot of floor space measuring about 4×6 feet. I may or may not have made some carpet angels when I realized this.

Farewell, Cable Television!

There is a type of person that I dislike—not hate, as I reserve that for many others—okay, maybe not dislike, but I find kind of abrasive and annoying; and that is the guy who always makes it a point to casually mention that they haven’t had a TV for x number of years. And then later follow this up by saying that they just watch shows and movies on their computers.

In any case, that is exactly the same as this:

Don’t say you “don’t have TV” like it’s some kind of weird badge of entitlement, man. You know who else don’t have TV? The Amish. And monks. And probably some clairvoyants. Have you hung out with any of those guys? They seem pretty annoying.

You are not better than me because I greatly love Reba and Gilmore Girls. Those shows are absolute diamonds!

Anyway, my point is I got rid of cable. I still have the television, but no more afternoons of Judge Judy, Price is Right, or Judge Joe Mathis. What it’s getting me is an extra $50/month to spend on terrible things like Belgian waffles and hand creams.

Books, Donated!

I’ve given up on building my literary aspirations on thrift store finds and other terrible shit printed and bound. So many carried my dreams of becoming somewhat of a literati, yet each one dragged the disappointment of knowing that the books I loved the most weren’t the ones about mid-century art or short stories by Margaret Atwood, but the ones about Bigfoot and drunk animals at the bar.

It was a terrible realization, guys.

Until I got an eREADER.

Holy shit. “Amazeballs” is not even a fit enough word to describe how I feel about this thing. I debated with myself, whether or not to go with an eReader or a more multi-functional tablet, and I am so, so glad I went for the eReader.

The fact that it is built solely for reading is what I find so great. The interface is clunky, and reminiscent of those days when I had tutorials on MS-DOS (okay, maybe not), but the beauty of it is that reading is all you can do on this thing.

I’ve made a past admission that I am not a great reader. And I don’t know if it’s the lingering feelings of excitement, but I blew through a book in one night the first night I got it, and read my first Hunter S. Thompson book in three days. I’m now on my third literary meal, and I’ve shown no signs of disinterest or slowing down.

The amazing part for me is not the technology behind the e-ink shit garbage or 10,000-book storage, but at how well it motivates me to read. I can’t explain it very well, but this thing just really makes me want to drink in every page. It’s magic!

It also hooks up to the Vancouver Public Library’s e-publications online system, so I don’t have to haul my ass to the colosseum to find what I want. I don’t need to worry about late fees, either, as the file automatically returns itself or flies back to the VPL or whatever digital files do in space when you’re not looking. Completely amazing.

This must be what my dad felt when he first found out what an iPhone was. Christ!

In that vein, I’ve now been pulled to really examine my book collection, and separating the ones worth keeping from the ones that should have been thrown out years ago. Oh, this digital age! I’m all for it! Fuck you, old geysers still using the Encyclopaedia Britannica!

But, yes, I did end up keeping my Bigfoot books by Graham Romieu and Cats in Love.

Guys, this week of editing has made me feel great. It’s so awesome to be able to claim new space, new mental assertions and input, and new discoveries. It’s better than constantly moving my furniture around. Which I also did. Just today. Heh.