Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read this recent blog post by Jon Tan it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection though, should we subject ourselves to so much soul-searching based on moments of awkwardness in social situations? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

Elsewhere on the web, others appear keen to let us know exactly what defines us.

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. For example:

“…you’re not a web designer, you’re something else.”

“You’re not a user experience designer if…”

“A designer who does not write markup and css is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures.”

The defense for statements of this nature tends to be that they are intended to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.

——

Update: Following some particularly gracious feedback from Jon Tan, whose blog post is referenced here, I have edited the text of this piece to more accurately establish sources and targets for a number of points made. Thanks to Jon for his input. The original post has been retained for reference.

Words fail us.

A recent exchange on Twitter, started by this tweet from Andy McMillan, brought attention to the use of self-deprecating terms by designers that may contribute to an overall lack of respect for – or awareness of – the discipline of web design. Andy also questioned what the responsibility of the design community should be in overcoming misconceptions.

I believe our industry dialogue has shortcomings that go beyond self insulting slang. How we choose to discuss our work amongst ourselves and how we communicate outwardly is directly linked to the fundamental credibility of our industry. And yet modern design discourse cannot manage to get much past “cool!” or “awesome!”.

Reading a blog post by a practitioner of say, the legal industry which began “Being a solicitor totally kicks butt!!” might reasonably lead you to think that something so crass reflects badly on the writer and, if it was a widely read site or journal, on the profession itself. But a recent design-related blog post I came across began precisely that way (substitute “designer” for “solicitor”). Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Our deficiency in apposite language is not always so overt. We have all seen design agency homepages that proudly pronounce something along the lines of: “We design cool web stuff for awesome clients”. Reading this you simply have to wonder – who is the target audience Vocabulary in the design world has become a series of memes. Phrases like “We’re passionate about creating awesome online experiences” suggest everything and nothing.

Try Googling the phrase “We’re passionate about design” and look at the number of results returned, or let me do it for you. Apologies if you find yourself in there. I don’t doubt for a second that each of those companies and individuals truly believe in what they are saying. However, if they also believed that making this statement created some kind of differentiator in the marketplace, they were clearly and painfully wrong.

Professional design bodies around the world, such as the very vibrant GDC in Canada or AIGA in the US, work extremely hard to bring credibility to the design profession by lobbying business and industry on the benefits of design supplied by accredited, licensed professionals. We rail against the idea of organisations producing substandard design work in-house, or roll our eyes when we hear that the boss’s nephew produced the company’s website because he had a copy of Dreamweaver.

And yet too many designers and design agencies insist on prioritising credibility with their peers over professional communication by adopting a witless “aren’t we cool?” approach to how they discuss and present their work. Do we really believe that clients are attracted to us by lambasting them with how “cool” or “awesome” we are?

The arrival of The Manual may represent a watershed, and the publication has very clearly set out its stall in terms of what it hopes to achieve. Similarly, New Adventures in Web Design has fired up debate of a nature that simply had not existed before. We should applaud these earnest efforts to usher in a new era of industry communication and hope they bear fruit. Further to that, the rest of us should make a contribution and start introducing maturity to the – at times – adolescent lexicon of design discourse, be it in our industry publications, on our blogs… even on Twitter. Or is that asking too much?

When we can communicate as accomplished and eloquent professionals, between ourselves as well as beyond our industry, then perhaps the boss’s nephew won’t get so much work.

Real life design: an imperfect process

I think I had watched one too many design conference videos on Vimeo, or read one too many utopian blog posts on perfect design practice. And something went *click*.

For developing designers the profusion of inspiring blog posts, videos, tweets and community activity can be hugely helpful, motivating… and not a little overwhelming.

The thrust of much of the material available, authored by designers for designers, appears to be polarised between near-utopian visions of how the design process should work, how we should design and the other extreme of ‘Clients from Hell’-style rants. The conference talks by the great and the good of our industry, while inspiring us to reach, to stretch ourselves and improve our practice, also tend to paint a picture of working with dream clients who ‘get’ designers and have limitless budgets to allow designers to do what they do best.

But how many projects actually go down like that? I’m guessing less than 10% for the average designer. Much less. I’ve seen enough to know that when things all go perfectly on a project then you can check in the sky for a blue moon if not a flying pig.

The fact is that bringing a design project to a successful conclusion is very, very difficult. But to be able to stand over a project, knowing that you perservered and overcame every last hurdle put in its way is a fantastic feeling. What I have yet to find is a conference presentation that tells it like it is: that being a designer can be frustrating, maddening, to the point of making you wonder why you ever got into it. But also that working through the problems is worth the effort.

So many articles and blogposts are overly academic in their approach to the practice of design. Academic, in the sense that they are abstracted from the reality of working with clients and budgets and deadlines. It is in this light that I wanted to add a little reality to the mix. This is the first in an occasional series of articles on this blog under the category of An Imperfect Process, based on experience gained in the (surprise, surprise) middle ground of the design industry.

I adore every article on A List Apart and hang on every word written by the thought leaders in the world of design. I fully subscribe the quasi-science of UI design, and thrive on the positive messaging of the big speakers. However, there is a real world out there that we all have to work in, where projects won’t necessarily be conducive to textbook design practice. Consider these posts as postcards from that other reality – real life design.

We deal with an imperfect design process, one that integrates as much as possible of the best of design thinking, both past and present, but which deals with the realities of design in the real world.

More to follow.

Deconstructing Build

A collection of circumstances prevented me from getting along to Build Conference this year, much to my shame. And while videos of all the events – main talks and fringe events – are available, I know from experience that nothing can replace just being there, with your peers, having your head sent into a spin by the words of those preeminent in their field.

Andy McMillan – Build’s architect – has put together what he calls a ‘hand-crafted’ web design conference. Post-event his head must have been spinning with the torrent of praise coming his way. The thought he put into it was evident at every turn, with no detail left untended to. He is but one man yet made all this happen, the likes of which is rarely seen in Belfast.

The event has become something much bigger than it arguably set out to be. With a heavy emphasis on fringe and social events, spread out over a week, and with a much broader appeal than its humble tagline suggests, Build is as close to a design festival as it gets. Although a web conference, the wider design community beats a path to Build’s door and the whole shebang is spread over a week. Speakers’ topics this year extended to typography and the design process, while fringe events pushed the ‘web design conference’ description beyond breaking point. This was a festival of design by any other name.

I’ve been around long enough to see at least one national design body try and fail to motivate successive generations of designers and engender a sense of community. Through Build (and a not insignificant amount of other activity such as Refresh Belfast) Andy has achieved it within a couple of short years. Build it and they will come indeed.

I don’t know Andy and have no idea what he has in mind for future years, but his seemingly endless drive will surely result another landmark event in 2011. For what it’s worth I hope Build retains its unique ‘belfastness’. I also hope it ditches it’s increasingly inappropriate “love us because we’re small” marketing bent. Those tickets aren’t cheap, and for good reason. This is a first class design event, worthy of the title of festival, and deserves to be enjoyed and lauded far far beyond the often clique-y world of online design.

Forget #buildconf. Next year’s Twitter hashtag should be #buildfest

Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read Jon Tan’s recent blog post it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection, and without any disrespect to Jon – should so much soul-searching be triggered by what amounts to a moment of awkwardness at a social occasion? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for loud, showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. The defense is always that these statements are designed to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to
others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.