This is the celebrated journal of Mr. Simon Collison A.K.A Colly

An industry defined by accountability and technology will suffocate without idiosyncrasy

6th June 2008

Broad discussion about our industry is a tinderbox that I like to keep my burning roll-up well away from these days. The problem is, I bottle my thoughts up for so long that during weeks like this I just burst.

Whilst regular readers will appreciate my good intention, others may not. Well, that’s a risk I take by speaking my mind. If, as I am, you’re getting somewhat fatigued by the weight of over-analysis and opinion out there, and want to protect your own ways of doing things, you might be with me.

If you are in any way interested in web design process, standards, guidelines, the “right” tools for the job, and the role the tone of our writing plays in shaping the direction of what we do, then please read on. Whatever your view, this is a debate I’m happy to have…

Firstly, a little about our process

On one hand, our method is to have a proven and rigorous structure to our process that can act as a backbone to design and development, and can assist the client in understanding what we are doing, how we are doing it, why, and what the expected results might be.

However, the flipside of that is to remain as organic as possible. For three years I have been going on about how much I loathe the production line approach. Much as every member of the team should be free to make suggestions or get stuck in to any aspect of a build, so should the process itself be malleable. Each team member’s skill-set grows, and the project usually benefits significantly.

With us, we might skip the wireframes in pursuit of some amazing visual idea that Greg had in his sleep, and go build it and see what happens. Instead of building something up in Fireworks and worry about delivering some promised comps, we might decide to just go straight for the HTML and CSS, with Photoshop and FTP open, building fast and swapping graphics in and out at 100 mph, reveling in confidence. It always depends on the job, the mood, and the appreciation of the project and how its rolling.

Rules, standards and accountability

The web is an exciting, innovative space in which to work, and all of us get our kicks out of our involvement in this young and exhilarating field of design.

Still, its important to remember that whether we are building websites for clients, creating web applications for customers, or creating fun sites to enhance our individual or company goals, we are ultimately providing a service. Unless we’re engaged in building our own blogs, folios or pet projects, we’re service providers, with users in mind.

Naturally, being in this sector requires rules. Standards. Guidelines. We need this framework around us to ensure quality, responsibility, and even as some way for potential clients to evaluate our approach as they dip their toes into the minefield that is website commissioning.

So, I like rules. I love web standards and everything this methodology offers. The thing is, in getting to this stage, we as a community have endlessly analysed, discussed, tested, compared and deconstructed every facet of that which affects the end user, or might make our jobs a bit easier. It is this detailed study that has enabled designers and developers to make sensible decisions and build websites with confidence.

Our lust for endless analysis

Yet I wonder where this endless desire to analyse and advise will stop. What I think I now see, now that we have exhausted XHTML, CSS and JavaScript best practice, and torn into content management systems and programming languages, is a chorus of voices eager to pounce on whatever scraps are left over. There are two possible patterns I’ve spotted as I have watched things roll on from my cave, and whether you agree or not, this is how I see it.

In pursuit of the perfect process

Firstly, there is the danger of trying to impress a distinct structure on process. Not everything, but certainly the majority of studio-based stuff that happens between signing a contract and launching a website. Sitemaps, wireframes, comps, development sites, user personas - all that stuff.

I don’t think anyone is out-and-out demanding that websites are only designed one way - not at all. Still, take this week for example. Its all about Photoshop being inadequate, or there being no substitute for jumping straight into designing through HTML and CSS. Others are rushing to ensure Fireworks doesn’t get overlooked or sticking up for Photoshop as the only way. Many are revisiting the call for some sort of Photoshop/Fireworks combo, or some as yet unrealised super web design mega-app that also makes tea.

Does anyone own that minutiae yet? Can I have it?

Secondly, this desire to find something else to focus on sees some writers practically taking ownership of the minutiae of process. I’ll try and explain.

In the past I have thrown my toys out of the pram about articles focusing on small parts of the design process. Some articles basically surprise the subject matter in a dark alley, drag it to the bike sheds, spit in its eyes and tell it to fuck off. These innocent little devices never solved a damned thing, apparently. As tools, they were declared dead - not applicable in any instance. No good to nobody. These views then becomes fodder for Google searches, get linked to from many sources, and might be interpreted as the final word on the subject.

Delivered clearly as balanced opinion these would have made good talking points, encouraging some debate. But that just brings me round to the first problem. Why does it bloody matter if I use that in my process or not. It is MY process. Essentially, I thought these articles unnecessary, and they might not have been written had the bigger fish not already been bludgeoned, fried and battered.

Discussion is good…

Please understand that I absolutely believe that discussion about all of these things is useful, even vital. My blood begins to boil when opinion turns into overbearing suggestion, with a writer unable to appreciate that some people will use different approaches and do things differently. There’s no single guilty party here, its more the direction I’m thinking about here - a couple of year’s worth of bits and pieces congealing in my mind.

Make room for idiosyncrasy and creativity

The web is succeeding and improving because of rules and standards, and we’ve welcomed this. We provide a service, so we are accountable to our clients and customers. But, we’ve also faced an almighty battle with technology - browsers and devices for example. We’re bound on many sides, and we’ve little room left to be designers in the visual sense - to be creative. Solving problems requires a myriad of different starting points and methods.

At least in our idiosyncratic and personal approaches to process we remain in some sense individuals bound by common goals. I do it my way, you do it your way, she does it her way. Every web job is different and has unique aims and objectives. therefore, the process must remain flexible. For me, process is a tool kit consisting of numerous ideas and elements I can employ if and when I need them, and each remains a malleable element that I can shape to suit the task.

So long as the end user finds value in what we build, it doesn’t matter. My process is my process. Yours is yours. Lets talk, but leave the heavies at the door please.

Does this post make me guilty too?

In this post I’m basically doing exactly what I’m bemoaning others for doing, in that I’m throwing out opinion as manifesto. The difference, I hope, is that my argument seeks to preserve pockets of freedom within which to work, not cramp or refine what we do.

Making room for creative freedom and organic, flexible process is at the heart of this late night rant. With that in mind, I hope you find it acceptable. For me, its a cathartic thing, and not intended to antagonise.

Update: Richard Rutter references this article and also talks about his approach to process in Deviating from process.


# Dave Bowker responded on 6th June 2008 with...

“So long as the end user finds value in what we build, it doesn’t matter.”

That one line could have been your entire post. What we deal with as designers is a part of our job. Nobody has to know. Most people apart from other designers will care little.

When people buy a sandwich they don’t care how it’s made as long as it tastes good. Only sandwich makers know that you put the mayonnaise under the lettuce under the ham to prevent the bottom bit of bread going a little soggy. As long as the end product is delicious, you’ll get little objection.

I hope you get my point. I’m only an amateur sandwich maker.

# Lothar responded on 6th June 2008 with...

Thanks for that post! There are two things I really hate: People that proclaim to know the only valid way and people who dont’t read an article until the end.

Everything started with the article of 37signals telling the people how they do things without photoshop. And then a lot of people who did not read until the end had to tell others that this way doing things is wrong.

Those people did not notice, that 37signals is doing web applications, not websites, which is a mayor difference. They also did not notice, that they’re not doing client work, but own projects. And they did not notice, that 37signals were telling about their way do to things, not about the only right way.

# Sean Johnson responded on 6th June 2008 with...

“process is a tool kit consisting of numerous ideas and elements I can employ if and when I need them”

I totally agree. We produce around 5 websites (mostly for schools) per week and have a bit of a production line process. Most primary schools get a website to tick the OFSTED box and really don’t understand the whole target audience, personas, wireframing thing. On the other hand, secondary (high) schools, private schools and our commercial clients need to go thru this process to ensure we can provide a website to meet their business objectives.

We’re always looking to improve our internal processes to ensure we maximise our revenue potential whilst still delivering functional, usable and accessibly websites.

# Richard Rutter responded on 6th June 2008 with...

Excellent. Nothing like a Colly rant to spark off my morning.

Packaging up opinion as fact seems to be an effective way to get noticed, and if one does it often enough people start to assume one is an expert and everything one says is the Truth and the Only Way. Jakob.

Of course, if one is really clever then one writes vigourous pieces that appear to be stating the Only Way but in fact, when read thoroughly, state the Way That Works For Us And Might Work For You. Sensible readers would get this and still see one as an expert, and one still gets noticed by lazy readers.

# Simon Collison responded on 6th June 2008 with...

Dave: I get your point. Agreed, although I do care that my sandwich has been prepared with clean hands in a clean kitchen, fresh local produce - and made with love. So I do care about the sandwich process. But yes, its all about the end result with sandwiches..

Lothar and Richard: Yep, I agree with you both. Misunderstanding can come from readers missing the point, either by skimming posts, taking their views from follow-up posts, or not understanding a business model. As you say, 37 Signals are talking specifically about building web apps, and as they have already defined their style, they can indeed jump straight to HTML/CSS. And it is good to read their views on process. I and many others have learned a lot from them. It should always be possible to think “how does this apply to what I do?”.

# kevadamson responded on 6th June 2008 with...

Good article.

I think the design industry as a whole suffers from too much of an emphasis on ‘tools’ and ‘process’.

Photoshop/Fireworks is great. But at the end of the day, the tool you use is merely an evolved pencil.

Process is required as part of the management of a project. OK. Fine. We all agree on that.

The idea that the designer comes up with, based on the information he/she is provided with, is where the real value is. Without it you end up with a ‘delivered-on-time-polished-turd’.

All these articles saying “I use this” and “I don’t use that” and “I work direct from sketches” and “I scratch all my designs onto my naked body with a fork”, yeah - they are interesting, but they hold no value in promoting the method of reaching a quality solution.

# James responded on 8th June 2008 with...

Having room to research and be creative is important to any industry and as someone who works in research and development I could not agree with you more.

# Steven Hambleton responded on 10th June 2008 with...

Working with a CMS as open as ExpressionEngine makes me appreciate the fact there are no hard and fast methods to web design.

Sure there are somethings which are good practice such as showing a design before coding, cross browser testing etc but the details contained in or around these should suit your work flow/ethic/enthusiasm etc.

# Guy Roberts responded on 10th June 2008 with...

(I meant to link to Theory X and Theory Y above)

# Logo Mike responded on 16th June 2008 with...

Hmmm…..This could be the start of a never-ending post. Process IMO, start with originality and creativity. The purpose of the process is to get the benefit of the idea to as much of the web through site creation as possible…..But then as other ppl who lack their own ideas and take the lazy route via someone else’s process is what stifles creativity.

Paraphrasing Dave Bowker
“As long as it provides a benefit to the web, then who care s about anything else?”

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