6th June, 2008

An industry defined by accountability and technology will suffocate without idiosyncrasy

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.

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