Beyond the Style Guide

With Drew kind enough to let me write for 24 ways again, this year’s contribution was an opportunity to bring together a series of thoughts that had been languishing in my drafts folder. These centered around modular design, in particular the growing use of front-end style guides:

In straddling the realms of graphic design and programming, it’s the point at which they meet that I find most fascinating, with each discipline valuing the creation of effective systems, be they for communication or code efficiency. Front-end style guides live at this intersection, demonstrating both the modularity of code and the application of visual design.

I also wanted to write about the role CSS preprocessors can play in this context, one that ensures their use is more considered and focused. Such is the power of preprocessors like Sass, that without exercising restraint, we can find ourselves creating endless abstractions, with even the most fundamental aspects of CSS being drawn into the mixin. Much like jQuery (and frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation), we can find ourselves growing dependent on such tools, to the extent that simpler, more effective alternatives get ignored.

Thinking of Sass an an intermediary between CSS and a visual language, is one way I try to keep my reliance in check: if you see a mixin or variable in my CSS, it should relate to an attribute in my design system.

So, I end this year much like I did the last, with one final article on a topic of interest. Unlike last year, I’m looking towards a new year that sees me write less long-form pieces like this. Instead, I wish to spend more time making things (my list of abandoned/neglected/potential side projects can only grow so long), and perhaps embracing a means of writing that’s a little more fast and loose.

‘The Late Show’ Opening Titles - Director’s Cut

I’ve yet to see a full episode of The Late Show (which I wrote about shortly after its debut), but thanks to clips posted online, I’ve still been able to get my regular Colbert fix.

One of my favourite aspects of the show is the opening titles, which feature shots taken from this extended version. Fernando Livschitz’s vivid tilt–shift photography pairs well with Jon Batiste & Stay Human’s signature tune, and showcases New York City to the extent that I now want to make a return visit.

Little Gems

The hackability provided by Jekyll’s plugin architecture has brought about an unexpected consequence: I’m starting to learn Ruby.

Taking the Plunge (And Coming Up for Air)

Freelancing can sometimes feel like a roller coaster of emotions, and this post finds me at one of its lowest points. Eight months in, now seems like a good time to consider the ride taken so far, and consolidate some of the lessons learnt.

‘It’s a bonkers, outsized flagpole’: Brighton greets the world’s tallest moving observation tower

Leo Benedictus writes about Brighton’s new ‘vertical pier’ in the Guardian:

About once a century, Brighton builds something mad. Between 1786 and 1823, it was the Royal Pavilion, an Asian fusion fantasy fun palace where the Prince Regent could eat, drink, gamble and fornicate more ostentatiously than would be polite in London. Between 1866 and 1916, with mass pleasure-seeking now enabled by the railways, it was the West Pier, the great masterpiece of the architect Eugenius Birch, featuring a pavilion (later a theatre) and eventually a concert hall. Next summer, right on time, it will be something new. Most of Britain doesn’t know about it yet, but pretty soon it will be one of the country’s most famous buildings.

My friend James referred to the i360 as a “self–indulgent, grossly–oversized phallus complete with champagne bar cock–ring”. I’m reserving judgement.

The Slow Web

Reflecting on Hossein Derakhshan’s recent article about how the web has changed since he was incarcerated in an Iranian jail six years ago, Cole Henley draws comparisons with the work of Fernand Braudel:

Despite the seeming irrelevance of a mid-twentieth century scholar’s study on late medieval Europe, I have lately started to see a lot of parallels with Braudel’s views on the study of history; the evolution of the web and this evolution as part of a broader history of publication.

While the rise of blogging in the early 2000s can be seen as enabling true democratisation of publishing, the emergence of social media – within whose walled gardens content is curtailed and controlled – has begun to undermine it. Yet Cole suggests there is another problem with these new communication platforms:

Micro-blogging emphasises short-form over long-form, rapid fire over deliberated. Which brings about the ultimate problem of this ephemeral rhythm of publication: accountability. With everything moving so fast there becomes less and less time to digest and respond. Communication has become of the moment, robbing us of time to collect our thoughts and weigh up our responses.

Taking on board Cole’s advice to comment deliberately and thoughtfully within spaces we own, it seems only right that I should share a few thoughts about his piece here, not least because a few related ideas came to mind, such as Stewart Brand’s shearing layers as described in his book How Buildings Learn.

It also reminded me of Jack Cheng’s essay which shares the same title, but instead describes the ideas behind the Slow Web Movement. This is a set of ideas that value timeliness over real-time, prioritise reliable rhythms over unpredictable randomness, and encourage moderation over excess. That this asks companies to build websites for effectiveness rather than outright growth, is probably why there are still so few examples. Page views and advertising impressions currently dictate business models on the web, but their days seem numbered. It’s encouraging to know that alternative ideas are, perhaps appropriately, simmering away in the background, waiting for their moment to come.

On a more personal level, I have long tried to curtail this overflow of information. I use few social networks (mainly due to their impropriety) and limit most of my activity to Twitter. I aim to keep the number of people I follow below 75 (Dunbar divided by two), and follow a stream composed mainly of friends and former colleagues. I find it surprising (and somewhat annoying) that given this number, ‘hot drama’ still manages to surface. The more I read about our growing reliance on social media, the more I’m given to thinking, that like most things, it’s best enjoyed in moderation.

Cole concludes:

…let us write more enduring things. Let us appreciate the history of our situation; and rather than dismissing fading technologies seeing these in terms of how they have contributed to our present.

I’m certainly trying to achieve this in my own writing, and I’m very glad Cole appears to be doing the same.

Tomorrow’s Technology, Yesterday’s Insights

Jonas Söderström on how Google’s ‘People Analytics group’ goes to extreme lengths to work out how to improve workplace happiness, something Europeans figured out decades ago:

In my view, the dream of “Big Data in the Workplace” thrives in that hole in the American corporate mind where more human ideas – such as decent trade unions, a commitment to conversation and dialogue between employees and management, and empowerment of employees, even giving them some say over how their workplace is designed – should rightly be found.

Give technologists a problem, and they’ll try and solve it with technology.


In what has become a familiar pattern, having decided to embark on a redesign last February, I then spent the following 18 months iterating and iterating. Now, after many missed deadlines, I have finally launched my new site.

The Ethics of Digital Design

Cennydd has written a short piece for the Design Council about ethics within the realm of digital technology:

Disruption is Silicon Valley’s current watchword. Startups are optimised for shaking up vulnerable industries rather than assessing the resulting social, legal and ethical impact. Progress itself is the yardstick; whether that progress is in a worthwhile direction is sometimes secondary.

Beyond advocating that designers should have a central role in empowering and protecting users, Cenyydd suggests that we should also push for increased diversity within our product teams as well:

As ambassadors for global userbases, designers know well the range of mentalities and approaches people bring to technology. Homogenous teams are too easily swept up in camaraderie, seeing only exciting gains for people like them, yet blind to potential harm for people not like them. The broad perspective of diverse teams offers better insight on tough choices: early warning of ethical issues that may disadvantage particular groups.

I couldn’t agree more. Go read, it’s a good one.