Eight takeaways from SmashingConf’s Resilient Web Systems workshop

May 24, 2020

These past few weeks, I took part in Smashing Magazine’s first-ever online workshops. I’ve been a Smashing fan for a while, and thanks to my agency, I attended Resilient Web Systems with CSS & Sass led by Miriam Suzanne.

Miriam is a core contributor/expert on tools I use daily (Sass and W3C CSS working group). The workshop was a deep-dive into CSS and covered advanced topics such as core fundamentals of CSS, modern and intrinsic web layout, CSS architecture, maintainable design systems, new tools in CSS and Sass, and more.

The experience was truly fantastic and outdid my learning expectations. Attendees were invited to chat and ask questions, slides were well-presented, and the environment was refreshingly friendly and intimate given the virtual format. I found myself many times during the workshop amazed at how useful and applicable the information was. For my professional goals this year, both the technical details and takeaways from this workshop will undoubtedly come in handy.

I want to share just a selection of takeaways from Miriam’s workshop. I took many pages of detailed notes, but these high-level concepts will surely stick with me. I’m also looking forward to SmashingConf Live in a few weeks!

CSS is about context and relationships

On the first day of the workshop, Miriam covered the history and theory behind CSS as well as core concepts like the cascade. Since I only briefly learned this information in school and on the job, it was fascinating to hear in depth.

CSS was designed around accessibility and user control, which makes it radically different from other programming languages or design tools. It relies on meaning and intent (semantic markup and purposeful declarations) and the language is contextual, adapting to change.

Designing for the browser takes a different approach

Pixel-perfect web design isn’t attainable, nor is it worth aiming for. Many times during the workshop, this idea was brought up, and it’s important for everyone who works with the web to understand.

Because the web is a flexible, resilient medium compared to print, the best we can do as programmers is describe intent—providing hints & suggestions for things like sizes, flow, typography, and color. The browser will interpret our intent across different canvases, for unknown content.

This unpredictability is a fact—it’s the reality and power of the web. When we let go of trying to make the web experience match Photoshop comps perfectly, we leverage the medium in exciting ways.

And instead of limiting ourselves with the 12-column grid system which is everywhere these days, we can be inspired by graphic design history, which has always used interesting and different types of grids.

We need to redefine what browser support means

Browser support is a common thing we face when developing websites, with feature support always in flux. The current mindset in our industry of supporting a certain percentage or set of browsers is frustrating—and it just doesn’t work.

Instead of re-writing code for each instance, progressive enhancement should be used to build from basic to advanced implementations. If the content is there in an accessible manner, it’s good. We can support everyone possible by supporting more browsers with lower standards.

Moving forward, we’ll be able to use features as they are available without concern for legacy browsers like IE 11. This idea of evergreen browsers exists today, and through practices like progressive enhancement, we can take advantage of it.

Cascade-aligned programming makes work easier

Working with built-in tools like the cascade in CSS, we can stop programming against the grain and begin working in harmony with our platform. Whether we’re using new techniques like custom properties or managing design systems, we should consider fundamental CSS principles along every step of the process.

Automation helps us focus on the more important details

The best tools are ones that encourage you to use best practices and consistency, and get out of your way to focus on what matters. Automating parts of our system or using integrated documentation is smart in this respect. And when we have time to do the important work, that’s always a great situation to be in!

Tools and processes are people-dependent

It’s important to find or build tools that fit to you, not just what’s working for someone else. We’re all dealing with similar problems, but we all have unique constraints.

And if design systems are not communicated, they don’t exist. At the end of the day, it’s about communication between people & teams.

Continuous integration: accurate and maintained over complete

Design systems can be complex endeavors, sometimes spanning huge teams, applications, and platforms. By starting small with what we know and what has the most reach, we can aim for accurate and maintained over complete. Getting one piece right is the important step.

Continuous integration means it’s fine to go back and adapt—it’s an iterative process and it will take time to figure it out.

Start with meaningful and structured code, readable by humans & machines

Clear semantics is the basis for everything on the web. This helps browsers, users, and other developers because it makes code intuitive to read, understand, and maintain. For users, well-written code forms accessibility, which is a human right.

The art of making playlists for friends

May 21, 2020

In our algorithm-driven world, creating a personal playlist for a friend is meaningful.

Playlists are an excellent way to share your music discoveries if you have friends with similar tastes in music or even ones that don’t. Plus, people are lazy when it comes to finding new music. Applying your knowledge of genres, artists, and your corner of the music world to a tangible thing that can be gifted can be much appreciated.

Regardless of which digital streaming service or physical media you use, here are a few tips for creating unforgettable mixes for the people you care about:

Be a curator

When it comes to playlists, curation and editing down is key. You probably have thousands of songs in your personal music library, but others only really want the best of what you listen to, or a taste of recent favorites. Be opinionated and critical of your selections, but know you don’t need to limit yourself. Playlists can be as short or long as you deem necessary—just aim for quality.

Listen often, and with intent

Pay attention to what’s happening in music, and you’ll be that much more valuable as a provider of playlists. Read music news, listen to other playlists, and hear from expert sources and tastemakers. Likewise, the same attentiveness goes for the songs you listen to. Practice listening with intent regularly, focusing on different instruments and vocals, as well as what you enjoy in songs. This is also a useful tip for playing back your playlists and making changes.

Create a flow for the songs

Once you have a selection of songs you’re content with, play around with the order in a strategic way. Playlists should flow somewhat seamlessly so there aren’t any abrupt shifts. Try to craft a story using only the sounds! Lastly, don’t add songs that are too similar back to back, or you may end up creating pockets of repetition. Your playlists should always be memorable and never dull, so spend time balancing the arrangement of songs to end up with a mix that’s both smooth and interesting.

Play it for yourself

As you give thought into the choice and order of your songs, don’t forget to play it back for yourself. Take your playlist for a ride in your car, and put yourself in the listener’s perspective. Or, go for a walk with your playlist and focus on what’s working and what’s not so great.

Go all out with the experience

Playlists are gifts, so don’t forget that your creations are meant to be enjoyed. If you’re a creative visual type, create a custom-designed cover or tracklist. A thoughtful note also goes a long way, describing the purpose or inspiration behind the playlist. Even if you aren’t creating a physical packaged experience, you can still have fun with the process of sending your playlist via Spotify or Apple Music.

Examples of covers I’ve designed for friends and myself. I use art and nature as sources of inspiration, and pull from my own photos.

Don’t overthink it

In the end, creating a playlist for a friend should be enjoyable. If you aren’t liking a particular part of your playlist, don’t worry too hard about it because they likely won’t even notice. You created something special, and that’s important!

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How Should Designers Learn To Code?

April 6, 2020

I came across this intriguing two-part series of articles on learning code by Paul Hanaoka for Smashing Magazine. There are a lot of tips and tricks here, and some things I wish I would’ve known sooner. Part 2 was most useful for me as I’m discovering aspects of programming/engineering principles through my job currently.

New areas of learning, such as tokens and components, have changed how I think about design. I believe coding is a beneficial skill for designers to have, not only so you can code, but also so you can apply the types of thinking that coding requires into your design practice.

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The Many Benefits of Annotating Your Wireframes

April 5, 2020

A useful article by Andrew Smyk on the Adobe XD Ideas blog.

Through my experience, I’ve found that using notes and annotations in wireframes often helps communicate your design decisions—which is critical in such an early phase of a project! Annotations can bring clarity to UX intentions, help clients understand the broader context/overall picture, aid with handoff for development and copywriting, and much more. Plus, notes can be an excellent resource for your future self, reminding you of details if you pick up the project later on.

Without annotations, wireframes can become confusing to others. For example, a client may not have the full understanding of what a particular section is there for, or how it will align with their business objectives. Although, as the author states, it’s still important to walk through your wireframes:

Wireframe annotations are for providing context and communicating project concepts and ideas to stakeholders. More often than not, wireframe annotations are not read over in detail. Be prepared to speak to your annotations and answer questions from the client and project teams.

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