librelist archives

« back to archive

Design, and why I don’t do it

Design, and why I don’t do it

2013-05-05 @ 04:16

Design, and why I don’t do it
I’m primarily a developer. I say primarily because I occasionally write 
essays and play music as well, but what I spend most of my day doing is 
either programming, or learning how to program. Much of that time is spent
programming ‘things’ that get used as part of websites. Backend, frontend,
I don’t care, if it’s software that will work on the web, I’m there. 
Something I’m really missing as part of my skillset is design. I don’t do 
that. I would like to, but a series of things ended up meaning that I 
don’t do it. This ‘series of things’ is described below.
I began developing (as far as I remember in 2005). I started with 
websites, initially static sites with a little bit of HTML and CSS. Once I
had figured out to put something on a website, I swiftly moved to Java 
(and other languages) and after the drama of trying to learn java.swing, I
refused to touch anything even vaguely design based from then on. I mostly
did python based theoretical programs, like chatbots, and audio 
converters. The interface was entirely command-line based, on every 
program I wrote. A couple of years on, I went back to website development 
- the web was totally ubiquitous at that point, and you could do a lot 
more with it compared to when I started. I had found that other people had
similar interests to me where computing was concerned, and some of those 
people liked websites. Wanting to collaborate, I re-learned HTML, CSS, 
learned some Javascript, jQuery, and then lots of PHP and MySQL. I 
discovered the existence of APIs, and started implementing little bits and
pieces using data from places that I wouldn’t originally have thought I’d 
be able to. Personally though, I kind of neglected learning about the 
principles of design, and how to make my projects look nice, as well as 
doing interesting things. I learned enough CSS to be able to implement 
other people’s designs. Usually, those designs were done by my friend 
Richard Cahill ( who is a fantastic designer studying at Dundee 
University, and you should totally check out his website. I distinctly 
remember one occasion I did attempt to make an effort with design. I 
didn’t particularly have a project that I wanted to make look nice, and be
easy to use, but I remember wanting to make something beautiful, with 
complete disregard to actual functionality, which is very unlike me. I was
driving up to Dublin from the little town I lived in when I was growing 
up, so I charged my MacBook as much as it would go, and brought a 
sketchbook. I spent the first half of my journey sketching out a website, 
not really getting anywhere, and making a mess on the floor of the car 
with wads of crushed paper. When we were somewhere in Tipperary, I thought
I might have better luck if I just took my laptop out and started actually
doing something. I didn’t, I ended up with a totally hideous website, 
using jarring colors, and too many fonts, with really thick borders and 
dense type.
Now, I leave design to the designers. I recognise that design and user 
interaction is a really insanely important part of a project, and that it 
should not be left to people who do not know how to do it. This includes 
developers, bosses, and even clients. When I’m working on a project alone,
something personal where I don’t want to ask a designer to help, I try and
make things as neutral as possible. I use bootstrap, and leave it at that.
Even then there are huge problems - I’m not good at making the call to 
action stand out, or how to transition between states of dynamic parts of 
my sites.
I want to change. I am making small steps towards understanding good 
design. I’m trying to learn it in a similar way to how I learned 
programming - by myself. Unfortunately I can’t just google ‘[language] 
[feature] tutorial’, because that’s not how design works. Instead of just 
letting designers with whom I’m working on a project get on with their 
black magic, I ask them to explain their choices to me. Obviously I have 
to be careful to make it clear that I’m not questioning their choices as 
they are the experts, but that mostly works out quite well. I’m also 
reading a lot of articles, listening to a lot of podcasts, and watching a 
lot of documentaries about design. I’m finding that I can apply a lot of 
my creative knowledge from my musical exploits to design, which is very 
handy. I would love to get to a stage where I can design - not just define
CSS - for my own websites. This one first, but hopefully be able to come 
up with my own CSS for my webhack boilerplate (it’s currently the flat-ui 
bootstrap theme by designmodo). Yesterday, in a severely sleep deprived 
state, I made an extremely ill-advised and over-budget Amazon purchase, 
and among the items I bought was a book entitled “Design for Hackers”. 
Hopefully, this will be my first step into acquiring an ability to make 
things people find easy to use, things that people see and say “wow!”. I’d
like summer 2013 to be the summer of design, just like how summer 2012 was
the summer of way way too much underpaid bespoke programming work. We 
shall see - hopefully you’re reading this on a tumblr layout that looks 
significantly better than the one I was using at post-time. Maybe you’ve 
even said “wow!”.