February 3, 2016

Starting the design process nowadays is overwhelming. There are dozens of methodologies and hundreds of ‘best-practices’.

Design in the browser, start with style tiles, build element collages — use Keynote, use Photoshop, use Chrome. The idea of starting from scratch and building something out is infinitely more challenging than it used to be, largely because it’s impossible to know where to start. By the time you adopt a process you’ve discovered the industry’s new favourite (and entirely different) way of working.

That would be fine, but none are singularly effective. Full-comps are not representative, style-tiles don’t go far enough, element collages are isolated and confusing for clients, designing in the browser produces tired work. There is no ‘good’ way of designing for the web, since the scope has gotten out of hand.

This tweet from Mark Boulton sums up the situation:

On the web, we do this:
Client: 'I'd like a simple website'
Designer: 'Actually, no, you need a design system'


It’s funny because it’s true. We’ve taken to making everything a system, module, or component. We do not design ‘pages’, we architect systems. Our industry has grown up, so we build for tomorrow not today. Tomorrow our system may need to roll out across a hundred sub-brands and micro-sites. We get ease of building, and ease of design (or the absence of it), they get consistency. Everyone gets added complexity for free.

This is without even mentioning the inevitable dependency hell that arises with modern front-end web development. There’s something magical about seeing a dozen codebases harmonise, yet distribution has ironically made the process worryingly fragile.

Imagine starting out as a designer-developer hybrid today. It’s almost impossible to know where to start. Our industry is evolving, and as it grows we’re introducing a host of new processes that have muddied the water. The thing is, without clear boundaries, it’s also the most exciting time to be a designer. Finally we’ve reached a point where the platform is mature enough that we can have these kinds of discussions — we’re no longer restricted by process, but instead suffering from choice paralysis.

It’s simultaneously the easiest and hardest time to work on the web.