So long, 2018

2018 has been a great year for me: great, I mean, in the context of personal milestones. I’m now a homeower (taken long enough), I have a steady (and interesting) job, and I truly enjoy what I do and where I am within this crazy, warp-speed-change-at-the-drop-of-a-hat online industry.

I don’t believe in getting overly sentimental about the passing of the year; after Auld Lang Syne has come to a stop, it’s time to look forward to the year ahead, and to march on with some small life changes (which I’m avoiding calling resolutions, just because.) Many of these changes are personal, but some are professional, and I hope the two work together to make me that little bit better in the coming 52 weeks, or 365 days. Here are a few of my small life changes that I thought I’d share:

Personal

  • The dreaded gym. I like to think of myself as an avid walker; any excuse to use my legs and I’m there, plodding away at a leisurely pace. I’ll go for more of these walks. When it comes to genuinely improving my physical and mental health (and shedding a few Christmas ounces), the gym is the place to be. Going more than twice a week is probably something I should be doing, considering I sit on my backside for 8 hours a day.
  • Oh, the reading I will do. I’ve already torn through a fair number of titles in 2018, and the more I think about it, I’m happier reading fiction than I am watching Netflix (within reason). Any titles you could recommend, and I’ll add them to my impossibly large ‘to-read’ list.

Professional

  • ‘Networking’. I’ve been to my fair share of meetups, conferences and talks, but I struggle (as I’m sure many do) to connect with strangers in a more meaningful way. The operative word in this point is ‘stranger’, so I don’t think it’s remiss of me to say that talking to perfect strangers is my strong point. More to the matter, I should be more open to meeting new people.
  • Research, and reading around practices, processes, tips and fiddles. There’s so much out there I couldn’t even begin to sift through the myriad articles on Medium and the like, but a few surgically selected works, thoughtfully consumed and fully understood and explored, will be my remedy to the tsunami of opinions and listicles I try to pick my way through each day.
  • Taking the time to write - about anything. I’m paraphrasing here, but generally, if you write about a subject you’re interested in, you’ll learn more about it. I assume this is more to do with the groundwork that goes into not writing a load of rubbish (which I may have been party to once in a while,) but writing is something I thoroughly enjoy. And what’s wrong with doing more of the things you thoroughly enjoy? The thought of writing about something that could potentially be critiqued - and not in a nice way - worried me slightly; but hey, it’s the internet. Not many opinions on the internet count, do they?
  • Focusing on the multidisciplinary in multidisciplinary. Sure, I’m almost a 100% digital designer in my working life, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I look back on the rich tapestry of my design education, and it’s included graphics, print, architecture, systems, modelling, litho, painting, painting, life drawing, construction… the very things that give me the tools to look at the world in a different way and interrogate that perspective to create unique ideas. It’s criminal to disregard the whole stock in the stable.

That’s everything, I think. Nothing too high-and-mighty, and, for me at least, remotely achievable with a sprinkling of mindfullness. Here’s to a happy 2019.

Reith

I know this is old news, but it’s news nonetheless: the BBC has a new typeface, Reith, named after John Reith, the founder of the BBC. Their current corporate typeface, Gill Sans, has been put into a long-term retirement plan and will be slowly replaced by its successor due to the size and breadth of the beeb’s corporate and digital estate.

BBC's new font, Reith Sans and Reith Serif Above: A sample of Reith Sans and Reith Serif via the BBC’s GEL site

On a personal level, I’m fairly fond of Gill Sans as a display face. It looks unmistakeably British in it’s proportions; stately and understated, and comes in a raft of beautiful and delicately-cut weights. I would’ve loved to see what they could do if they introduced one of Gill’s other typefaces to the mix, plumping for a serif such as Pilgrim or Joanna. But, as is the case with a lot of commercial decisions, it’s part economical and part identity: the BBC is a large enough organisation to warrant its own typeface, and this is the perfect opportunity to express themselves with serifs for the first time in digital print.

David Bailey, Creative Director of the BBC’s GEL and UX&D contingent, had this to say about the reasons for commissioning a new typeface:

To improve distinctiveness. Our previous, most heavily used fonts, Helvetica and Arial, are classic grotesque typefaces designed to communicate information anonymously and without fanfare. For the BBC to remain a vital and relevant digital service in an increasingly busy marketplace, we need to appeal to as many people as possible. Having a broader range of expression and visual tonality allows us to stand out in a crowd and aid recognition. A familiar face, so to speak.

To improve legibility. Helvetica, Arial and also Gill Sans (our previous corporate typeface) were designed last century for print. They don’t perform well on today’s digital screens, causing issues with legibility. So this was an opportunity to solve those issues by designing a digitally optimised typeface.

To save money. By owning our own typeface family, incorporating a range of styles, we can significantly reduce our annual spend on licensing third-party owned fonts. This saving can then be put back into producing world-class content.

It’s fairly difficult to argue with any of the above points, let alone the font licensing costs. I’m excited to see which contexts they’ll use the serif version, and I truly hope they consider using it for longer thinkpieces and even throughout the whole of the News site, however unlikely that may be.

Barebones

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about complexity, and how we, as designers, can better define the complexity/simplicity sweet-spot - and how I can avoid it. This was largely sparked by this inspiring graphic essay on complexity and a provoking lament from Isaac Newton:

‘I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.’

The frustration in that statement cuts deep. Even today, we can land a probe the size of a washing machine on a comet travelling at 84,000mph, but the vast majority of us (maybe all of us) still don’t understand the nuances and intricacies of behaviour and social change. Starting last year, I work as part of an integrated product team, iterating and exploring different options within some clear(ish) boundaries. What I soon discovered, to my horror, was the reality that even with a water-tight hypothesis the results were increasingly difficult to explain due to there being far too many variables, and far too much complexity. In most cases, the results were inconclusive, leading me to believe that the World Wide Web, and humans’ interactions with it, appears to be one of those unknowns unknows that only so much data-hoarding and rigorous interrogation can attempt to explain, for a very interesting and simple reason: human behaviour is intrinsically unpredictable (£).

Human unpredictability aside, there are still many technological twists, turns and tangles lurking out there ready to trap an intrepid designer enveloped in the digital world. Many of them are a symptom of problem solving the short way - plugging a leak with more technology. The amount of convoluted workarounds I’ve been privy to are beyond mind-boggling, and that’s not for lack of trying to keep work and functionality as simple as possible. MVPs are launched with the best intentions, but many are still more or less VPs, due to the cumulative effect of dithering, politics, and a disregard (or over-regard) for mitigating risk by key stakeholders. Designers are frequently employed as problem-solvers, using divergence and convergence methods and a light-touch approach to explore different ways to attack a particular issue. So, framing the question as a problem…

How might we deliver non-complex products that solve specific needs in an endlessly complex market?

…we start to see the enormity of the issue at hand. I remember a colleague of mine, an engineer, said this of current web technology:

‘We can solve almost any problem, and do almost anything. It’s just a question of how much time you want to waste doing it.’

This approach helps me sense check what I’m doing most of the time. Sure, we can do it. But, do we want to? And is it worth it?

In my case, I recently applied this question to my own home on the web. What is this little chunk of web meant to do, and represent? I could waste several months creating a dusty, room-filled mansion that is beyond my scope to maintain. But in the end I chose a comfotable, well-equipped apartment. You’ll notice there are no case studies, no portfolio and no ‘homepage’. I’ll add more functionality, posts and work as and when I need it, rather than creating a country pile with no inhabitants - just the way I like it.

Dahl

I love Roald Dahl’s work. I mean, who doesn’t? His razor sharp wit, wry style, and genuinely detestable villians make for excellent reading for anyone. He’s mostly remembered for his work on childrens’ books, but he wrote with such skill that adults happily allow themselves this guilty pleasure. Not to mention some horrifying nightmare fuel added in for good measure, too.

The form of the stories work well for their target audience, but also throw a bone to the rest of us. And these stories take a long, long time to gestate, let alone to create. Roald said this of his process:

‘I have a notebook for plots. It is the same one I’ve had for twenty years. If I get the germ of an idea, I scribble it down in the notebook, one idea to each page. … Once or twice every year, I leaf through the book … And then at last, perhaps after three years, perhaps after seven, there comes a time when I look at it and see that it is ripe for writing, and I take it out of the book, and start away.’

Seven years. I finished Design School seven years ago. There have been seven iPhones released in the last seven years. I wonder just how many of his stories took seven years before being unearthed, deemed ripe enough to be worked on. If that’s the case, maybe I can still get some blog posts out.

Maybe all great ideas, like Dahl’s, take time to fully mature, and ruminate into something worth evaluating and addressing. It allows contemplation, re-writing, re-framing, divergence … all the techniques and processes that mirror what should be great design practice. Speaking of design practice, Dahl also drops this interesting nugget:

‘Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this …’

Writing is effectively the same as designing, only using various shapes, strokes, and fills on a particular medium instead of words to communicate meaning through a shared (visual) language. Nobody sits down and creates their finest work in one fell swoop. Time and effort work together to arrange disparate ideas into something unique and, dare I say it, delightful, for the observer or reader; shaving chunks off as well as appending more is a fine art that is necessary for the fine art of succint and powerful storytelling.

Extensibility in Digital Design Systems

Creating a brand guideline document is a gruelling affair. You know the drill – font sizes, colour, image placement, image treatments, and a long list of do’s and don’ts for the logo. But you almost half know that the document in question will sit, lonely and neglected, on a shared drive somewhere, only to be dug out when a new one is required – and often, from someone else.

The reasons are manifold, but in general, these brand guidelines often don’t consider how any of the brand’s collateral will work digitally, let alone on the company Twitter account or Facebook page. It requires a carefully considered plan regarding how all of these assets are going to work for the client going forward, rather than focusing on quick wins and undercooked frameworks.

Bring on the System

This sort of thinking requires a design system, rather than brand guidelines. What’s the difference, you ask? A system, by the definition of the word, is a self-contained and complex whole, with every last element working towards the incipit goal. Systems are often cyclical and continue to grow within the boundaries of the system, whereas guidelines, in contrast, merely point you down a linear route with a definite end and no intrinsic scope for growth.

Systems sound great, right? Why don’t we all start using them? I think, the issue is a complex one, but hear me out. Making a system won’t make bad design or thoughtlessness a thing of the past. The same issues could still arise from the use of a system - after all, the output depends on the input, and is a huge factor in assessing the usefulness of the system.

In order to make these frameworks work, they need a roadmap - a roadmap which details the extra bits, the things you may not have thought of, and how it may look in the distant future.

This, my friends, is where a fancy word comes to mind: extensibility.

Extensible Design

Extensibility is a word normally used to describe software systems. But let’s nick this concept, and apply it to design systems. For something to be truly ‘extensible’, it is:

  • Scalable
  • Modular
  • Predictive
  • Robust

These above factors allow developers and software engineers to grow their systems even when they have no clue what is around the corner. It’s this mindset that allows a nugget of software to be constantly updated with new features and perhaps even slight changes to the navigation, without looking or feeling completely odd to use. Or of course, without failing miserably.

This foresight is something that desperately needs porting to the world of everyday digital design. By putting in that extra groundwork and thought, designers could rejoice that their system had the longevity it deserves.

Let’s have a more in-depth look at these extensibility principles…

1. Scalability

Scalability is the ability of a system to grow with the demand on that system. An example would be something like this:

Designer A creates a design system for a small consultancy which contains information and instructions on how the company branding, and all related collateral, on and offline, should be used and in what context. This consultancy suddenly acquires ten other companies, and needs the apply the design system across all of it’s acquisitions. If the design system can successfully accommodate this increase in demand, it could be said to be successfully scalable.

The above example also includes elements of modularity and robustness to be able to scale successfully.

2. Modularity

Modularity is building a system in such a way that adding extra modules, or bits, onto it has been thought about properly and catered for. These modules can add functionality that aren’t addressed by the core system. WordPress’ plugin system is a good example, which allows the functionality of the system to be expanded on demand from a pool of plugins created by a vast, skilled creator base.

With regards to a design system, this would be the ability to create sub-brands which fit seamlessly. These additions can be seen as complimenting the brand - such as the Coke Zero sub-brand, for instance.

3. Predictability

Being able to predict the way that a system will grow (scale) is more planning than a practicable objective. If you have a design system you’ve created for a bank, you would probably predict that there may be some international requirements further down the line. Or that, if said bank only takes deposits at the moment, it may branch out into other offerings in the future such as loans, current accounts and the like.

Planning for the more obvious outcomes makes short work of problems as they arise, and will give a firm basis to continue expanding the system to accommodate needs you could easily guess.

4. Robustness

Robustness is the ability to withstand strenuous interrogation, or the ability of a system to maintain its’ original structure or configuration whilst increasing the workload upon it.

Of all the principles I list above, robustness is the one quality that should be focused on the most, within the context of a design system. Will all elements of this system be useful? Will they be a workhorse you can rely on again and again? If the answer is no, disappear for a bit and test them out, and keep going until you have something you’d be able to use under nearly all circumstances.

It’ll work wonders when pitching a system too - the confidence that robustness will give you will trickle down to others who use it, safe in the knowledge that most of the testing legwork has already been completed.

Existing Extensible Systems

Google's Material Design

Google’s Material Design

It’s now over 3 years since Google’s game-changing Material Design system was unveiled. Within that timeframe, Material Design has become one of the de facto standards of designing for screens, alongside Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and various frameworks. The reason for this is pretty simple at first glance - Google marketed it well, and came at an enormously beneficial time for the big G.

Prior to Material Design, there were maybe hundreds of Google services which looked completely different to one another. In the first instance this wasn’t a necessarily bad thing; Google was experimenting with a lot of different services at once; some of which are now their best-known products (like Google Drive and Google Docs). They then realised that they needed to unify their disparate brands using a universal design system, which they dubbed Material design.

Apple's Human Interface Guidelines

Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines (HIG)

Apple’s HIG has been lauded (and mocked) over the years, but one thing is for sure, their digital design system is one of the most robust, user-friendly, and extensible in modern times.

Starting with the GUI for Macintosh computers, after the release of the iPhone in 2007 Apple have consistently updated and revised their design language - but one thing you may notice is that the iOS structure pretty much remained the same. This is a fairly great testament to the longevity of their design system which has been translated since onto tablets, phones, watches, even bigger tablets, and gigantic 27-inch iMacs.

The Last Word

Creating an extensible system for design is a pretty huge challenge, with only a handful of the world’s most successful companies successfully implementing them and reaping the benefits that they bring.

Don’t let that put you off, though. We all need a challenge from time to time, don’t we?

Even for tiny design endeavours, keeping extensibility in mind when designing anything is sure to make your project manager love you, your developers rejoice, and product leads tap-dance with unfettered joy.