More thoughts by Cole Henley
Our tools and practices refine daily. The inspiration pixel-deluge is unrelenting. Online tuition is a multi-million dollar enterprise. Everybody has an opinion.
As Geri commented, ours is a big and sometimes steep learning curve. From webmaster to web designer to front-end developer our roles have become more fragmented and more specialised with time, whilst what we are expected to know to accomplish these roles has grown exponentially.
It is so easy to feel out of touch with trends and discussions. I remember a time when there were five or six interesting blog posts to read a week. Now there are more than that a minute. My ‘to-read’ pile of books is nearing double figures. It has never been easier to feel like you know so little.
In 2012 I started doing two new things, neither planned: teaching and public speaking. What both these things did was made me realise that there were people out there who knew less than me. I don’t mean this arrogantly — I had always looked at what others knew and focussed on the gaps in my knowledge. Doing both these things made me stop to focus on what I did know.
I know we’ve only just met but in 2013 I want you to promise me something. Write more, help others more, be confident that you know more than you think because I guarantee there will be people who can learn from your experiences and knowledge. I bet you know more than you think.
In the summer of 1996 I had just finished my first year at university studying for a degree in archaeology. I was travelling round Europe by train and on a brief stop in Zurich I visited a temporary exhibition at the Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum. The exhibition was on craftsmanship in prehistory and one of the exhibits featured a series of beautifully polished stone axes made from the Neolithic period, over 5000 years ago.
To polish a stone axe is a laborious and time-consuming process. A ‘rough-out’ is initially shaped from carefully selected material and is gradually refined through chipping until you get an approximate shape. It is then rubbed against a soft stone—sometimes known as a polissoir—until it is sufficiently refined into a suitable form and texture.
What stood out about these artefacts was that they were all broken, shattered into fragments by the attempts to perforate them. We can never know whether the drilling of these axes was intended from the outset, or whether they were attempts to adapt earlier forms. But we can be certain that they were destroyed by this act. And we can marvel with curiosity at the effort and time invested in them only to be shattered by the blunt trauma of execution.
I hadn’t thought about these axes for seventeen years. That was, until hearing Jason Santa Maria in Nottingham last month. Jason talked about his design process and how this has changed over time. He talked about a fundamental shift in his methodology from ‘canvas-in’ to ‘content-out’, from a linear process to an iterative, nimble and reflexive process. From a process that started with Photoshop designs—passed over to others to be built—to one that starts rough and is refined with time.
Jason’s talk reminded me of these broken polished axes in Zurich. This is how we have built websites since our industry began. We take a rough idea, we work on it, we refine it, we chip away at it and we polish it, for it then to be shattered by the blunt trauma of execution. As designers for the web we need to remember this harsh lesson of millennia ago: know your materials, know your tools, know the subtleties of your medium and always, always leave your polish to last. Lest the spoils of our efforts be shattered.
It is fascinating the varying ways in which we describe our industry. As a juvenile discipline that is nebulous in its boundaries we struggle to create words to define ourselves. So we are inevitably forced to search for analogues.
Lately we have seen a rise in the use of the word ‘craftsmanship’ to describe our work. This term evokes various positive adjectives—hand-crafted, quality, unique, personal, bespoke—and can be seen as part of a broader appreciation of the art of making. I’m as guilty as the next person for appropriating this word but I am increasingly feeling that ‘craftsmanship’ has become an unhelpful term for describing what we do.
The first problem is that if we choose to see the web designer as artisan then we begin to see the website as artefact. This objectification of websites leads to fetishism—where we come to value a 400 x 300 pixel screenshot* more than a moment of interaction, a subtle change in navigation, an engaging feedback message, a beautifully executed form submission. We lust after representations rather than relishing the substances that they are composed from and the processes that inform them. And we come to see ourselves as the peddlers of goods rather than services.
Secondly, the word craftsmanship is bound up with a particular practice of working and, more importantly a particular practice of learning: a practice that emphasises repetition and mastery and the passing of knowledge from one (the master) to another (the apprentice). Of course we refine our technique with doing; practice makes perfect. But is it not the ultimate beauty of working on the web that we can never be its master? There will always be something new to learn, always tools and technologies that change, new devices to support, new audiences to accommodate.
The world wild web has always been a fluid medium. It is time to stop objectifying it and accept that mastery is a fool’s errand. We work in the digital space: we don’t make things by hand, most of us teach ourselves and we don’t need to borrow labels from other disciplines to evoke pride and quality in what we do.
*other dimensions are available
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
When I first started out in web design everyone was a jack-of-all-trades. I learned through experimentation, viewing source, building things and then breaking them. When I decided I wanted to start a blog I bought a book about PHP & MySQL and built my own. Sure there were plenty of blogging solutions around but it was scratching that itch which got me my first job in web design.
However it was only after stubbornly building a bilingual Content Management System in that first job (“English and Welsh? Sure, no problem!”) I realised that there were far better uses of my time than building my own CMS. Not that I was particularly bad at it (by some weird quirk of fate that bilingual site is still running) but because 1) there are other people who are far better than me at building CMSs, and 2) my time is a valuable commodity.
Since this epiphany I moved first from mostly rolling my own CMS to using open source solutions like Textpattern and MODx. However in the last few years I have moved almost exclusively to using paid-for systems like ExpressionEngine and Perch and since making this change I’ve often been struck by how unwilling people seem to be at using paid-for solutions. To offer one example, I was recently gauging interest in Statamic and Kirby and got the following reply: “Yeah, I was looking at these and think it might be fun to play around for a little while. But $29 and $39 — um, no.”
How much is your time worth? How much of your time does $29 or $39 buy? How much does $29 or $39 save you from building or hacking something yourself? I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quote when people quickly dismiss paying for something without first considering the value of something.
Personally I’m happy with the idea of paying for something I use. It gives me a degree of comfort that what I am using is well-supported and also gives something back to the developers who are building and contributing to it. But above all I like paying for something because I believe that paying for the tools I use says something about the value I place on my time.
“I screwed it up, chasing after perfection, chasing after what was right in front of me.”
— Kevin Flynn, Tron Legacy
I have always had a problem with perfection. Not so much in trying to achieve it but as an aspiration, as an idea, as something to strive towards. A destination to reach, to step back from, to survey and think “this is it, I’ve reached perfection”.
Perfection is a double-edged sword. We all want our work to be the best it can be: we want our clients to like what we produce, we want our peers to appreciate our work and above all we want ourselves to be satisfied by the fruits of our endeavours. But the pursuit of excellence can also be destructive — when we design we must continually challenge our direction. But how often have you kept your work back from a client because “it’s not quite ready”, because it doesn’t quite match your expectations, because it’s not as good as you want it to be.
Such feelings are important when we build — it is important to have pride in what we do. But they can also massively undermine our work and our confidence. The “release early, release often” culture of web application development has made great advances in how we code for the web. But our front-end is still largely driven by the pursuit of “pixel-perfection”. As if somehow across the range of people who visit our websites — and the range of devices which they use — there can be something called perfection.
So let’s embrace the idea that perfection — whether in work or in life — is an artifice. Let’s turn our attention towards the journey rather than the destination and towards doing just enough rather than doing things just right.
When was the last time you listened to your body?
I was once told an old Chinese proverb that in the West when we are young we use our health to become affluent but then when we are old we use our affluence to buy back our health. I laughed it off, knowingly but without really taking on board what was said.
I’m reminded of this proverb after recently cutting out caffeine. I’ve been over-caffeinated since my student days and coffee is something I love. But I was becoming increasingly cranky. I was finding it difficult to get to sleep, struggling to concentrate on work and — as my wife Peta will gladly testify — mornings were a real challenge.
One thing I quickly noticed after cutting out caffeine was how tired I was. All the time. This wasn’t just down to a lack of the steady stream of stimulant which had been a staple for so long. It was because my mind and body were exhausted and I’d been blocking it out. I couldn’t hear the things my body was trying to tell me because I was drowning it out with noise.
Our industry celebrates industry. We toil at things we love and very often when we’ve done a hard day’s work we toil further at the itches we want to scratch. Many of us — myself included — are incredibly fortunate to be working doing something we regard as a hobby. But our industry also never sleeps. Our curiosity makes it hard to switch off and we can all too easily celebrate burning “the midnight oil”.
I’m not going to tell anyone to give up coffee but I’m going to say that we need to get to know our bodies better. We need to rediscover our natural rhythms — both the peaks and the troughs — and learn how we can work with them rather than against them. Listen to your body and be sure you’re not drowning out what it’s trying to say.
I was recently diagnosed with a form of depression. It makes me fail to see the good in myself and interrogates the work I produce. The curious, critical and analytical mind that carried me through a PhD and then helped me forge a new career in web design has turned on itself, picking apart my every endeavour and deed.
I am not alone. It was recently reported that “one in four people suffer a mental health problem”. I’ll say that again. One in four people. One quarter. 25%.
Depression means many things to many people. It can have a variety of symptoms and a variety of causes. But for all sufferers of depression the same thing is true — the part of your brain controlling perception is broken. Sufferers receive the same information others receive but cannot process that information in the same way; your perception of the world is fundamentally distorted.
Depression is an incredibly hard thing to talk about because talking openly about our frailties can be regarded as a weakness — or worse, a failure (most crucially by ourselves). But the first step in managing depression is knowing it and to do this we must open up to somebody: whether that is a loved one, a medical professional or a complete stranger. So I’m opening up to you.
I want to take this opportunity — this privileged platform — to share with you that depression is not a weakness; we need to be able to talk openly about mental illness and accept that it is a condition which can affect anybody. Mental health problems affect one in four people. One quarter. 25%. You are not alone.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself”
This week I start an exciting new venture, joining Bath agency MUD as their technical director. I’ve been freelancing for two-and-a-half years and during this time I’ve learned a lot about myself: my strengths, my weaknesses, my foibles, what I like and what I dislike. But above all I’ve learned that I do not enjoy working in isolation.
In this digital age it is so easy to work for ourselves. We can work from a laptop. Our office can be the local coffee house, spare room or sofa. We are kept constantly in touch with others through email, IM and social media. But the result is we can often spend long periods devoid of human interaction.
Our lives and our work are massively defined by the company we keep. Whilst it is so easy for us to work in isolation I think the one lesson I’ve learned from being freelance is that it is important to make time to work around others; bounce off them, argue with them, learn from them. Because no man is an island. Entire of itself.
If you were to interview a butterfly standing on the branch of a sequoia tree. Now, a butterfly lives only for a few days and a sequoia tree can live for over a thousand years.
If you were to ask the butterfly: Do you perceive the object on which your standing as being alive? The butterfly would say: of course not. I’ve been here all my life. Which is all of five days, and the tree hasn’t done a thing.
Well, it’s the same problem with the human being. If you were to ask a person—perhaps one that’s lived for a hundred years—do they perceive the earth, which is really 5 billion years old, as being alive they would say: of course not. I’ve been here my whole life, and it hasn’t done a thing.”
—Kinobe ‘Lucidity’ from “Soundphiles” (1997)
I often struggle with a sense of perspective. Time has never before been measured or perceived in such tiny amounts. We can engage with others in real-time, our phones ping us at every message or @mention, our minds ever alert to the next notification, the next cry for attention. How many notifications do you have set on your phone?
With our minds and bodies dwelling so much in the present—hunched over a desk or staring face down into a handheld device—it becomes difficult to have a sense of perspective; to fully appreciate our moment in time or our place in the world. We reside in the present—doing, scanning, digesting—but we rarely find the time to be in the present. To slow down, let things wash over us and see our place in the bigger picture.
It is so easy to get lost in the rapid pace of things, struggling to keep up, seeking out the next update, the latest football transfer news, the clever CSS effect de-jour. The problem I personally found with our current fixation on the here and now is that the smallest things start to take on overwhelming importance.
It’s ironic that I spent seven years at university studying a fifteen hundred year period of human history and now I often find it hard to see past the next email or overdue to-do list.
There are two things I want to share with you that I have done in the past few months which have really helped me tackle my failing sense of perspective:
- Turn off notifications. All of them. On my computer and on my phone. I struggle to think of an occasion when my life was enriched by a notification.
- Meditation. I was really pleased to read Dan’s post on his experiences of meditation.
Meditation can mean lots of different things to different people but for me it meant stopping and checking in on myself, putting aside the minutiae that was preoccupying my mind and gaining a sense of perspective.
It’s not a silver bullet, but semi-regular meditation and mindfulness has helped me at least lay a better foundation for slowing down and appreciating the slower rhythms of history that can be so tragically overlooked.
In a previous post I wrote about appreciating the value of things and knowing the value of your time. Absolutely tied into knowing the value of your time is knowing how valuable your time is — how much money does your time command?
This was a question I was forced to ask myself when I lost my job early in 2011. Faced with working as a full-time freelancer for the first time I had no idea what to charge for my services, nor what I needed to earn to survive. I’d been doing freelance work on the side for years but only for extra spending money — never to pay the bills. Not knowing what to charge I did what I had done with every other problem I’d had since working on the web — I asked Twitter. The response, however, was silence.
In our industry we are so open about sharing our knowledge and expertise, we freely help strangers when they struggle with code or need design feedback yet we find it incredibly hard to talk openly and constructively about money and what we do (or should) charge for our time.
Not knowing what I should charge for my time I rephrased my rather vague question as a survey for freelancers working on the web and the response was fantastic. The anonymity of submitting a survey made people feel much more comfortable about discussing what they charged.
I’ve held a similar survey in subsequent years, each year asking more questions hoping to flesh out the working practices and lifestyle of freelancers and earlier this week we posted the preliminary results of this year’s survey.
Over the course of holding the survey it has never ceased to amaze me how diverse rates are but also how we continue to struggle to hold an open discussion about what we charge for our time. Sadly, this lack of conversation puts few freelancers in a position of power when it comes to determining what they charge.
Of course there will always be a diversity of rates and there are things that we cannot account for in a survey: quality of work, personality, communication skills, efficiency, etc. However without a very public and transparent conversation about what to charge for our time too many freelancers will continue blindly charging the lowest amount that market forces are happy to pay.
Like so many others working on the web I have often had a bit of a domain name habit. You know the situation. You have a hair-brained idea for a website/app, you sketch some notes and before long you buy a domain. The blessing and the curse of cheap domain names! But what determines the domain names you buy? Price? Availability? Character length? Memorability? Have you ever given much consideration to where your domain comes from? What country owns and manages your TLD (abbreviation: Top-Level Domain)? How ethical is your domain?
This issue struck me recently when considering buying a .tl domain. I had no idea what country this was from (East Timor, it turns out) or what kind of country it was. How ethical is this country? How transparent is it? What record does it have for corruption or press freedom? Fortunately it turns out there are some great tools to help us answer these questions. Transparency International is a fantastic organisation that collates, surveys and publishes information on accountability and transparency across the world.
Using the invaluable data available on the Transparency International website I’ve put together a small, simple tool at http://cole007.net/ethical/ to help us learn about the ethics of different country-based TLDs (where data is available). For example, the widely used link-sharing service, bitly uses a Libyan TLD which is perceived to have very high levels of corruption in its public sector, whilst the excellent Unfinished Business podcast has a Belize TLD which has a poor Global Competitiveness Index.
So please feel free to give the tool a play. I’m not wishing to say which domains people should and shouldn’t use. However I want people to be interested in learning about where their domain names come from. Ethics and provenance aren’t just questions we should be asking of our physical wares and next time you feed that domain name habit just think “what is the wider cost of that cool app name I just thought up?”.
I remember my grandfather once telling me that Leonardo da Vinci was the last man to know everything. Or was it Thomas Young? Or Athanasius Kircher. Anyway, the point is not who this figure was but the story it tells. Of course there was never a person who knew everything but it says that at some point in our history the breadth of human knowledge became too much to contain within the mind of one person — that there became a point where there was too much to know.
There has become too much to know and with that we have seen the demise of the polymath. However, freelancers still generally tend to feel they have to do a bit of everything. This was something that came out of the recent freelance survey we carried out where over a third felt they had a mixture of skill sets, echoed in a recent discussion on the Freelance Web podcast.
Myself I’ve always been a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ — when I was an archaeologist I tried to have a broad knowledge of everything rather than focusing my knowledge on a particular area of expertise. This was very deliberate because I felt this afforded me a perspective that could bring diverse topics together into a whole. Furthermore I was also cautious about pursuing too far down one direction and not being able to turn back.
This approach carried across to my working online and over the years I have been a back-end developer, server manager, front-end developer, UX designer and visual designer. This range of work and experience — and perspective — has been immeasurably valuable to my career. However, with time I have come to appreciate the need to specialise for four reasons:
Specialising fosters knowledge and expertise. There is simply too much to learn — the specs which define the foundations of our work are ever changing. The solutions we choose to adopt are a constant conversation. There is never a final answer. But specialisation helps us to build knowledge within an area and be part of that conversation rather than sitting outside as an observer.
Knowledge and expertise cultivates reputation. It is much easier to build a reputation as a specialist than as a generalist. As soon as I started focussing on specific areas of work I found it much easier to get work. When you specialise, write about your experiences and help others with problems.
Reputation builds connections. Once you specialise in a particular kind of work it becomes a lot easier to build networks and share skills with other specialists. Being a front-end developer, for example, opens up working opportunities with back-end developers and designers, as well as filling in skill gaps or bottlenecks at agencies that have a need for your area of specialism.
Finally being a specialist allows you to charge more because your skills (and expertise) are in greater demand.
Specialism is not for everybody but remember that you can’t do everything. You’ll need to try a broad range of things to discover what you love and what you’re good at and a broad perspective is an important — essential — starting point. However with time I have learned that it is much easier (and rewarding) to find, focus on and hone one area of expertise. To do one thing well.
One more thought by Cole Henley will be published
- Friday, 13 December