Daniel Eden is a web designer based in Manchester, UK, specializing in HTML, CSS and Web Standards. He is the author of the Toast CSS Framework and the popular animate.css, a set of ready-made, cross-browser CSS3 animations. Dan writes on his website about design and building websites. He can also be found on dribbble, and Forrst, for which he designed the Owlr mobile web application.
Dan likes to tweet. You can follow him @_dte.
Some time around the start of The Pastry Box Project, my life changed quite drastically. This was down to a few things: the realisation that everything is designed. The freeing up of a lot of my “free time.” Most significantly, the idea that I could do anything I wanted, provided I was motivated enough. I could change my sleeping pattern so I was more productive. I could read more books. I could learn something new every day. I could create a product I previously thought to be impossible. I could impress my peers and heroes, get a job I was passionate about, and move to a place I love with a person I love. I could do all that, and the first step was waking up earlier.
So I did. Not out of choice, at first. I had a job to go to. So I’d get up at 6am and go to work and get back home about 6pm. Then those 12 other hours were for resting. But I could squeeze more life out of those hours. So I worked some more. I worked on Brills and Animate.css. I learned more about PHP and CSS and other things that in X years time will be obsolete. Thinking about the temporary nature of my craft motivated me to learn more about something less temporary — its roots. The foundations of design. Typography, grid systems, color theory. So I bought books. And I learned more. I hated reading, but it was easy to read about something I was genuinely passionate about. The “why,” not the “how,” was teaching me to be better at my craft.
As I sit and wonder how best to sustain my latest product, I find it hard to care about its profitability. I was never in this for the money. It’s completely bewildering to me to think that there are people out there who will genuinely work their entire lives just to make a living. Or even worse, people who put a minimal amount of effort into a product they simply don’t care about just so they can flip a profit. I’m incredibly lucky that from a young age, I’ve found something I’m passionate about that just so happens to be an ever-growing industry that pays pretty well, too. Others might not have that chance. They may have to work to live. But the only way they’ll find that passion for something is by looking for it. Not by saying “maybe next year.” I’ve said it before. Happiness and success isn’t a measure of how much money you have, or the clients you managed to work with.
Passion is the best motivator. Working on something you love — something that you need — is incredibly fulfilling. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll stay up late working on it because you want to. You’ll never stop making it better. All you need for your idea to be successful is a genuine need and a genuine passion. Success relies on your use of the product, no one else’s. This was your idea. Make it. Use it. If you don’t use it, it’s not good enough. If you don’t know how to build it, learn how. Ship early and ship often. Keep it simple. Never say “finished.” Make mistakes. Be honest. Don’t try to be the next big thing. Be the better thing.
I am more productive. I do read more books. I do learn something new every day. I have created a product I previously thought to be impossible. I will impress my peers and heroes, get a job I’m passionate about, and move to a place I love with a person I love. I’m not finished. I’m just getting started.
“User” is a funny word. When we hear it, we remember watching Tron for the first time and thinking how unnatural it felt to have humans described as “users”. At least, I do. You might imagine an “average” person. Blue jeans and a t-shirt. But a person nonetheless.
The problem with describing our customers as “users” is that it generalises too much. We can’t afford to generalise in this business. Generalising is the opposite of “user”-friendly. The opposite of responsive design. The opposite of design. People have different needs. Every single person on Earth will take away a different experience from your website. Successful design is a different experience, but similar knowledge takeaway. And you don’t achieve that through generalising, but through a larger scope of delivery.
We can’t afford to think about just one device, or one browser, or even one target audience. As soon as you do, you present the possibility of failure to your website.
In an industry like this, it’s often difficult not to get bogged down by our tools. It’s easy to forget how we started out — viewing the source of web pages and stringing bits of knowledge together to create something sub-par, before scratching our heads and posting on forums for help. It’s the way we all start. But somewhere along the way, we develop a dependence on certain tools.
As someone who moves around a lot, I can’t guarantee that the computer I’ll end up on has the tools I need. I’ve adopted my workflow time and time again to better fit this circumstance, but one thing has remained the same — always carrying a pen and paper with me. Those are the primary tools. With them you can design an entire website or write the pseudo code for an entire application. And it requires no preprocessors, no software updates, and no Internet connectivity.
I’ve been designing primarily in the browser for the past year. Responsive design has brought with it a new way of thinking—we simply can’t rely on the idea that every user is viewing a website on a certain width of screen. Whether it’s mobile, tablet, desktop, or television, the site’s content is paramount. Designing in Photoshop simply doesn’t make sense any more. Photoshop comps don’t scale. Sure, you could create several layer groups or documents for different break points, but there’s no way to actually tell how it’ll perform in the browser without building it in the browser in the first place.
Design in the browser. Of course, still use Photoshop for asset building, but work in markup as soon as you can.
I’m terrible at accepting money for my work. Well, put another way—I’m terrible at accepting money for the work I enjoy. Most of the websites I’ve worked on have been for friends, family, or respected peers, and when it comes to invoicing, I tend to ‘forget’ or apply heavy discounts. That needs to stop. It makes me value my work less. It makes the client value the work less. It makes it easily replaceable. And it doesn’t pay the bills.
Don’t chicken out of asking for money. Your client knows the worth of your work. And you should too. (Not working with friends & family helps here.)
Everything is designed. Every single thing. Once you get that idea in your head, it’s a hard one to get out. We see the world differently once we make that connection. We think about the decisions that led to the object we’re admiring or scrutinising. Who was it who decided the width of a mug handle? The diameter of the mug itself? Who decided on the material used to produce the mug? Was it cheaper than a superior alternative? All these questions and more apply to everything we see around us. The depth of a plank of wood. The particular shade of yellow on a PostIt. The length of a descender on a lowercase ‘p’.
Even things out of our hands. The veins in the leaves on a tree. The color of our skies. The molecular structure of oxygen. I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but I find the idea that those things happened by chance quite an uncomfortable one. There’s some comfort in the thought that a person made the decisions about these things. We live in a man-made world. A designed world. Nature—it would appear—designed itself, mostly. I digress.
Every choice we make—or more importantly, don’t actively make—is reflected in our work in a big way, for potentially years to come. People will see the work you produce and spend hours pondering over why you chose to use a particular color. I know because I am that person. You probably are as well. This reminds me of some very wise words from the Eames’ office—The details are not the details. They are the design.
We must remain mindful of our decisions. We must question our decisions, and the decisions of others, in order to innovate, reinvent, and make better. We must encourage others to do the same—not just fellow designers but those we encounter every day—friends and family. The old and young, blind and deaf, and everyone in between. You work for them. They are your audience. Delight them. Impress them. Above all, make their lives better. That’s what we do. We make better. We design.
Of all the things I’ve learnt over the 12 months I’ve been in my work placement for University, dealing with criticism has been the most valuable.
When I first started, I was producing mediocre designs and mediocre code; very much still finding my feet in design & development. The only thing that has changed in that time is the thickness of my skin. I’ll never forget the day my boss turned to me and told me a mockup I’d done was—in her words—crap. I grinned like an idiot that day.
Similarly, I recently posted a shot on dribbble for a mini-project I was pretty happy with. Out of the blue, a friend told me I could do a lot better. I needed to hear that. All I’d had for a long time was the encouragement of strangers—it was refreshing to have someone (specifically, someone whose opinion I trust) tell me I can do better.
So encourage your colleagues and friends to criticise you. Do it yourself, too. Be honest. You can do better.
I had the overwhelming honor of speaking at Webshaped in Helsinki this year. I had a fantastic time in a beautiful city, and I was sad to leave. As I waited in the airport, I noticed these huge stickers on the floor:
I followed them, and sure enough I was led to a big, open room filled with chairs designed by various Finns. Weird, wonderful inventions. “SIT DOWN; SEIZE THE MOMENT” is plastered on the wall. I’m too afraid to actually sit on account of the security guards, so I continue to admire from a safe distance.
At the back of the room is a board filled with the profiles of the designers, as well as headphones dangling from the ceiling. But they weren't headphones at all—they were ear protectors. The idea was to take these ear protectors, go and sit down and just enjoy the deafening silence. It’s wonderful that something like this exists in an airport, or anywhere at all.
I turn around and notice one last thing—hundreds of sticky notes on a far wall. I walk up. They’re from the people who sat and listened to the silence. Tales of their experience. I looked over all the strange messages on the wall, and one in particular stood out to me.
Life is just beautiful.
I told this to a friend and she put it into the words I was struggling to find:
Life has such an awesome way of reminding us of these things. Like it’s rewarding us for paying attention. The most beautiful user-experience.
Put down your phone every once in a while. Always look up. Follow suspicious signs.
My front-facing portfolio only shows about 20% of all the work I've ever done. Why? Because the rest is crap. We web designers are changing the world around us—it's up to us to provide the quality control. We can make a huge difference with our work, and it's up to us how good a difference that is.
Don't design crap. And when you do, let it go. Shove it away where no one can see it but you, and let it remind you where you once were and where you're headed. Keep that bar high.
We web folk have an incredible advantage. We have an infinite canvas; one which can be stretched and bent to our will. We make up the rules as we go along. Our future is uncertain, and our past is short. Mistakes can be changed at the click of a mouse, and no one has the right to judge us - we're all just getting started.
Make mistakes. Embrace the chaos.
Something I've always found handy to keep in mind is this: You are your most important, most fun, most critical, and best client. As important as client work can be, there's nothing like a personal project that you feel passionate about to get your creative juices flowing, and to help you unlock a lot of untapped potential for future work. Whether it's a redesign for your blog, or a fully fledged web application, or a CSS animation framework - nothing pays off quite like a personal project.
People could love it or hate it, criticize or praise it, use it or ignore it - it doesn't matter. If it fulfills your own needs, or puts a smile on your face, or gives you something to be proud of - that's the most important thing. You are your own favorite client. I cannot stress that enough.
I recently went through a major creative drought. For about a month and a half, I had absolutely no fresh ideas; I found myself recreating the designs of others, and practicing CSS techniques just to feel productive. It was pretty depressing, particularly after such success with Animate.css.
Then one day, I thought I'd try something I've never done before, and create an icon set. It was difficult, since it had been a very long time since I even opened Photoshop, and I've never worked so intensely on such a small canvas or with the pen tool - but it really kicked me into gear.
I found that by throwing myself into the deep end of unknown waters, I got a great burst of motivation, which suppressed my feelings of doubt about my ability to design in an unusual environment. If you're ever suffering from designer's block, try something completely different. You might be surprised how well it works out.
The most important thing you can do in this industry—or indeed any line of work—is be nice. Be grateful for the work and thoughts of others. Take the time out to send a nice email to your idol. Reply to all your emails. Most importantly, take the time out to help those who need it, whether it's writing a line of code or giving feedback on their work. It pays not to be an ass.