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.