Category Archives: Babble

The same as uncatergorized, but this sounds better.

My name is Stephen, and I’m a generalist

This week I had something akin to an existential crisis. The whole thing was solely in my head, and alarming in intensity. If you ask me what triggered it, I couldn’t tell you. Though it might have been that potential client that needs to learn about how to deal with potential contractors, but that’s another post entirely.

Part of this mental hurricane was me questioning what it is that I actually do. What is my job, exactly? I’ll spare you the worries about how this question might tie in to age discrimination and how I must remain my own boss in order to continue working. No. I can hear you thinking about it. Stop it.

In the 20 years I’ve been designing and developing for the web, I’ve considered myself a designer. A designer who can code, but still a designer. And indeed, when I started, I designed a lot. I came from print design. Design, especially typography, was what I loved to do. In the work realm, at least.

I wrote my first BASIC program when I was 12 years old. On a Commodore PET. Yes, I see you oldies nodding. We had an Apple II in a special room at school. One Apple II. Programming was like magic. Someone wrote code and made these computers do amazing things!

I was fairly good at math(s), roughly two years ahead of my fellow students, but I’m also easily bored. So after advanced trig, I kind of lost interest in both math(s) and programming. I liked it well enough, but I encountered a dull patch. Other things, like art and theatre, grabbed my interest.

Programming never did let me go. I came to realize that some things are simply more effectively done in code, and that there was space in my brain for both the technical and the creative. But people seem to fight against that particular brand of collaboration between the different parts of the mind. We’re told to specialize. You can’t just specialize in JavaScript; you must specialize in a particular aspect of JavaScript, such as performance. Or a particular library (good luck with that). You also can’t be a “designer”, because what exactly does that entail? Do you do interaction design? Visual design? Or as ambiguous as they come, user experience design?

If I put 10 people in a room and asked them to describe user experience design, I’d get 10 different answers. 11 if it’s a really creative group. While speaking recently at UXLx, I encountered UX designers who don’t draw. “I only do research”. Others design the user experience of websites without venturing into the browser. Graphing software is enough; after all, they’re UX designers, not UI designers. (Oops there’s another one for you.) Some UX designers did more visual design. Confusion ensued.

Not that these disciplines are bad or unnecessary. On the contrary. Nor is the fact that we might soon need a complex table to map out the various types of design we’ve created and their relationships to one another. But where we can complicate things, we tend to complicate things. And when specialization means money, we’re quick to specialize.

And now we’re entering a period in which the spectrum of specialists is just a bit too large for some projects. Like a feature film, all the disciplines need a lot of overhead to work together smoothly. And we look to the generalists. We might call them “product designers” or “full-stack [insert title here]”. Proficient in many areas, expert in one or two. For me, I’m an art director at heart with a lot of experience in graphic(visual) design, interaction, design processes and dealing with large-org project politics. And I can code.

When people ask me for a portfolio of recent design work, I’m shocked to discover that I really don’t have a clear one. The work I’ve done since going freelance five years ago is mostly front-end development combined with design and interaction work. Which all, believe it or not, is part the user experience. Thus, I’ve done front-end design and development consulting work. Accessibility work. Speaking. Writing a book. Co-organizing conferences.

Holy hypertext, Batman, I’m a generalist.

The thing that’s both scary and exciting at the same time is that no generalist is the same. This week I came to realize that I have no clue how to market myself effectively. (No that is not an invitation.) I’m an expert in a few things, and proficient in several more. But for every project, emphasis shifts within those areas.

This week, a friend told me that he doesn’t know what to call himself. Then he said, in his typical manner of a man who believes that every workday is just a holiday that starts with a “W”:

“Embrace the chaos.”

I like code. I like design. I like the place where design and technology meet. Where art and technology meet. It’s a special place. It exists and we should embrace it.

Some thoughts on “designing in the browser”

Ever since Andrew Clarke’s presentation The Walls Come Tumbling Down—which is the first time I heard of the term—the idea of “designing in the browser” has increasingly become a point of discussion and debate.

As one of those crazies who doesn’t use an image editor (like Photoshop) to create design comps, I’m often lumped into the design-in-the-browser category. So let’s clear things up a bit with my take on this approach.

You don’t actually design in the browser

Okay, you can design in the browser, meaning you open up a blank HTML file in both a text editor and a browser and have at it. But why would you? Some people really mean this when they speak of designing in the browser. But in my experience, that’s often not what we’re really talking about.

When I speak of designing in the browser, I mean creating browser-based design mockups/comps (I use the terms interchangeably), as opposed to static comps (like the PSDs we’re all used to). So it’s not the design. It’s the visualization of the design—the one you present to stakeholders. It’s not the only deliverable, but it’s the one that’s most important to show in the browser. Before that, I sketch. On paper. Other people I know who “design in the browser” actually use Photoshop. For sketching. But when we say “designing in the browser”, we mean the comp is in the browser.

We sure do like our comfort zones

Creating comps like this puts many designers out of their comfort zones. Many feel they have to learn to code, or “think in HTML and CSS”. Those who know that isn’t true can still feel awkward pairing up with a developer to visualize designs. That said, I think that learning CSS can be a useful addition to a designer’s toolbox. Note that in all my talks and in my book, I’ve only ever stated my opinion that browser-based comps are preferable to Photoshop-based comps. I have never stated that code should replace Photoshop.

That said, I’m increasingly frustrated by the articles, talks and discussions defending Photoshop comps, almost all of them citing Dan Mall’s idea of “deciding in the browser” rather than “designing in the browser”. I do agree with Dan; in fact, designers should already have been “deciding in the browser”, for years, especially when doing static image comps. If you design for the browser, you decide in the browser.

So much effort is being put into stating the case for static image comps, almost as if to justify the current (which is also the past) way of working. “Let me tell you why I want to stay in my comfort zone.” “Let me tell you what you other disciplines need to do for me so that I can continue to stay in my comfort zone and do things the way I’ve always done.”

It would all be fine, if it weren’t complete bullshit. And that is partly due to the flimsy premises of the arguments given.

Flimsy arguments

I don’t mean to pick on any specific article, but I’m compelled to provide an example and this particular article really got to me. Probably because I’m sure the author is skilled and talented, and thus many folks who read the article might swallow the premises whole. But looking at the points made, I’m inclined to disclose a couple of fallacies.

  1. The author states that the desire to increase the speed of design and development is the driving force behind designing in the browser. While speed may be a factor, it’s arguably not the main factor, and certainly not the only one. More important, for example, is bridging the traditional gap between what the client sees in a comp versus the end result.
  2. The implication of the sentence that follows is that web-based comps help speed but reduce the quality of the design work being produced. Tell that to The Guardian.
  3. The author then proceeds to make the case for Photoshop instead of code (albeit with an 80/20 split). Nothing wrong with that, but the author’s personal experience with code yielding “dull” designs does not mean that code yields dull designs. It most likely means that the author tried getting into code too soon, or skipped sketching altogether, or is simply not as comfortable in code. I would agree that might not work out well. But in that case it’s the design process at fault, not the fact that code is used at all.

Code can support the creative process

Fabulous, creative things are being done with code. Just because some of us are more comfortable with graphical tools doesn’t negate that fact. It simply means that we’re less comfortable with code because we don’t know it as well as the tools we’ve been using for years and years. Which is logical, if you haven’t learned to code yet use Photoshop daily. And if you’re in my age range, you’ll remember that we didn’t always use Photoshop to create design comps. We had to get out of our comfort zone and learn it. And learn it we did, eventually.

For every person who tries opening a text editor and typing code from scratch before claiming “FAIL”, there are scores of us who actually sketch before even touching code. And I know designers who don’t code, but team up with developers to create design comps in the browser.

If you prefer using graphical tools, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with it. No one’s attacking you. But don’t say web-based comps are about speed when they’re not, that the process is less creative when your own approach to it is the problem. Photoshop is neutral. Code is neutral. It’s what you choose do with them and how.

I think code is a valuable tool, and I think web-based comps offer a plethora of benefits to the design process, clients, and teams. But again, I said web-based comps offer benefits as compared to Photoshop comps. Not “code is better than Photoshop”. That’s a huge difference. Designers know Photoshop; not all of them know the benefits of code as a design tool. I feel it’s important to talk about that.

Nobody is going to take your copy of Photoshop away from you. So since no one’s attacking, perhaps there’s no real need to defend. With false statements at that. In fact, for every defensive article or talk or tweet against code, I think about how time could have been spent learning some.

Creativity is tool-independent.

Disarming loaded feedback

While I was off sipping Mojitos in a pool bar in Portugal, Laura Kalbag wrote a column for A List Apart about eliciting more effective feedback from clients. She shared her perspective and experience on the subject. Please read that before you read this. Her approach works for her, but that didn’t keep a couple of commenters from declaring that she was wrong.

She’s not wrong. There is no wrong in dealing with clients, unless you say or do something that jeopardizes the relationship or the end result.

Here’s a fact: every client is different. Every contractor is different. And every client/contractor relationship is different. Every unique combination of personality, chemistry, experience and expertise calls for an appropriate approach. And mine might not be Laura’s, and hers might not be yours.

I think that in addition to articles about shaving two bytes off of your JavaScript and demos of cartoon characters made with pure CSS, we should start sharing more of how we deal with clients (if you are fortunate enough—yes, I mean that—to be in that position). That would be a good thing.

Before starting my consultancy, I ran a design and development firm. I’m a schooled graphic designer, but selling was completely new to me and I eventually found myself in the position of having to do it, and with big and sometimes scary clients. While my previous experience pitching designs as a print art director was useful, selling websites (which design presentations are a part of) is not quite the same.

Stop getting defensive

I have a pretty thick skin about critics of my design, as long as they’re not me. I torture myself. But stuff others say, I (usually) handle pretty well. But, boy, do I have questions when they do.

What helps keep me from getting defensive—on good days—is a sort of detachment from the work. I mentally try and cut myself loose from it. Almost as if it’s someone else’s. And then I await the comments and don’t absorb them. I try and imagine that the comment or question is a physical thing. Something I can put on the table and examine. Because I’m going to do a sort of autopsy on this thing. And if I do end up having to implement the client’s will (it does happen), I can do so knowing I’ve done my best to handle the situation well.

There are three main ways I tend to deal with client comments on design work, or any work, for that matter (in no particular order):

  • Defer
  • Drill down
  • Disarm

(Yes, I did spend a minute or two trying to find synonyms for these words that start with a “D”. Have fun, Twitter.)


If I do happen to be feeling overly emotional or defensive on a particular day, or if I don’t know how to deal with it right at the moment, I’ll just hear the comment or listen to the question and make a note of it.

“Okay. we’ll look into that”, or “Thank you. I’ll discuss that with the team and we’ll get back to you”, are examples of how I might react. This tactic is particularly useful for larger clients in big meetings with lots of stakeholders. Trust me, there’s enough discussion, politics, and psychology going on in those meetings. I’ll regroup with my contact later by phone or in a separate meeting.

Drill down

In many cases (seriously), someone knowledgable on the client side gives useful and informed feedback, and all that needs to be done is to drill down to specifics:

Client: “Given the recent discussions about hamburger icons and our lack of data, I’m concerned about the use of solely the icon.”

Designer: “Are you thinking in terms of an alternative icon, or more in terms of text?”

Client: “I’m not sure. I like the clarity of text but I don’t want it to be boring.”

Designer: “There are ways we can design text so that it stands out visually, and so that customers know that they can click or tap on it. Would it be worth exploring that?”

Client: “Yes, that sounds great! Here’s lots of money.”

Okay, maybe not that last bit.


This last one is what I do when I get feedback I can’t do anything useful with. I basically encourage the client to rephrase or reconsider their feedback. I want them to figure out what their problem is and then tell me. Or at least get close to it so that I can do a proper drill-down.

One thing I will not do is waste my time on discussions of taste. I’m only interested in someone else’s proposed solution if they are able to properly articulate the problem.

This is tough, because how you do it depends on your personality and your relationship with your client. If you want to be sarcastic or use some humor, you’d better know how that will pan out for you.

Some clients, if they were to say “make the logo bigger”, I could squint at the page, straining to see the obvious logo like a guy without his reading glasses. “Where—what? You can see that thing? You have great eyes. All I can see is your product.”

They get the point and have a laugh. Then we discuss the real problem.

With other clients, you can still disarm loaded feedback without humor:

Client: “The text is too large.”

Designer: “Okay. Too large compared to what, exactly?”

Or this dangerous one:

Client: “We want a carousel. Users like carousels.”

Designer (delivered sincerely and without any sarcasm): “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had user data.” (implied question)

Client: “We don’t.”

Designer: “Oh. You said, ‘Users like carousels.’ I’m curious which users you were referring to?” (question)

Et cetera. This is a slightly obnoxious example, but you get the point. You also have to be very, very careful. The point is not to jab or insult, but to encourage deeper thinking about the problem and more useful feedback. Disarming is generally asking questions about their feedback. And then questions about their answers. Do not state your knowledge or opinion on any matter at this point. You must latch onto everything the say without giving them anything to argue with.

The key to disarming is to focus on what the person said, and return it to them, as a question, in such a way that they must reconsider and return more refined feedback or information to you. So that you can do your job.

That’s how I tend to deal with feedback, in a very small nutshell. I enjoyed reading Laura’s, and I’d certainly enjoy reading how more people approach client feedback.

Hint, hint.