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.

Conditional multi-column sublists

Some designers are able to operate in that universe where anything goes, where the practicalities of implementation don’t exist. This can actually be a good thing at the beginning of the creative process; without this no-limit thinking, the design process might yield less creativity. Then again, many designers are fantastic at working within constraints.

At some point, though, either designers are confronted with constraints and must accommodate them, or this is implicitly tasked to developers. The latter is often the case, unfortunately. This almost always leads to a series of little development puzzles. “How might I implement this?”

We can do a lot with CSS, but sometimes we need a little help from JavaScript. I consider myself a designer who codes, which, to be clear, means “not a programmer”. Lucky for me, I have programmer friends, and I read a lot.

So while working on a recent project, I encountered a design comp that called for a few adjacent lists of “filters” (read: tags or categories). Each list had a heading above it.

(Note that the following examples are not indicative of the visual design. Note also that they no sense on narrow screens, where the lists could simply flow vertically.)


Being as creative as the designer in the sense that I didn’t burden myself with such practicalities as browser support (yet), I figured I could mock this up with Flexbox. Each section containing a header and a list becomes a flex item, and let’s let those wrap if they need to wrap. Easy enough.

Lists with Flexbox applied (CSS).

Lists with Flexbox applied (output).

In the design, some lists were longer than others. Lists with many items were to be split into multiple columns. Flexbox was taking care of the necessary flexibility of the main lists, but what to do about the sublists that are too long? And can we have any flexibility in determining what “too long” means?

A simple solution for splitting a list into multiple columns is CSS Multi-Column Layout. Implementations aren’t totally consistent, and I wrote some time ago about some of those inconsistencies, but the very basics are pretty usable right now as a progressive enhancement to normal content. Lack of multi-column simply yields a one-column list.

If one were to set a specific height to the containing element, multi-column would do it’s thing automatically. But I didn’t like the idea of setting a specific height on anything. A more content-centric approach would be to determine how many items a list may have before it was split into columns.

I’m fairly sure that determining the number of columns as a condition of the number of children is not currently possible with CSS. So in this case, it’s JavaScript to the rescue.

I needed a function that takes whatever element I’m using as a list, plus a maximum number of list items per column, as parameters. It should look at each list, count the number of items in it, and if the maximum number of list items is exceeded, it should add a class to that list. The class allows application of the correct number of columns via CSS.

Here’s the function, after too many iterations, a beer, and another pair of eyes:

Here is the function.

And here’s the result:

Here is the result.

This is not completely bulletproof, but it does allow for some flexibility (“let’s allow 10 items per column instead of five”).

This was a fairly simple problem to solve (though I won’t be competing in the Array.prototype Olympics anytime soon). But I’d like to say this: designers and developers should think about these types of implementation issues together, and that should happen during the design process. Not afterward, when stakeholders have fallen in love with the design comps. This would allow for consensus on the baseline experience (stakeholders tend to see design comps as the baseline). Quick mockups in browser-based tools such as JSBin (which I used for this example) or CodePen could help solidify these types of design decisions, and allow both designers and developers to experience these decisions on actual devices and to design for contingencies as well.

Special thanks to Jake and Heydon for being kind enough to review my example.

(Visual) design influences interaction

I’ve never hidden my opinion of those design workflows that involve interaction designers toiling over intricate, interactive wireframes as a primary deliverable and the inevitable hand-off to the “visual” designer who proceeds to “color by numbers” on the wireframe. To be clear, I find these workflows are ineffective.

I’m not implying that all interaction designers work this way, nor that all design firms work this way. But it is absolutely a common practice, especially in larger, waterfall-style organizations and teams.

The assembly line workflow is a death punch to effective interaction. The reason this is so: you simply can’t separate visual design from interaction design. The visual designer (boy, do I dislike that term) likely has a background in graphic design, a legitimate and non-trivial field of study. Graphic designers are trained to solve problems, and a primary goal of the designer is to communicate something. The goal of the interaction designer is to find the most effective ways that people can interact with the thing we’re designing. Interaction designers and visual designers should either have both of these roles combined, or they should work together. A lot.

Many visual designs are built upon the foundation of complex wireframes. Why not the other way around? Arguably, the interaction designer’s insight might be best utilized as part of the visual design process with the most valuable insights occurring on a completed visual design comp, based on real content and in a browser, when the actual thing can be interacted with, as opposed to a black-and-white, hopeful proxy.

The fact is that when an interaction designer creates a wireframe, they’re inevitably making visual design choices. When these wireframes are used as client deliverables, clients can’t “unsee” these decisions. Similarly, visual designers make decisions that can heavily influence interaction, no matter what the interaction designer theorized. So, we’ve got two disciplines, possibly trained differently, making decisions for one another instead of with one another.

The influence of the visual

I’d like to offer a simple illustration on how visual design can influence interaction. Seth Godin wrote a great little post entitled The First Rule of Web Design, which he says is “tell me where to click”. (Regardless of whether this is or should be the first rule of web design, I do take issue with the word “click”. Godin’s later clarification, “What do you want me to do now?” is much more effective.)

Seth illustrated his point with two images. Please go and read his post to understand the context. Both are examples of how visual design can heavily influence how the user interacts with the sites in question, and how either clarity or confusion is created by design choices.

A form with the least important actions styled as buttons, most important as a simple link.
This component is all about the refund, but the link to get it is visually one of the least important items on the page.

If you examine the first image, a screenshot of part of the process to get a refund, the conscious choice to present the most important thing relating to the purpose of this component as a simple link (text), which has to compete with huge (size) green and gray buttons (color). These buttons are placed where one would normally expect to act on the preceding text (placement/layout). These design choices make for stunted interaction. This is either inappropriate design, or someone did a nice job of making it slightly harder to get a refund.

Form with poorly placed next action button
The “Next” button is more important to this form than “Regenerate Token”.

The problem with the second example is not so much related to color as it is to the choices as to what should be a form element and what should not. The word “Next” offers an action to continue the current process, and should at the very least be structurally and visually closer to the input field. In my opinion, “Regenerate Token” could either be a link, or a less competing color and placed where the “Next” button is currently.

In both examples, wireframes could have, but would not have necessarily anticipated or solved the interaction problems created here. Wireframes or not: once we have these things in the browser, it’s time to go and revisit the interaction after visual design has either helped it or hurt it.