What Comes Next Is?

Matt Griffin (founder, Bearded) has been thinking about what it means to be a “web designer,” grappling with the many (and sometimes misunderstood) disciplines that come into play. All of the rapid changes in technology we grapple with every day have resulted in a shifting landscape of skills and responsibilities. What’s a designer to do? Luckily, Matt is in the unique position to answer this question from a variety of perspectives and experiences.

To create his documentary film about the web, What Comes Next Is the Future, Matt conducted dozens of hours of interviews, many of which could not make it into the final film. This talk draws on that additional footage, capturing the thoughts and experiences of industry leaders Trent Walton (founder, Paravel), Irene Au (operating partner, Khosla Ventures), Ethan Marcotte (author, Responsive Web Design), Indi Young (founder, Adaptive Path), Brad Frost (author, Atomic Design), Yesenia Perez-Cruz, Kelly Goto (founder, gotoresearch), and many more.

With Matt as a guide, these luminaries’ perspectives create a cohesive, multi-faceted view of the modern web industry and a designer’s place in it.

Matt needs to confess something… he… is an American. America hasn’t had a great time lately.

slide of a dumpster fire

But enough of the soul-crushing stuff. Australia has been great!

Matt grew up geeky in the 80s… so he played D&D, had a NES and loved NASA. He went back and rewatched Cosmos… and discovered a version that had been updated to 90s tech. The web was mentioned as a ‘planetary consciousness’.

For the last three years Matt has worked on the documentary What comes next is the future. Today he’ll share lots of clips that didn’t fit the narrative of the documentary but do explore interesting ideas.

We are web designers, not graphic designers. However there is a legacy of print design on the web. There was lots to learn from print, which had gone before the web and so was a natural source of inspiration. The web has moving parts that preclude some rules that worked in print – download speed, device variation and so on. On the web there is no ‘final’.

Responsive design completely dismantled the design process that had worked for print for years. This is challenging! People had to go back to square one and find new ways to work with clients to produce what their users needed.

Print was about control. The web requires you to give up control. John’s Dao of Web Design was quite precient, it was an early expression of what we currently call Responsive Design. In print the designer called the shots, but the web is more of a two-way negotiation – the user dictates the device, browser and connection used to access a site; and the design has to respond to that and decide how to accommodate this.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works. – Steve Jobs

What we have come to now is iterative design, using generative reserach to inform initial designs. We quickly move to prototypes, then evaluative research. Then we take that information and refine the design. Then we iterate with evaluative research as far as time and budget allows. Sometimes we need to throw out a whole design, other times we have to keep a design even though we know there are problems.

Design must now be a team sport. We need designers and developers to work together, there is no more “throw it over the wall”. Teams need a different set of skills and need to incorporate more points of view. There must be some empathy in the process.

To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master. – Milton Glaser

Are the days of the generalist over? Perhaps. The amount of knowledge required in the full process and development stack that it’s almost required that people specialise just to get things done. That in turn means collaborative processes need to be really strong, to have those specialists work together effectively.

So now you have cross-discipline teams working together and over time everyone learns a little bit about the other disciplines… then they are becoming generalists.

The inevitable question: should designers code? Web designers need to know code in the same way print designers need to know about printing presses. Many people interviewed said designers needed to at least be able to code a little, but not to production level. At the bare minimum designers need to understand the principles; and pushing on to basic dev skills greatly improves design process and outcomes.

What about UX?

The design of good houses requires an understanding of both the construction materials and the behavior of real humans. – Peter Morville

What does UX even mean? It’s a holistic design approach, taking the full experience into account and not just the visual aspects. How will the user move through a process? What creates the best flow? Does the IA make sense – can people find things in the way they expect?

So what have we learned about design? It’s a bigger, messier world than we probably thought. We need to be flexible in perspective and solutions. We need to embrace teams and collaboration with other specialists. We need to both specialise and overlap (think of team skillsets as a venn diagram).

The web never sits still and neither do you. That’s why you love it. That’s why you chose to work on a universal consciousness. You can handle it, because you’re awesome!