Tags: imp

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Monday, June 6th, 2022

Reflections on Design Systems and Boundaries - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Jim shares his thoughts on my recent post about declarative design systems. He picks up on the way I described a declarative design systems as “a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components”:

I like this definition of a design system: a set of boundaries. It’s about saying “don’t go there” rather than “you can only go here”. This embraces the idea of constraints as the mother of invention: it opens the door to creativity while keeping things bounded.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Progressively Enhanced Builds - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Rather than thinking, “how do I combine a bunch of disparate content, templates, and tooling into a functioning website?”, you might think “how do I start at a functioning website with content and then use templates and build tooling to enhance it?”

I think Jim is onto something here. The more dependencies you have in your build process, the likelier it is that over time one of them will become a single point of failure. A progressive enhancement approach to build tools means you’d still be able to launch your site (even if it’s not in its ideal state).

I want to be able to view, edit, and if need be ship a website, even if the build process fails. In essence, if the build does fail I can still take all the source files, put them on a server, and the website remains functional (however crude).

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

Declarative design

I feel like in the past few years there’s been a number of web design approaches that share a similar mindset. Intrinsic web design by Jen; Every Layout by Andy and Heydon; Utopia by Trys and James.

To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.

As Andy puts it:

Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:

We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?

In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.

Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.

So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?

I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.

I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.

If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:

CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.

But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:

CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.

If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.

Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.

I wonder whether your path into web design and development might also factor into which end of the spectrum you’d identify with. Like, if your background is in declarative languages like HTML and CSS, maybe intrisic web design really resonates. But if your background is in imperative languages like JavaScript, perhaps Tailwind makes more sense to you.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.

Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

Thoughts on Exerting Control With Media Queries - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Some thoughts on CSS, media queries, and fluid type prompted by Utopia:

We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?

In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.

Friday, March 4th, 2022

Interoperable Personal Libraries and Ad Hoc Reading Groups

Speaking of hosting your own reading list, Maggie recently attended an indie web pop-up on personal libraries, which prompted these interesting thoughts on decentralised book clubs—ad hoc reading groups:

Taking a book-first, rather than a group-first approach would enable reading groups who don’t have to compromise on their book choices. They could gather only once or twice to discuss the book, then go their seperate ways. No long-term committment to organising and maintaining a bookclub required.

Write plain text files | Derek Sivers

If you rely on Word, Evernote or Notion, for example, then you can’t work unless you have Word, Evernote, or Notion. You are helpless without them. You are dependent.

But if you only use plain text, you can use any program on any device, forever. It gives great flexibility and peace of mind.

Saturday, January 29th, 2022

Unveiling the new WebPageTest UI - WebPageTest Blog

If you haven’t seen it yet, the new redesign of WebPageTest is lovely!

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021

On User Tracking and Industry Standards on Privacy | CSS-Tricks

Prompted by my post on tracking, Chris does some soul searching about his own use of tracking.

I’m interested not just in the ethical concerns and my long-time complacency with industry norms, but also as someone who very literally sells advertising.

He brings up the point that advertisers expect to know how many people opened a particular email and how many people clicked on a particular link. I’m sure that’s right, but it’s also beside the point: what matters is how the receiver of the email feels about having that information tracked. If they haven’t given you permission to do it, you can’t just assume they’re okay with it.

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

Software developers have stopped caring about reliability

My web browser has been perfectly competent at submitting HTML forms for the past 28 years, but for some stupid reason some asshole developer decided to reimplement all of the form semantics in JavaScript, and now I can’t pay my electricity bill without opening up the dev tools. Imagine what it’s like to not know how to do that. Imagine if you were blind.

Folks, this is not okay. Our industry is characterized by institutional recklessness and a callous lack of empathy for our users.

Tuesday, July 6th, 2021

Don’t Feed the Thought Leaders - Earthly Blog

A great tool is not a universal tool it’s a tool well suited to a specific problem.

The more universal a solution someone claims to have to whatever software engineering problem exists, and the more confident they are that it is a fully generalized solution, the more you should question them.

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

Solutionism

Progressive enhancement in meatspace:

IRL progressive enhancement is quite common when you think of it. You can board planes with paper boarding cards, but also with technology like QR codes and digital wallets. You can pay for a coffee with cash, card or phone. The variety serves diverse sets of people. Just like in web development, not dismissing the baseline lets us cover use cases we didn’t know existed. It is fragile, though: some manager somewhere probably has a fantasy about replacing everything with fancy tech and fancy tech only.

Friday, June 25th, 2021

Robin Rendle ・ The web is too damn complex

The modern web wouldn’t be possible without big ol’ JavaScript frameworks, but—but—much of the web today is held back because of these frameworks. There’s a lot of folks out there that think that every website must use their framework of choice even when it’s not necessary. And although those frameworks solve a great number of problems, they introduce a substantial number of trade-offs; performance issues you have to deal with, complex build processes you have to learn, and endless dependency updates that can introduce bugs.

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

Design as (un)ethical illusion

Many, if not all, of our world’s most wicked problems are rooted in the excessive hiding of complexity behind illusions of simplicity—the relentless shielding of messy details in favor of easy-to-use interfaces.

Seams.

But there’s always a tradeoff between complexity, truth, and control. The more details are hidden, the harder it is to understand how the system actually works. (And the harder it is to control). The map becomes less and less representative of the territory. We often trade completeness and control for simplicity. We’d rather have a map that’s easy to navigate than a map that shows us every single detail about the territory. We’d rather have a simple user interface than an infinitely flexible one that exposes a bunch of switches and settings. We don’t want to have to think too hard. We just want to get where we’re going.

Seamful and seamless design are reframed here as ethical and deceptive design:

Ethical design is like a glove. It obscures the underlying structure (i.e. your hand) but preserves some truth about its shape and how it works. Deceptive design is like a mitten. It obscures the underlying structure and also hides a lot about its shape and how it works.

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

The web didn’t change; you did

The problem with developing front end projects isn’t that it’s harder or more complicated, it’s that you made it harder and more complicated.

Yes! THIS!

Web development did not change. Web development grew. There are more options now, not different options.

You choose complexity. You can also choose simplicity.

Monday, February 1st, 2021

How to Build Good Software

The right coding language, system architecture, or interface design will vary wildly from project to project. But there are characteristics particular to software that consistently cause traditional management practices to fail, while allowing small startups to succeed with a shoestring budget:

  • Reusing good software is easy; it is what allows you to build good things quickly;
  • Software is limited not by the amount of resources put into building it, but by how complex it can get before it breaks down; and
  • The main value in software is not the code produced, but the knowledge accumulated by the people who produced it.

Understanding these characteristics may not guarantee good outcomes, but it does help clarify why so many projects produce bad outcomes. Furthermore, these lead to some core operating principles that can dramatically improve the chances of success:

  1. Start as simple as possible;
  2. Seek out problems and iterate; and
  3. Hire the best engineers you can.

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021

Simple Analytics - Simple, clean, and privacy-friendly analytics

Another nice alternative to Google Analytics with a focus on privacy.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

What Makes CSS Hard To Master - Tim Severien

CSS is simple, but not easy.

If we, as a community, start to appreciate the complexity of writing CSS, perhaps we can ask for help instead of blaming the language when we’re confused or stuck. We might also stop looking down on CSS specialists.

Monday, October 19th, 2020

Boring by default

More on battling entropy:

Ever needed to change “just a small thing” on an old page you build years ago? I recently had the pleasure and the simple task of changing some colors in CSS lead to a whole day of me wrangling with old deprecated Grunt tasks and trying to get the build task running.

The solution:

That’s why starting with HTML, CSS and JavaScript without the need to ever compile anything on your local machine is a good idea. Changing some colors on such a page would indeed only take minutes and not a whole day.

I like this mindset:

Be boring by default and enhance on the way.