All the Techy Things: The Web Designer’s Elaborate Toolbox

So you’ve decided that you want to be a web designer? Some might say that there are a few things you’ll need to learn:

320px, above the fold, Adam7, ads, ads, and more ads, Ajax, algorithm, Angular, animation, Apache, API, AppleScript, Atomic Web Design, Autoprefixer, AWS, Babel, Backbone, Beanstalk, Blade, Bless, binary, Bitters, Bootstrap, Bourbon, Bower, breakpoints, Broccoli, Browserify, Brunch, build system, Bundler, bundling, Can I Use, Capistrano, carousels, Cask, CDN, Coda, CodeKit, CoffeeScript, Compass, compiler, content strategy, Craft, CSS, CSV, Cucumber, CVS, dashboard widgets, data visualizations (drowning in ’em), decoupled CMS, dependencies, Docker, domain sharding, DOS, Dreamweaver, Drupal, Dust…

Eclipse, ECMAScript, Ember, ES6, Expression Engine, Eyeglass, favicon, Firebug, Flash (remember that?), Flight, fluid grids, Flux, FOUC, Foundation, Frameless, framework, FrontPage, garbage in → garbage out, gem, Github, GNU, graceful degradation, gradients, GreenSock, Gridset, gzip, Grunt, Grumpicon, Grunticon, Gulp, Hack, Handlebars, Hangouts, Haml, Hammer, hashing, #hashtags, headless CMS, hero unit, HiDPI, Highcharts, HipHop Virtual Machine (HHVM), the Holly Hack, Homebrew, .htaccess, HTML5, HTTP, html5shiv…

Take a deep breath. Are you still with me?

IcedCoffeeScript, icon fonts, Icomoon, IDE, IE Compatibility View, iepngfix (for us old-timers), infographics, IRC, Isotope, Jade, Java (when all you have is a hammer), JavaScript, JBoss, Jekyll, Jeet, JIT, jQuery, JSON, JSX, Kellum method, Keynote, Kirby, Kit, Laravel, Less, light boxes, Liquid, lobotomized owls, Macaw, made with love in…, malvertising, MAMP, Markdown, Masonry, Matrix, Maven, media queries, Merb, Meteor, Middleman, Mincer, mixins, mobile first, modals (think: creepy stranger at a party asking for your address), Modern.IE, Modernizr, monetization, MooTools, Mustache, MVC, MySQL…

n-Tier, Neat, NetBeans, Nib, Node, NPM, object-oriented CSS, package manager, parallax scrolling (get over it), Parquet, partials, Pattern Lab, PERL, Photoshop, PHP, Picturefill, pixel-perfect, polyfill, Polymer, POSH, PostCSS, Prefixr, progressive enhancement, Prototype, Python, Raphael, React, Require, Respond, Responsive Web Design, responsive images, REST, Retina, Rework, Rhino, Ruby, Ruby on Rails…

Almost there…

Sass, Scout, scrum, SDK, Service Worker, Servlet, SFTP, shadow DOM, SiFR, Skeleton, Sketch, Skype, Slack, Slim, Smacss, Smarty Pants, Snap, Soap, Spring, sprint, sprites, srcset, Struts (good luck with that), Stylus, Sublime Text, Susy, SVG, SVN, Swift, Symfony, task-runners, Terminal, text-indent: -9999px, Textile, Timber, TLS, Tomcat, Tower, Transmit, Twig, Twitter, TypeScript, UI, UX, Vagrant, viewport, vendor prefixes, VirtualBox, web fonts, Web Workers, webinar, WebLogic, webmaster, WebPack, WildFly, wireframes, WordPress (ftw!), WYSIWYG, XHTML (make sure it validates), XML, XSL, XSS, YAML, Yeoman, YUI Library, and the list goes on…


Did I miss anything?

Don’t get me wrong, these are smart tools made by brilliant people. And I love a good tool as much as the next person. But some of these tools attempt to solve problems that we may not have in ten years. As an example, I can’t tell you how many months of my earlier career I’ve spent fiddling with Flash or configuring iepngfix so that transparent images would display correctly in Internet Explorer 6. A decade ago these were all the rage. Now they’re retired from our arsenal.

We exist in a technological era that I equate with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries. We’re experiencing an explosion of the means to automate our production processes and “build systems.” At times our toolset seems to be growing faster than our ability to step back from it, question its role in our work, and see it in the context of the inevitable change that occurs over the spans of our careers.

To what end do we strive to perfect our tooling and develop faster shortcuts? Is increased mechanization what we want? What are we hurtling towards with such impatience? An endless supply of cheap plastic stuff, cookie-cutter sites lousy with ads, user-hostile design patterns, and clickbait? And how are young developers to be attracted to the field when their first impression is the need to learn twelve different languages and arcane command-line installation methods?

There is a certain quality embodied by slow-cooked meals and hand-crafted goods and experiences. Perhaps this is the “quality without a name” that architect Christopher Alexander wrote about in The Timeless Way of Building, which among other things teaches us to recognize and imbue the things that we build with grace and aliveness. Do we build something on the order of a big box store to meet a near-term need, or do we invest the time and build something more permanent and elegant, à la the Taj Mahal? Do we allow tight deadlines and corporate priorities make these decisions for us?

As designers, we would do well to reflect upon the humanistic and philosophical underpinnings that led many of us to this field in the first place, and to better distinguish between the tools that we use, and the experiences that we send out into the world. I am probably not the first person to have gravitated toward a career in the web for its creative opportunities and the potential to help people. But if we’re not vigilant, we risk having our high ideals overshadowed by problems of a technical or commercial nature.

Accessible content, judicious design, incisive writing, and human interfaces progressively enhanced with a little JavaScript—these, like poems or essays, take time to create. I would argue that the result is well worth the effort. These humble tools have been around for a long time, and will continue to power future iterations of the web that we know, love, and struggle with. Moreover, they are conceivably learnable in the span of one’s career, unlike the overwhelming firehose of technology we have to choose from today.

So let’s pick up our shovels, our hammers, our pencils, and our text editors, and set about to build something on the order of a series of great pyramids or stone aqueducts—patterns and systems that will retain their value and meaning for millennia.

Author: Trace Meek

Trace Meek is a web designer for a large not-for-profit company in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. When he’s not busy building and maintaining the web, he enjoys snapping photos, gardening, cooking, snowshoeing, playing ice hockey, painting, and riding his motorbike.