Yesterday I gave a talk at the border:none event in Nürnberg. It was a wonderful event. A beautiful mix of personal, reflective, technical, inspiring talks. I talked about clocks, about our design tools, about HTML, about accessibility, about CSS and about the problem I have with our industry. A small warning: I find this to be a bit of a depressing post. I’m glad that the talk itself was received as a highly entertaining talk about the rather sad state of our industry.
What’s the problem with our industry?
My colleague Yuri Westplat showed me an AI that could generate a working website by following a few commands that you type into a textarea. He also showed me a tool that could generate a pretty complicated interactive web thing, again by typing a few descriptive sentences into a textarea. And the results weren’t even much worse than the sites we use today. So should we worry?
When I was still working as a frontend developer, a long long time ago, all the designers I worked with used photoshop to create images of websites. Back then, photoshop had all kinds of features that were not native to the web, like border-radius, gradients, blend-modes and shadows. We had to use hacks in order to make our websites look like photoshop. Nowadays people use tools like figma. These tools use a subset of CSS, which means that it is much easier to build a working website from a figma mockup, without using any hacks. These new tools are holding us back though.
What tools do we need then?
In 2019 I published my thesis called Exclusive Design. In it I describe my design research project about designing websites for and with people with disabilities. This whole project was structured around four Exclusive Design Principles: study situation, ignore conventions, prioritise identity, and add nonsense. These principles are based on the idea that people with disabilities have been ignored in the first 30 years of the web, and that we need to actively involve them in the design process if we are serious about inclusive design. Another very important part of Exclusive Design is that it is about tailor made design. It means designing for, and with one single person at a time. Not a target audience, not all blind people, but with full focus on one single person.
Let’s see those principles
Yesterday, at my father’s request, two so called Stolpersteine were placed in front of the house at the Herengracht 522 in Amsterdam. This was the house where Paul Auerbach and Sophia Charlotte Auerbach-Seligsohn lived before they were killed in 1944. Paul was killed in Dachau and his wife Charlotte was killed in Auschwitz.
Many people have tried to recreate a work of art by Mondriaan with CSS. It seems like a nice and simple exercise: rectangles are easy with CSS, and now with grid, it is easy to recreate most of his works. I tried it as well, and it turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought. And the results are, well, surprising.
Okay, show me
Today we discussed sectioning elements with my colleagues here at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam. Some of them really like the idea, they really understand the theory behind them, and they want our students to really understand this as well. And now I wonder: do designers (or web developers) really need to understand these rather complicated semantics? And if so, why exactly?
Your expert opinion would be appreciated
Today I read this interesting post which proposes a way to standardise skip links. Instead of adding a link to the content, which is then carefully hidden for people that don’t need it, it should be a meta-tag, or a link with a rel attribute in the head. A very interesting idea, since the browser can then decide how to present it to people.
But I would like to propose to stop using skip links
I like to build stuff myself. I made my own speakers, both in the kitchen and in the living room for instance. And to stream music to these speakers I also made my own streaming devices with a DAC using a Raspberry Pi. This gives me the freedom to implement any streaming protocol I need. Right now I need Spotify Connect and Airplay, but if any time in the future I need some other protocol I can implement that as well.
A while ago our good friend Dave gave us a very nice old record player. One of the things that I noticed when I started playing records again is that I was much more conscious of the music I was playing. Putting up a record involves quite a few — rather random — actions. You need to physically browse through all these large pieces of coloured cardboard. Then you select one of these pieces and from it you take a piece of paper. From within that paper you take a large plastic disc. You flip the disc a few times to take a good look at the coloured labels in the center. Then you lay the disc onto a machine, turn a knob which makes the disc spin, gently swipe the disc with a brush, place a handle over it, turn another knob, and finally close the lid of the machine to start listening music.
In a few weeks time I will teach a new three week course called Responsive Typography. In this course my students will give emotion to closed captions. The idea came from a conversation I had with Marie van Driessche. She explained that she needs closed captions to understand movies, like all Deaf people do, but that many fine details in the audio track are lost. The neutral sans serif, and the neutral descriptions of sounds doesn’t cover the complete experience. So I will ask my students to create a typographic experience of a film scene that’s more complete.
Those of you who managed to read my master thesis about designing with real people with real disabilities, and managed to read all of it, may remember that one of my conclusions is that we need an exclusive design master program in The Netherlands. Together with my colleague Irene Kamp we’ve started the bureaucratic journey of setting up such a master. I think it’s important that everybody knows what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And as always, I would love to hear your ideas.
Last Friday I successfully presented the conclusions of the research I have been doing for that past two years. I have researched web accessibility by flipping the ability bias: instead of designing exclusively for people like myself , I have designed tailor made websites exclusively for people with disabilities.