Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Professional Thinking

July 24, 2007

Anton Peck recently wrote an article in which he made some observations and asked some questions in an effort to better examine the issues that he and perhaps all of us when just starting out have struggled with in Web design work. I want to address here a few of the questions and ideas Mr. Peck expressed in his article.

Important is the fact that Mr. Peck’s article is useful beyond the mere questions voiced in it, but especially for how some of the questions are based on faulty and problematic concepts. Therefore, seeking or finding answers to the questions will not be enough unless these flawed concepts are first destroyed; and that is what I hope to do in some measure here. So in keeping with the idea that worthwhile articles should challenge us and make us uncomfortable to help us grow, I’m going to offer some perhaps distasteful medicine that may be useful for some of us.

Those of you who are not chess enthusiasts may find it interesting that there is a direct parallel between chess players and Web designers. The most important distinction in both cases between amateurs and professionals lies in the method, content, and process of their critical thinking. The difference between how a professional chess player thinks and how an amateur chess player thinks is largely responsible for the most significant difference in their respective results. It’s the same for Web designers.

There are those who will take exception to the idea, but there is and must be a clear distinction between amateur behavior and professional behavior among Web designers (and, by the way, if you’re one of those who takes exception to this fact, you can stop reading now, as I’m not writing for you here). More relevant to the context of this article; there is a clear distinction between amateur thinking and professional thinking. It is this distinction that is responsible, I think, for the flawed basis of some of Mr. Peck’s questions.

Flawed concepts

In his article, Mr. Peck writes:

“However, at some point, there’s another part of your brain that’s somehow (to some degree, no matter how minor) thinking out how all of pretty graphics are going to work in the browser before you actually get there. Like a little voice in your ear whispering things like “oh, you shouldn’t put that there sir, you’ll have a bitch of a time making that line up right…”. But you don’t always know until you get there, do you? [sic] (Emphasis mine)

and…

“What exactly, is happening between our “graphics mindset”, and our “coding mindset”? Where is the missing link?” [sic]

This last part is Mr. Peck’s central thesis and overriding question. And it is based on the flawed assumption that there should be anything more than a “Web design mindset.” Amateurs can afford to treat these elements casually, but professionals cannot. There should be no gulf between our graphics mindset and our coding [markup] mindset (and our styling mindset!). No missing link and no need for a link in the first place. These three mindsets are one in the same. Professionals must intuitively grasp this.

No, I’m not referring here to some superhuman process unique to Zen Web design ascetics. I’m talking about run–of–the–mill professional habit.

This question and the statement that precedes it above each belie the Web design process and context. For instance, when a professional chess player conceives of a move or pattern, or he observes an opponent’s move, he instantaneously knows dozens or hundreds of things and takes them into account at once; intuitively. Likewise, when a professional Web designer conceives of a layout or graphic element concept or a stylistic treatment for a content element, he must instantaneously know a multitude of contextually relevant things and take them into account at once. This process should be habitual and intuitive.

As for “how all the pretty graphics will work in the browser,” there is no limit to what one can do while separating content from presentation. If you’re not automatically conceiving the markup and styling while creating the graphic design, you’re at a grave disadvantage …and so are your clients. Pros need to think like pros. There should be no distinction between the graphics mindset and the markup and scripting mindset. I suggest adopting a professional mindset.

No, I’m not referring here to some superhuman process unique to Zen Web design ascetics. I’m talking about run–of–the–mill professional habit. These are habits that professionals need in order to responsibly serve clients …and obviate baseless questions like some of those voiced in the article that prompted this one. I’m talking about intuitive process.

Intuition

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with or who misdefine this term, I want to talk about intuition for a bit. Many will confuse intuition with instinct, but these are completely different forces. Instinct is created by selective process (and who–knows–what else) over millennia. It is hardwired into an organism’s nature. Intuition, on the other hand, is learned, built, crafted by the internalization of certain behaviors and by repeated reflection on certain observations and lessons.

Intuition does not occur according to a rational process, but it is formed by repetition or repeated examination of a rational process. In short, our intuition is the result of what we have taught ourselves; consciously or unconsciously.

Intuition allows us to comprehend or take into account vast amounts of knowledge and/or understanding in an instant and apply that knowledge and/or understanding to our decision or activity process, seamlessly. It is a vital tool for professionals of all sorts and, I hold, is a required element of professional practice, especially for those professions requiring highly complex calculations (like chess and Web design). Intuition plays a vital role in our ability to account for a number of conceptual ideas as applied to ongoing process or concrete activities.

In his article, Mr. Peck completely discounts our necessary intuitive processes and asks:

“Do you ever code a layout before the visuals are done, simply to figure out whether an idea is going to work or not?”

and…

“How do you take into account things like scalability and percentages, when you’re using a program inherently designed for fixed-layouts?”

Firstly, if you’re having trouble semantically marking up a layout, it means that you’ve not put in the required work in creating the information hierarchy in the first place. Which, of course, means that you’re creating a poor design in an unprofessional manner. Don’t do that. Furthermore, asking questions based on flawed concepts is no help. Don’t do that either. But seeking your conceptual limit according to the limits of the tools you use is perhaps the worst of these practices. Just – don’t.

Owing to the demands and responsibilities inherent in the work, professional Web designers have to think differently than amateurs. Pros have to think more deeply and cut straight to the bones of matters, dismissing irrelevant ideals as useless distractions.

There is no useful distinction between conceiving an information hierarchy and marking up a design. They are the same thing expressed by different media. That’s why it’s called semantic markup. Semantic markup describes the information hierarchy (which you’ve should have already defined). Semantic markup communicates a greater depth of meaning than simply what the words may express. A semantic approach is the connective tissue between markup and a more comprehensive understanding of the page content – for humans and for digital devices.

Likewise with mechanisms like scalability and fluidity, as they’re often an integral part of Web design and, more specifically, user experience. You have to “see” the markup and extrapolate the user experience (including that regarding scripting/behaviors) while creating the graphic elements of the design, else you may be painting yourself into a corner. That’s not professional. As I suggested earlier, think of everything at once; that’s professional.

Conclusion

Amateurs can afford to take a far more casual approach to process and critical thinking. For them, distractions cost little and responsibilities are few and possess little gravity. Owing to the demands and responsibilities inherent in the work, professional Web designers have to think differently than amateurs. Pros have to think more deeply and cut straight to the bones of matters, dismissing irrelevant ideals as useless distractions. Professionals are required to employ a more economical practice.

Don’t think for a moment that I believe what I’m citing here is easy. I’m saying that professionals have a responsibility to get the job done in way that differs from that of amateurs, and that professional thinking is required for this to happen. That’s all. Just because it’s a fact does not mean it’s a simple matter.

I write this at a time when I myself am struggling with meeting my responsibilities to several clients on their projects. Sometimes it’s surprisingly easy to do so, sometimes it’s quite difficult. However, it’s never an option to let the ease or difficulty of the process dictate the results. Professional designers must produce professional results. It is professional process and professional habits that allow this to happen.

Asking questions is seldom a bad thing. But asking bad questions is never a good thing. If you plan to be a professional Web designer, first get into the habit of thinking like a professional. Professional thinking is not likely the same sort of thinking you’re comfortable with and must be learned through uncomfortable repetition. I hope this article made some of you quite uncomfortable.

Post Script (afternoon 7/24/07)

In case some think otherwise, my pupose with this article was certainly not to ridicule Mr. Peck, but to take his thesis and questions where they should rightly go, and in the appropriate context. Anton Peck was not the focus of the article. Rather, specific ideas and concepts were the focus of this article. I will not, however, artificially hide the source when it is entirely relevant, as were the ideas I take issue with. Mr. Peck’s article and the questions it contained were useful springboards toward examining vital ideas that I’ve seldom if ever seen referenced in our community. At least not in this context. I offer no apologies here, but rather what might for some be a necessary clarification.

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