Crafting the Front-end

Much has been spoken and written recently about the virtues of craftsmanship in the context of web design and development. It seems that we as fabricators of the web are finally tiring of seeking out parallels between ourselves and architects, and are turning instead to the fabled specialist artisans.

Identifying oneself as a craftsman or craftswoman (let’s just say craftsperson from here onward) will likely be a trend of early 2012. In this pre-emptive strike, I’d like to expound on this movement as I feel it pertains to front-end development, and encourage care and understanding of the true qualities of craftsmanship (craftspersonship).

The core values

I’ll begin by defining craftspersonship. What distinguishes a craftsperson from a technician? Dictionaries tend to define a craftsperson as one who possesses great skill in a chosen field. The badge of a craftsperson for me, though, is a very special label that should be revered and used sparingly, only where it is truly deserved. A genuine craftsperson encompasses a few other key traits, far beyond raw skill, each of which must be learned and mastered.

A craftsperson has:

  • An appreciation of good work, in both the work of others and their own. And not just good as in ‘hey, that’s pretty neat’, I mean a goodness like a shining purity – the kind of good that feels right when you see it.
  • A belief in quality at every level: every facet of the craftsperson’s product is as crucial as any other, without exception, even those normally hidden from view.
  • Vision: an ability to visualize their path ahead, pre-empting the obstacles that may be encountered to plan a route around them.
  • A preference for simplicity: an almost Bauhausesque devotion to undecorated functionality, with no unjustifiable parts included.
  • Sincerity: producing work that speaks directly to its purpose with flawless clarity.

Only when you become a custodian of such values in your work can you consider calling yourself a craftsperson. Now let’s take a look at some steps we front-end developers can take on our journey of enlightenment toward craftspersonhood.

Speaking of the craftsman’s journey, be sure to watch out for the video of The Standardistas’ stellar talk at the Build 2011 conference titled The Journey, which should be online sometime soon.

Building your own toolbox

My grandfather was a carpenter and trained as a young apprentice under a master. After observing and practising the many foundation theories, principles and techniques of carpentry, he was tasked with creating his own set of woodworking tools, which he would use and maintain throughout his career. By going through the process of having to create his own tools, he would be connected at the most direct level with every piece of wood he touched, his tools being his own creations and extensions of his own skilled hands. The depth of his knowledge of these tools must have surpassed the intricate as he fathered, used, cleaned and repaired them, day in and day out over many years.

And so it should be, ideally, with all crafts. We must understand our tools right down to the most fundamental level. I firmly believe that a level of true craftsmanship cannot be reached while there exists a layer that remains not wholly understood between a creator and his canvas. Of course, our tools as front-end developers are somewhat more complex than those of other crafts – it may seem reasonable to require that a carpenter create his or her own set of chisels, but somewhat less so to ask a front-end developer to code their own CSS preprocessor, or design their own computer.

However, it is still vitally important that you understand how your tools work. This is particularly critical when it comes to things like preprocessors, libraries and frameworks which aim to save you time by automating common processes and functions. For the most part, anything that saves you time is a Good Thing™ but it cannot be stressed enough that using tools like these in earnest should be avoided until you understand exactly what they are doing for you (and, to an extent, how they are doing it).

In particular, you must understand any drawbacks to using your tools, and any shortcuts they may be taking on your behalf. I’m not suggesting that you steer clear of paid work until you’ve studied each of jQuery’s 9,266 lines of JavaScript source code but, all levity aside, it will further you on your journey to look at interesting or relevant bits of jQuery, and any other libraries you might want to use. Such libraries often directly link to corresponding sections of their source code on sites like GitHub from their official documentation. Better yet, they’re almost always written in high level languages (easy to read), so there’s no excuse not to don your pith helmet and go on something of an exploration. Any kind of tangential learning like this will drive you further toward becoming a true craftsperson, so keep an open mind and always be ready to step out of your comfort zone.

Downtime and tool honing

With any craft, it is essential to keep your tools in good condition, and a good idea to stay up-to-date with the latest equipment. This is especially true on the web, which, as we like to tell anyone who is still awake more than a minute after asking what it is that we do, advances at a phenomenal pace. A tool or technique that could be considered best practice this week might be the subject of haughty derision in a comment thread within six months.

I have little doubt that you already spend a chunk of time each day keeping up with the latest material from our industry’s finest Interblogs and Twittertubes, but do you honestly put aside time to collect bookmarks and code snippets from things you read into a slowly evolving toolbox? At @media in 2009, Simon Collison delivered a candid talk on his ‘Ultimate Package’. Those of us who didn’t flee the room anticipating a newfound and unwelcome intimacy with the contents of his trousers were shown how he maintained his own toolkit – a collection of files and folders all set up and ready to go for a new project. By maintaining a toolkit in this way, he has consistency across projects and a dependable base upon which to learn and improve.

The assembly and maintenance of such a personalized and familiar toolkit is probably as close as we will get to emulating the tool making stage of more traditional craft trades. Keep a master copy of your toolkit somewhere safe, making copies of it for new projects. When you learn of a way in which part of it can be improved, make changes to the master copy.

Simplicity through modularity

I believe that the user interfaces of all web applications should be thought of as being made up primarily of modular components. Modules in this context are patterns in design that appear repeatedly throughout the app. These can be small collections of elements, like a user profile summary box (profile picture, username, meta data), as well as atomic elements such as headings and list items.

Well-crafted front-end architectures have the ability to support this kind of repeating pattern as modules, with as close to no repetition of CSS (or JavaScript) as possible, and as close to no variations in HTML between instances as possible.

One of the most fundamental and well known tenets of software engineering is the DRY rule – don’t repeat yourself. It requires that “every piece of knowledge must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system.”

As craftspeople, we must hold this rule dear and apply it to the modules we have identified in our site designs. The moment you commit a second style definition for a module, the quality of your output (the front-end code) takes a huge hit. There should only ever be one base style definition for each distinct module or component. Keep these in a separate, sacred place in your CSS. I use a _modules.scss Sass include file, imported near the top of my main CSS files.

Be sure, of course, to avoid making changes to this file lightly, as the smallest adjustment can affect multiple pages (hint: keep a structure list of which modules are used on which pages). Avoid the inevitable temptation to duplicate code late in the project. Sticking to this rule becomes more important the more complex the codebase becomes.

If you can stick to this rule, using sensible class names and consistent HTML, you can reach a joyous, self-fulfilling plateau stage in each project where you are assembling each interface from your own set of carefully crafted building blocks.

Old school markup

Let’s take a step back. Before we fret about creating a divinely pure modular CSS framework, we need to know the site’s design and what it is made of. The best way to gain this knowledge is to go old school. Print out every comp, mockup, wireframe, sketch or whatever you have. If there are sections of pages that are hidden until some user action takes place, or if the page has multiple states, be sure that you have everything that could become visible to the user on paper.

Once you have your wedge of paper designs, lay out all the pages on the floor, or stick them to the wall if you can, arranging them logically according to the site hierarchy, by user journey, or whatever guidelines make most sense to you. Once you have the site laid out before you, study it for a while, familiarizing yourself with every part of every interface. This will eliminate nasty surprises late in the project when you realize you’ve duplicated something, or left an interface on the drawing board altogether.

Now that you know the site like it’s your best friend, get out your pens or pencils of choice and attack it. Mark it up like there’s no tomorrow. Pretend you’re a spy trying to identify communications from an enemy network hiding their messages in newspapers. Look for patterns and similarities, drawing circles around them. These are your modules. Start also highlighting the differences between each instance of these modules, working out which is the most basic or common type that will become the base definition from which all other representations are extended.

This simple but empowering exercise will equip you for your task of actually crafting, instead of just building, the front-end. Without the knowledge gained from this kind of research phase, you will be blundering forward, improvising as best you can, but ultimately making quality-compromising mistakes that could have been avoided.

For more on this theme, read Anna Debenham’s Front-end Style Guides which recommends a similar process, and the sublime idea of extending this into a guide to refer to during development and beyond.

Design homogeneity

Moving forward again, you now have your modules defined and things are looking good. I mentioned that many instances of these modules will carry minor differences. These differences must be given significant thinking time, and discussion time with your designer(s).

It should be common knowledge by now that successful software projects are not the product of distinct design and build phases with little or no bidirectional feedback. The crucial nature of the designer-developer relationship has been covered in depth this year by Paul Robert Lloyd, and a joint effort from both teams throughout the project lifecycle is pivotal to your ability to craft and ship successful products.

This relationship comes into play when you’re well into the development of the site, and you start noticing these differences between instances of modules (they’ll start to stand out very clearly to you and your carefully regimented modular CSS system). Before you start overriding your base styles, question the differences with the designer to work out why they exist. Perhaps they are required and are important to their context, but perhaps they were oversights from earlier design revisions, or simple mistakes.

The craftsperson’s gland

As you grow towards the levels of expertise and experience where you can proudly and honestly consider yourself a craftsperson, you will find that you steadily develop what initially feels like a kind of sixth sense. I think of it more as a new hormonal gland, secreting into your bloodstream a powerful messenger chemical that can either reward or punish your brain. This gland is connected directly to your core understanding of what good quality work looks and feels like, an understanding that itself improves with experience.

This gland will make itself known to you in two ways. First, when you solve a problem in a beautifully elegant way with clean and unobtrusive code that looks good and just feels right, your craftsperson’s gland will ooze something delicious that makes your brain and soul glow from the inside out. You will beam triumphantly at the succinct lines of code on your computer display before bounding outside with a spring in your step to swim up glittering rainbows and kiss soft fluffy puppies.

The second way that you may become aware of your craftsperson’s gland, though, is somewhat less pleasurable. In an alternate reality, your parallel self is faced with the same problem, but decides to take a shortcut and get around it by some dubious means – the kind of technical method that the words hack, kludge and bodge are reserved for. As soon as you have done this, or even as you are doing it, your craftsperson’s gland will damn well let you know that you took the wrong fork in the road. As your craftsperson’s gland begins to secrete a toxic pus, you will at first become entranced into a vacant stare at the monstrous mess you are considering unleashing upon your site’s visitors, before writhing in the horrible agony of an itch that can never be scratched, and a feeling of being coated with the devil’s own deep and penetrating filth that no shower will ever cleanse.

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but it is no overstatement to suggest that you will find yourself being guided by proverbial angels and demons perched on opposite shoulders, or a whispering voice inside your head. If you harness this sense, sharpening it as if it were another tool in your kit and letting it guide or at least advise your decision making, you will transcend the rocky realm of random trial and error when faced with problems, and tend toward the right answers instinctively.

This gland can also empower your ability to assess your own work, becoming a judge before whom all your work is cross-examined. A good craftsperson regularly takes a step back from their work, and questions every facet of their product for its precise alignment with their core values of quality and sincerity, and even the very necessity of each component.

The wrapping

By now, you may be thinking that I take this kind of thing far too seriously, but to terrify you further, I haven’t even shared the half of it. Hopefully, though, this gives you an idea of the kind of levels of professionalism and dedication that it should take to get you on your way to becoming a craftsperson. It’s a level of accomplishment and ability toward which we all should strive, both for our personal fulfilment and the betterment of the products we use daily. I look forward to seeing your finely crafted work throughout 2012.

About the author

Ben Bodien is Co-Founder of Neutron Creations and a front-end development journeyman, and sometimes dabbler in interface design (when there are no grown-ups around to stop him). His employers and clients have ranged from video game companies to hedge funds and from bedroom and VC backed startups to publicly listed multinationals. His other loves include coffee, jazz and cocktails, often consumed in combination. You can observe him quizzically from a safe distance on Twitter @bbodien.

Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

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