February 23, 2015


Let’s start with a short excerpt from A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold in 1949:

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator.

The past few weeks have been bitterly cold here in the Midwest. My family and I have stayed warm, largely due to the massive amount of firewood I have cut, split, and stacked over the past two years. It’s a slow, laborious process. Some even call it back-breaking work. Yet, as true as these descriptions are, I find myself drawn to this old way of life, of working for my warmth. Certainly, it’s not necessary. My Nest knows how to keep me warm. But, while I love what modern technology has done for my life, I also feel I more fully appreciate that technology when I know what life is like without it.

Looking to the past helps us find a stronger awareness of our place in the present.

For those of us that make the Web, this means remembering back to the time of The Webmaster”—that mythical person who could build the server, write the copy, design the graphics, develop the code, and make it all available on the World Wide Web.

Remember this person? She was awesome, but she’s extinct now.

You see, eventually we recognized that the people who built the server weren’t necessarily the best folks to design the site. And so, we had Web Designers and Web Developers. Then we realized that there was much more to web design that just pretty pictures—we needed to understand the interactions. Hello, User Experience Designer. We continued this trend, creating separate roles for Content Strategist, Information Architect, Frontend Developer, Backend Developer, and the list goes on. We were digging deeper and deeper into the Web, unearthing critical roles where there previously were none.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a career as a Frontend Developer. I’ve benefited from this pattern of specialization as much as anyone. But it has me worried.

I’m afraid the fracturing of our roles is leading to a Web of fractured experiences.

It’s why we have designers who are uneducated about performance. It’s why we have developers who don’t care about the content. It’s why we have content strategists who know nothing about the timeless rules of typography which make their content legible.

I want you to look up from your desk, to look back to your roots. I want you to understand what it took to get us to this place—an awesome place—where you can focus on the thing you truly love. I want you to try some of the things that you normally rely on others to provide.

Designers, write some code, bring your site to life. Developers, write some copy instead of just writing the code. IAs, check out the architecture of the Sass, not just the architecture of the content.

As I write this, it’s 3° Fahrenheit outside and I’m sitting by a fire in my family room. I’m burning a split from an Ash tree that was in a friend of my family’s backyard. I remember taking the tree down and cutting it to length two Autumns ago. I remember how much work it was to split and stack. Those memories make the heat I earn from this fire seem somehow more meaningful that the blast of hot air I could request from my furnace with the push of a button.

Similarly, the empathy you gain in experimenting with other’s roles will go a long way toward your appreciation of what it takes to participate in this messy process that is making the Web. I believe it will improve your skills in your specialty. I believe it will help you to create more cohesive experiences. I believe it will free us from our titles and I believe it will result in a better Web.

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