Imagination, Stagnation, and Curation

At its heart, front-end design and development is still about putting boxes inside other boxes on a web page.

Granted, the tools, the techniques, and the processes have become more complex compared to even five years ago. That’s part of the territory.

What we do with those boxes has gotten more complicated, but web development is still in its adolescence.

Hell, we just started designing for smartphones five years ago. Double check the date on this seminal article on responsive web design — it’s only from 2010.

That’s not what this post is about, though.

What terrifies me is the idea that there’s a stagnation ’s going on in my own imagination. I get frightened when I think I’ve stopped dreaming of what is possible on the web.

Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it felt like the first time you started to understand how to build something on the web.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. I don’t live in your skin, or share your exact experiences. But here’s my tale.

From There To Here (And Back Again)

When I first discovered the web in 1998 or so, I was basically a normal person. I thought it was mind-blowing that you could “surf the web”, and read other people’s thoughts on stuff. Sites like LiveJournal, Heavy.com, and The Palace were breaking new ground. Around 1999, I discovered Internet radio (today, we’d call this podcasting), which was also amazing. The biggest thing I took away from the early web is you could be a part of different communities, and even inspire different people, even if everyone was separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.

At the time, I had no aspirations of building stuff for the web. I had a solid career managing bakeries for a well-known grocery chain. It wasn’t until 2009 that I would begin to dip my toe in the waters of web design. Eventually, in 2012, I would make web design and development my full-time career.

In the short time between then and now, the web has undergone numerous changes, as have I.

Web design went from a very graphically rich art form that celebrated detail to become focused on minimalism, “flat” design, and typography. The Flash websites that once dominated the early web have disappeared. The definition of the web itself has changed from being a desktop (or laptop) computer, to phones, tablets, watches, and the Internet of Things.

One thing that shocked me today is I realized I’ve spent less and less time looking at the things that other people are doing out there. Part of this has to do with the unconscious siloing that I’ve done in my information stream. Perhaps you’ve done this too.

When I first came to web development, I truly had a beginner’s mind. I watched talks from An Event Apart, TED, Creative Mornings, and Laynard. I read ALA, 24 Ways, Frank Chimero’s blog, and The Pastry Box Project. In the last couple of years, I find myself watching talks from WordCamps, but not so many talks from outside that WordPress bubble as compared to those formative years. I spend time reading Medium think-pieces, or even LinkedIn posts, but not those blogs I cut my teeth learning on.

Things change. Often very subtly. Sometimes all it takes is to change who you follow in your Twitter feed to make all the difference.

I think something similar happens in every web community. Many of my podcasting friends mostly consume other podcasts, and read primarily feeds of other podcasters. I have to imagine people in, say, the Ruby or Drupal or marketing space find themselves mostly consuming stuff from Ruby, Drupal, or marketing channels (respectively). Most of the WordPress people I know listen to mostly WordPress podcasts, with a sprinkling of other podcasts.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something that I’ve noticed myself doing.

As time goes on, I explore different avenues, and spend less time absorbing information from previous avenues.

What I want to avoid is losing that sense of wonder and curiosity about things. I don’t want to lose my creativity or imagination, simply because I’ve focused more on business tracks and specific web development techniques in recent years.

There’s an immense amount of value in specialization. Putting your flag in the ground on any one technology or subject these days is a full-time undertaking.

But without pausing to look around once in a while, it seems like it’s easy to forget there are other things going on around you.

Remember when parallax scrolling was a brand new thing? Remember when the Silverback page caused everyone in the web development world to “ooh” and “ahh”?

As it turns out, there were a lot of really innovative things that people did with that single technology. I was inspiration the other day for a pet project, and I rediscovered some bad-ass sites. But I had completely forgotten about these, because when I think of parallax scrolling in 2015, I think of the same redundant patterns in see in so many straightforward content sites.

I don’t believe for an instant that the creative days of the web are behind us. I know that flat design and material design are what’s “in” right now. But everything in design is cyclical. That’s a historical fact. We’re just now coming back to Swiss design sixty years after it first peaked.

The point is, it’s good to absorb all that you can from different influencers. But realize that it’s also good to continually venture outside your comfort zone and shake up your way of looking at things.

Allow yourself to be exposed to new ideas — not just from within whatever community you’re wearing colors for today — but also from places that are unexpected.

No one has the exact same experiences, outlook, and perspective that you have. Keep that mix fresh, and not stagnant. Don’t let yourself be the factor that limits your imagination.