An illustrated man, looking panicked, surrounded by arrows

What you know vs. what you don’t

Apr 8, 2014

I envy professional bakers. And gardeners. And painters.

I have no idea how anyone can make icing look like a rose, keep snapdragons alive for more than a week, or paint a ceiling without covering the floor with dribbles of color.

These men and women mastered a skill—studied, trained, practiced, learned countless nuances—and made it a career. But once they become proficient in their craft, their mastery is theirs to keep. Their experience won’t become obsolete. A painter never needs to re-learn how to paint a corner; a baker doesn’t have to learn how to use a new kind of salt every year; a gardener doesn’t need to figure out how to make tulips grow in new types of soil every spring.

A skilled painter who learned her craft in 2000 is probably more valuable than ever now, but someone who designed for the web in 2000 may easily be clueless and unemployable today. In web work, the skills and knowledge required to do our job well change every day; the ground beneath us shifts slightly, gradually, week after week.

Fifteen years ago, most of the work I did for the web was built with Flash; stand-alone little packages of design and motion and typography. Within a few years, as the limitations and flaws of Flash became increasingly apparent, the web industry — and most of my work — shifted predominantly towards standards-driven HTML and CSS. Five years ago, the ground shifted again, and it became essential to build websites that were responsive and adaptive to not only computers, but devices and screens of every size. Today, those challenges remain, only they’re more complex now, given the proliferation of high-definition mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, and smart televisions.

New technologies and tools have emerged to help make design for the web simpler, smarter, and more efficient: a wide range of content management systems and services; new tools for managing and preprocessing CSS; new scripting approaches to simplify functions and interactions on websites; and countless apps and services to help you put all these things together in a more coordinated workflow. It’s an exciting time to be in the business of designing and building for the web.

It’s also a terrifying time.

Keeping up with everything is a daunting challenge. Within the last couple years, I’ve learned to use Git, added SASS to my web workflow, and started tinkering with Codepen. I’ve dabbled in responsive email design, parallax scrolling websites, scalable vector images (SVGs), and icon fonts. On the workflow side of things, I’ve learned agile methodologies; started using Evernote to organize work, research, and business information; and experimented with the pomodoro technique for getting things done.

And yet, every week dozens of articles go by that I want to read on a new tool, script, technique, or methodology for doing web design better. Responsive web design is evolving so quickly, just keeping up with what people are arguing about is a challenge. I have 30+ videos to watch on Lynda.com and two book aparts to finish. My pocket queue has dozens of unread articles on code, design, and project management.

Web designers and developers are often afraid to admit that they don’t have the answers for everything. Or that they don’t know how to do something. We may know a lot, but it can feel like the stuff we don’t know is a tsunami bearing down on us as we run up a steep hill.

And there is a fear that if you answer a client question with “I’m not sure,” they will lose confidence in you.

But over the years, I’ve learned that it’s usually fine to tell a client, “I’m not sure about that; let me look into it and get back to you.” Being honest is better than bluffing about something you don’t know. Or spinning out some nonsense that will make bullshit detectors start flashing. Honesty keeps your credibility intact. The key is to follow up, do your homework, and come back with an informed answer.

The business of design and the web doesn’t allow for complacency. And without a doubt, there is too much to keep up with.

But nobody is up to speed on everything. Nobody. It’s easy to believe that other web pros know it all, but everyone has gaps in what they know. Developers often don’t know a lot about the latest design ideas or how classic design principles apply to the screen. Designers often lag behind on the latest tools and coding tricks. There’s just too much ground to cover, no matter your area of expertise.

So I don’t have the answer for how to stay on top of everything. I welcome suggestions.

But here’s my starting point: forget about keeping up with everything. You can’t. Instead, set a more reachable goal: one idea a day.

Read one design article. Watch one video. Listen to one podcast. Tinker with one feature/element that you don’t really understand for a few minutes. Don’t try to multitask through half a dozen posts or pens or video tutorials. Slow down and focus on one thing. Think about it and let it sink in. Sure, you can take on more, but start with one idea a day and then stop worrying. Anything else is a bonus.

Do that once a day, and it will give you seven new ideas every week, thirty ideas a month. It will add up.

You won’t know it all, but you’ll be a little closer.

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