The Design Dilemma

I really like creating awesome website designs. I am consistently amazed at what css can do now that it couldn’t do 15 years ago. When I made a website in high school (circa 1998), I spent hours putting little bevels and drop shadows on my buttons. That was when CSS was this fancy extra thing that seemed like way too much trouble to bother with. Now a few extra lines of code and gradients, drop shadows, and even circular buttons are easily done with zero photo-shopping involved. It is really amazing, but I also love the process of figuring out the logic of working out the back-end.

On my final project I was most proud of creating my own search engine for our app that searched our database by geocode (latitude and longitude) and returned all the results within a ten mile radius. Of course I didn’t create the actual function that calculated area of a circle from a specific set of coordinates plus a radius, and then looked for lat/longitude coordinates that fell within that range, but I know I could have. I took two semester of geology and the physical geology class involved a lot of work with maps and lat/longitude coordinates plus geometry has been one of my passions since I was a kid… so yeah I could figure a range of latitude and longitude coordinates that fit within the area of a circle on a map.

I love that stuff. I love figuring out how to create sophisticated search queries and return only the desired results. I love that exact sort of problem. My dilemma is what to focus on.

Visual design is great, I already have reasonably good skills and experience doing it, and I have already had one job that I loved, doing exactly that. The downside: the difference between good designs and great designs is often just subtlety. Take a look at one of your favorite websites -WordPress for example. It looks like a pretty simple design. But check out all the subtle effects that someone had to put there. Subtle borders on each box, a very subtle gradient on the “publish” button, a soft-drop shadow below the top bar, the hover effects that occur a little slower than most, the single well functioning drop-down menu. It’s all stuff I could do, but the hours and hours of tweaking and subtle changes I would have to do to get it just right, well that’s the trouble.

I was raised in a family of artists and I have a great eye for creating graphics and taking good photos, but I am constantly in awe of what I see on just basic website designs these days. It’s gotten so zen. Gradients so subtle you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking, show up as hover effects in my gmail account. Ever-so-slightly rounded corners, here, there, everywhere. Css animations controlled by milliseconds, because even though most people aren’t going to consciously notice, we do notice subconsciously. That sense of a site being just “thrown-together” by some internet-marketer or spammer versus the professionalism of google, wordpress, and facebook is all in the subtlety.

So maybe I miss the days when creating my own tiling brightly colored backgrounds for my geocities-site impressed everyone (mwa ha ha). It’s a little of that, but there is also the very real understanding for me that modern webdesign is about mastering subtlety, and I think I would rather master programming logic, and solve those interesting back-end challenges that require a thorough logical thought process, a little bit of pseudocode, and a few trips to google to figure out.

It’s a big dilemma for me. Geometry and o-chem were my favorite subjects in school because they required both logic skills, and the ability to understand problems in a visual way. I’m back to feeling like I have to pick one. I just don’t quite understand why a 3px border-radius makes a button look so much more professional than leaving it with regular corners. There’s got to be some logic there but what is it, and how do I anticipate it? I feel like I’m just copying. It looked nice when wordpress did it… so why not?

On the other hand, the stuff I have read about user interface design and user experience is the most fascinating and thought provoking material I have found on the internet. The potential for changing how people think, learn, and interact is kind of huge, and it all comes down to thinking about, and understanding the user experience -which brings in an understanding of learning, of human psychology, and of intuition. Dismissing UX/UI as an area of focus is like dismissing the open source movement in the 90’s as being a viable movement (lol – Linux, rails, and github have been my life-blood for the last 3-months).

So yesterday, I started re-working the design and user interface of my final project, today I started getting into the nitty gritty of how search engines work, tomorrow more css-sass, a few days ago I was learning regular expressions, and this week I want to add javascript functionality to a periodic table app I’ve been working on.

It’s fun, it’s fascinating, it’s invigorating, and the focus is long-gone.


Tonight’s The Night

Today is Career Day, which basically means we are demo-ing our final projects tonight. I’ve got that nervous/excitement that goes along with giving public presentations. Our presentation has been refined, but there are still so many things I would like to fix on our app. There are a few bugs that just showed up, our calendar is awesome and working, but the edit feature still has a few hiccups. I got our geocoder/google maps search function to work. So no more simple name search… we have a full blown geocoded data base search! 

I made a screen cast to demo the app in our presentation. The user authentication works great! But there is an odd bug on one of the account screens… oh devise, how frustrating you can be. That being said we have a user authentication system we didn’t have to build ourselves which is incredible. We just refreshed the layout and it looks a thousand times better, but there are still so many things I would like to add, adjust, and fix.

I was told yesterday not to bug-check anything else… no more fixing. If the website is up and working… let it be. So I am. No more tweaking, no more code… just letting it happen. We will be at capital factory tonight in downtown austin. It’s going to be exciting.