Staying Relevant

Web design is a fast paced business. The job of building websites today is very different to the one I started over fifteen years ago.

In 2000, Google was still pretty cool, and if you had a mobile phone, it definitely wasn’t smart enough to browse the web in any useful way! We built websites very differently back then, mainly using <table> tags and little blank spacer gifs. CSS was just for experimenting with, not for production work. I didn’t think about “accessibility” or “standards”, I spent lots of time “detecting” browsers in order to serve different javascript to Netscape or IE to make my image-swapping menus work. I only designed for a single specific fixed-width desktop size, usually 800 by 600.

But things changed – web standards came along – accessibility, W3C standards, separation of style from content, CSS layout, and progressive enhancement. No more table layout – CSS for styling and layout.

Then it all changed again – responsive web design and the mobile web impacted the entire web design process, designs now have to adapt across a complex device landscape of mobile phones, tablets and desktop machines. It’s a completely different way of designing and coding and I’m still finding the best way through it.

The pace of change in the industry has definitely increased. The devices on which we view the internet – mobiles, tablets, TVs, games consoles – are now very wide and varied. We build websites for iOS and Android as well as OS X and Windows. The major browsers are now “evergreen” which means they release updates regularly and automatically. All these things are driving development – new CSS functionality becomes usable much quicker.

This year we’ve got some major new CSS layout tools reaching a mature state – flexbox and grids, which will change things up quite dramatically again.

To be honest, it can be overwhelming to even keep up with the list of things you could learn about. I’m currently looking at improving my understanding of:

  • CSS grid
  • CSS flexbox
  • CSS shapes
  • CSS regions
  • CSS mulit-column
  • CSS filters
  • CSS backgrounds
  • CSS specifity
  • CSS variables
  • CSS animations
  • @support
  • font-feature-settings
  • “cut the mustard”
  • accessibility
  • critical CSS
  • lazy loading
  • WAI-ARIA
  • responsive images
  • print stylesheets
  • better progressive enhancement techniques
  • favicons

And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s a hard balance to find R&D time when you’re a freelancer. You need to work to earn money, and still have some time left for yourself and your family, but you need to invest some serious time staying up to date with the industry, the latest techniques, and best practice. I’ve found myself well behind the curve at various points.

So how do you keep up?

I have no idea!

I know the things you need to do to stay in touch, subscribe to the right blogs, follow the right twitter people for interesting links, hangout in online communities, read books, experiment with code, go to conferences etc. but knowing what to do is very different from actually doing it.

Somehow you need to build continuous learning into your daily routine. Not a couple of days a month that never seem happen. Not your one conference or book a year, but daily.

To give me some focus I’ve decided to research one bite size topic every couple of weeks. I’ll be documenting my adventures to stay relevant here and who knows I may even turn it into an email list or something!