Walls Come Tumbling Down

As I’m putting together Walls Come Tumbling Down, the talk that I am giving this year at @media 2009 London and An Event Apart, I wanted to share some of my notes on how the current recession will affect the way that web designers and developers work.

Back in the mid-nineties, I helped to bring digital photography to Europe. I know that it probably seems odd today, but then, despite how exciting the technologies were, no one wanted digital photography.

Photographers clung to the idea that digital cameras were not up to the quality of large-format film cameras, despite clear evidence to the contrary. This was reinforced by colour reproduction houses and advertising agencies who told their clients that digital could not replace film, at least not for a while. In the face of overwhelming evidence, they clung to their familiar workflow processes, backwards and forwards, trial and error. No one, not even Kodak, was selling digital cameras.

(When I was writing this talk, I remembered an annual report from the mid-nineties where Kodak insisted that instead of pushing forward with digital, they would make more by selling one roll of film to everybody living in China — true undoubtedly, but ultimately short-sighted.)

There were two individuals, I was lucky enough to work with both of them, who made professional digital photography in Europe possible. In doing that they didn't just sell cameras, they changed several industries in the process.

One of those people, Jo Simons, saw the bigger picture and realized that no-one would benefit from digital cameras eliminating film processing times and costs, it was fast and cheap. For the same reasons, little would be gained by eliminating scanning. (These were the two main sales arguments for digital cameras at the time).

Jo realized before anyone else, that it was the moving of responsibility and control of colour from the end of the repro process to the beginning, in the photo studio, combined with emerging digital proof printers that could be calibrated to match a printing press, that offered clients the financial and other incentives to insist on digital from their suppliers.

Clients saw that the status quo workflow, where photographers, scanner operators, colour specialists and separators all had their defined roles and worked separately was too inefficient, too costly and gave less quality than a new digital workflow could offer them.

The long-standing backwards and forwards, trial and error workflow that had been commonplace in the industry, changed in just a few years — largely as a result of just a handful of people. (I'm proud I was one of them.)

I can now see several parallels with commonplace web design and development workflows today.

  1. Designers and developers often work separately from each-other.
  2. Designers work on static look and feel visuals.
  3. Clients are shown and asked to sign-off on static comps.
  4. Developers work with markup, CSS and JavaScript to translate those visuals into the browser.
  5. Back-end developers work on back-end systems.
  6. Testing, by users and for browsers and accessibility comes last.

Changes and corrections often mean going back to the drawing board and there is often tension between those involved in the process.

I don't know how to express this plainly enough.

This workflow, the workflow that most us continue to work inside is overly time-consuming, inefficient and wasteful. It is also history, period.

When this recession is over, we will look back at how we work today with the same sense of disbelief that I remember from the mid-nineties.


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