I am not a web designer. I may have a graphic design background, but when it comes to the Internet, my knowledge of its inner workings is somewhat lacking. Sure, I know a little HTML and can hack away at CSS to get my website to do what I want [kinda], and sure, I spend most of my time on the Internet, but I leave the tough stuff to the people who really know what they're doing.
I learned about The Manual as I was looking into the writing of designer and illustrator Frank Chimero, and the first thing that struck me was its beauty. Unwrapped, rough-edged binder's board, a cloth spine, and black matte foil debossed into the cover. Clearly the publisher, Andy McMillan, took this publication seriously. I then learned that the project was initially Kickstarter-funded, and eventually discovered that McMillan was a co-organizer of the XOXO conference* that Portland just hosted in September.
The Manual is a periodic journal focused on the future of web design and what it means to be a designer. Each volume contains six essays by guest authors on a subject of their choosing, and each essay is followed by a key lesson learned by the author over the course of their life.
I poked into the first essay the day the book arrived in the mail, and I immediately fell deep into the beautifully set text. Each essay was punctuated with a two-color illustration, the columns were narrow and the folios inviting. Within the first couple of pages I had one of those a-ha! moments, and as I made my way through each part I was struck by the eloquence and intelligence with which the authors wrote. This wasn't just a book about web design. This was a book about the 21st century.
Simon Collison (@colly) addressed the importance of personal growth and craftsmanship in everything that we do. He articulated the importance of craftsmanship in a way that I had yet to put into words myself, and its application reaches far beyond the confines of the digital world:
Craftsmen and craftswomen discover through doing: honing their skills over a significant period of time with substantial commitment. They understand the importance of mistakes, and while they are prepared to throw away perhaps 70 percent of what they do in pursuit of the magical 30 percent, they still see that the entire 100 percent is important. Our hope, as we work, is that peers, clients, and audiences will appreciate good craftsmanship amidst the vastness of indifference and thoughtless production by numbers. Craftsmanship makes our work more meaningful to us. It also spreads the perception that our profession is valuable and even irreplaceable.
Truly creative people have an unswerving need to inquire into their craft more deeply. Simply performing the core tasks admirably day by day is rarely satisfaction enough. They desire to broaden their influences, draw upon wider fields of knowledge, make connections and discoveries, and find new outcomes.
—Simon Collison, "Maturity and the Weight of Learning"
Frank Chimero's (@fchimero) prose is like honey—smooth, poetic, and approachable. His essay addresses the common view of the web as an interconnected system of nodes, positing instead that the Internet is people. He offers a paradigm shift in his argument, and sheds some interesting light on the effect of social networks and the way in which they've run counter to how we operate in real life:
It is a struggle to stay human online: avatars of logos (or the very term avatar); the phrase personal brand; descriptions of the whole of your existence in a little flashing, empty box labeled About Me. The social networks that connect us as people accidentally reduce us. Odd that the totality of a person's profile need be described through a list of favorite books, movies, and quotes. Is what I like more important that what I think or what I make or who I love? Is it that people aren't willing to describe themselves as people online? Or is it that we aren't providing a suitable framework for them to do so? We perceive the situation to be technology mirroring our disposition, but it is more a shallowing of ourselves via the crystal ball…
When the network became social, it was dumb. It lacked nuance. The social network was based on our idea of ourselves and technology. When we think of ourselves, we picture our complex inner monologues: we believe that we are not simple but rather complex, romantic, self-contradicting—beautiful messes. We say this is what makes us human. But what if we're wrong? What if we pull back the veil to discover that perhaps we are not so complex, but instead we are the opposite?
Technology runs counter to our personhood; technology is complicated and shallow, but people are simple and deep. Our true needs are not complex… [We want] "To be understood."
—Frank Chimero, "The Space Between You and Me"
In "Taxidermista," Jon Tan (@jontangerine) writes about our culture's failure to accurately archive and document web design. He supposes that one day down the road the Tate Modern will have a Web Design Gallery devoted to the best websites built throughout history. But to provide such an exhibition would require a level of technical support that could be prohibitive and potentially disingenuous. If a flat screen monitor were to display a website from 1996 in Safari 5, would that accurately represent the purity of that design? Is the entire website contained therein for exploration, or is it just a flat, two-dimensional screenshot? And what of the accompanying object label? Does it describe the design challenges, website goals, and technical limitations that constrained the developers at the time of its inception?
Dan Rubin (@danrubin) pushes the boundaries of how we think about the web and attacks the notion that the Internet is a series of documents or pages to be accessed and read. His essay, "Off the Page," insists that the future of web design lies in breaking outside of the margins and traditional typographical conventions that we set for ourselves. The web is anything but flat and static. Why do we insist on keeping it that way?
What of etiquette and code of conduct? Liz Danzico (@bobulate) writes about the shift in how we remember people in the online space, as opposed to around the dinner table. With "Names and the New Public," she talks about our need to amass identities, the way in which we associate people with their avatars, and the context with which we know each other.
Lastly, The Standardistas (@standardistas) call for action with "Designing the Mind." They ask: "So, with the foundations—the craft of our industry—in place, how do we develop the thinking that is essential to moving our industry forward?" Their answer is a three-step process. First widening our vision through the collection and processing of more information—libraries. Second, converging Socratically and having conversations longer than 140 characters about what we've learned. Lastly, building a canon of knowledge by articulating what we've learned through writing. This takes us beyond the input and churning dialog, allowing us the opportunity to the give back and share with others what we have learned.
Each of the essays covered a topic that I had not entirely considered, and I was thrilled to have my mind expanded a little more with each one. Each of the lessons, told in personal narrative, were poignant and thoughtful—an insight into what influenced each of the authors. I'm an avid proponent of cross-pollination—for me it is the best way to open our mind to new perspectives, allow differing influences into our life and creating dialog across disciplines.
I look forward to ordering Volume Two, eager to see what it has to say both about the field of web design and how I can take its lessons and apply them to my own life and trajectory.
Order The Manual directly from their website, alwaysreadthemanual.com. You can purchase individual volumes for $25 a piece, or subscribe for one year (three volumes) for a discounted $65. Note: allow a couple weeks for delivery, as they ship from the UK. Update: @themanual says, "Heads up: we ship US orders out of L.A now, so they should ship much faster."
Next up on my shelf:
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Bookshelf is a series of book reviews and thoughts about what I've read. Some are left-brained books, some are right-brained books, but the best books are the ambidextrous-brained books. Disclosure: most purchase links are created through affiliate programs. If you like what you see here, consider supporting The Ambidextrous Brain by using the links to purchase a book.
* I'll admit was a little critical of XOXO at the time for a couple reasons: 1) I was sore that tickets sold out before I'd even heard of it, and 2) I was a little miffed that the speaker line-up was not terribly diverse (100% white and less than 25% female). I've since heard from friends and peers how amazing it was, so I've cut them a little slack.