Building Sprout Social's component library

design-systemswork
Note! This article was originally published on the Styled Component's blog. Big thanks to Max Stoiber for letting me share my work with the Styled Components readers.

Sprout Social’s design system, Seeds, has done a lot of growing up since it launched in October of last year. When we launched, our system was home to four categories of guidelines and principles: Brand, Visual, Writing, and Product. A healthy showing, for sure, but something was suspiciously missing  —  components.

Sprout has had a React component library longer than it’s had a design system. We call ours Racine (after the avenue in Chicago where Sprout was once headquartered), and it has long been the source of truth for component patterns in our web app.

At its core, our component library was two things:

  1. A package of React components (built with Styled Components and Styled System) published to npm
  2. A website, built on Create React App, that acted as a local development environment for our developers and a documentation website for stakeholders across the company.

What began as a slim, hand-crafted tool slowly grew more bloated over time. Racine was passed around by developers who had the time to work on it, but there was no dedicated team to manage it. Eventually, neither the local development experience, nor the experience as a documentation site, were delightful for anyone. We realized the component library was holding us back more than it was helping us.

We needed to fix this, and fast.

When we set out to build our design system, we chose to start from scratch. We didn’t want to adopt any of the debt that our older systems had accumulated, but we did want to use what we had learned from our previous attempts at component libraries to build something strong and stable for the future.

We knew how silly it would be to have component documentation separate from the design system, and thus integrating it would be our highest priority after launching our system. We also knew that it presented us with a fantastic opportunity to not only port the documentation into Seeds, but to make every inch of the experience better along the way (for both developers and consumers).

The design systems team at Sprout Social is relatively small. Our team of 3 (including myself) serves design and engineering teams of well over 30 people each. I want to share some of the tools that our team used to build a component library that all of those folks love using.

Separate development and documentation

Today, Racine lives on as our component library. But no longer does it try to do the job of development tool and documentation site. The documentation now lives in our design system, and our component library is just a tool for building, testing, and using components in web projects at Sprout.

Our component library now lives right inside our design system, at sproutsocial.com/seeds/components
Our component library now lives right inside our design system, at sproutsocial.com/seeds/components

We learned over time that when the experience of building a component is intertwined with the experience of documenting it, the latter tends to suffer. We had many developers who would build and ship new components in our library for themselves without documenting them for others.

Documentation will always fall short when it’s treated as a subtask of the development process, which is how our component library operated in the past. We wanted to change that by redesigning our documentation to make sure that both designers and engineers were invested in its success.

So, we decided to split it into two separate experiences:

  1. The documentation for our components moved into our design system, alongside all of our other patterns and guidelines.
  2. We added a separate local development environment based on Storybook.

Storybook gives our developers an extremely fast and lightweight environment to build and test components. Documentation happens in our design system, which is a custom-built site powered by Gatsby.

Previously, when a new component was created it would appear in our documentation site by default, whether or not it had been properly documented. Now, even if a developer adds a new component, that component isn’t “available” until we’ve written thorough documentation for our system. This puts the task of documentation on equal footing with the task of development.

On that note, we also learned how crucial it is to apply friction in the right places. We applied friction to making components available to our entire organization, and that means we now have more time to be strategic about how our work is rolled out. We can design micro education and marketing campaigns that not only increase awareness more broadly, but also make our teammates feel more supported and invested in the continuing success of our system. That investment pays us back tenfold in the form of feedback and contribution.

We’ve explored the idea of these micro campaigns in a few ways that have helped spread awareness for our component library internally:

  • We’ve held a series of optional workshops with our teammates (not just engineers!) where we leveraged our design system and component library to prototype UI that matches our product patterns.
  • For a few high-value projects, we created internal landing pages with Seeds that serve as hubs for information about the projects and their teams.
  • We are currently exploring the idea of a series of “sponsored” Slack posts that highlight our component recipes. These recipes are short snippets of code that demonstrate how to use our components to solve a common UI problem or create a pattern often seen in our app. We want to drip these out to our developers in the form of small, well-designed Slack messages that get shared in common channels as a way not only educate, but also to drive excitement.

Empower authors

Being able to focus on documentation in isolation from development has proven to be crucial for us, and it has allowed us to discover that the key to facilitating really great documentation for a design system is to focus on two key areas of the experience:

  1. Authorability. People are busy, and they have better things to do than spend their time writing documentation. Plus, writing good documentation isn’t easy. We wanted to remove as many points of friction as possible to make sure that the authoring process wasn’t keeping anyone from contributing.
  2. Interactivity. People don’t like writing documentation and they don’t like reading it either, especially when they are trying to get their jobs done. We didn’t want our documentation to feel like a manual that needs to be read from cover-to-cover, but instead like a tool that can be used.

MDX, if you’re not familiar, is described as “Markdown for the component era.” Simply put, it’s a tool that allows users to write React components inline with their Markdown, which solves these two problems for us very well.

Markdown is well known and easy to pick up, and many of the tools that our team already uses (like Dropbox Paper or Confluence) can export content to Markdown. That means our teams can write wherever they want and we can drop their content directly into our system, which lowers the barrier for authors to get started.

And, of course, the inclusion of React components means we make content more interactive by dropping in any UI we want into our documents.

MDX even allows us to customize how native Markdown elements are rendered. For instance, authors can write a regular Markdown code block, like this:

```jsx live
<Box
display='flex'
alignItems='center'
justifyContent='center'
bg='neutral.100'
color='neutral.1000'
p={600}
>
This content will be centered within the box.
</Box>
```

and we can output an interactive, editable code block in our design system that looks like this:

Example of an interactive code block from Seeds
Example of an interactive code block from Seeds

Imagine how difficult it would have been before MDX to achieve something like this without the author of the documentation having to hand-write HTML or React.

MDX not only allows you to import any React components, but also allows you to specify a set of components that are available in the global scope. This means we can have “shortcode” like components for rendering common elements.

For instance, to embed a video from YouTube, authors can just use the shortcode without having to import anything:

<Youtube id='abc123' />

For our component documentation, I made a shortcode that renders the table of component properties for any component in our library:

<PropTable component='Button' />

Good tools don’t make a design system, and they won’t increase engagement with your system if you aren’t focused on solving people problems. But great tools can lower the barrier of entry to contribution, and they can make the chore of maintaining a system much less tedious (which gives us more time to focus on people).

Delight the consumers

Great documentation should be less like a document and more like a workshop. Not only does interactivity make the experience more enjoyable, but it also lets us communicate more information to our consumers.

We’ve tried not to make any of the content in our design system “templated”. When contributors author new content, we don’t give them a structure to fill with information. Instead, we try to let the information inform the structure itself. Here are a few cool examples of this from our system.

Interactive code blocks

Every Markdown code block in our component pages turns into a fully editable sandbox for the component. Being able to try out different combinations of props is huge for both our developers and designers. Each code block is like a mini prototyping tool that makes writing code seem as simple as changing a few values.

Those editable code blocks are all thanks to an excellent library called react-live. One of the best features of react-live is that it allows us to specify a global scope for every code block on our site. We threw all of our components into the global scope, so that no matter what page you're on you have access to all of our components. If you're on the page for the Icon component, and you want to see how it looks inside of a Button, you can just try it out right there on the page.

That doesn’t just benefit our consumers. I can’t count the number of times I have used this for education and advocacy purposes. When a teammate reaches out with a question about how to something should work I can jump into a code block on Seeds, prototype a quick solution, and send over a screenshot with the code. In the future, we may even build upon that by having a “share” button on each code block that exports an shareable image (similar to something like Carbon).

Token tags

At the core of our design system are our design tokens — the atomic values that represent our color palette, typography scale, motion guidelines, etc.

We offer our design tokens in a variety of formats (Sass variables, JavaScript constants, etc.), and we reference them all over our design system. Instead of just referring to our tokens by name when we are writing content for our system, we created what we call Token Tags (patent pending):

This Token Tag is for the 700 shade of our purple color palette.
This Token Tag is for the 700 shade of our purple color palette.

That’s an example of a color token tag, which gives the reader an immediate visual reference to the actual color (instead of just a cryptic Purple 700). When the reader hovers over the tag, they can see the hex value for the color, and clicking the tag will copy the hex value to their clipboard:

"Hovering over a token tag shows the value of the token"

This idea is a great example of ways we are using MDX to make our documentation more interactive, and in turn bringing more value to our consumers instead of making them dig for it themselves.

Typography playground

Another great example where breaking out of the usual format allowed us to deliver a better experience is on our Typography page.

We have a complex typographic scale that differs between our product and our brand and marketing materials. Instead of listing this out in a table, we built an interactive tool that takes inspiration from the websites of our favorite font foundries:

Type some text, pick your options, and then copy the tokens for Sass, JavaScript, and CSS.
Type some text, pick your options, and then copy the tokens for Sass, JavaScript, and CSS.

Users can paste in the copy they would like to typeset, and then select whether it’s being used in our product or in a visual project (brand and marketing materials). Then, they’re presented with all of the valid values and combinations of values. And, of course, they can copy the design token for whatever environment you’re working in.

System props

All of our components are built with Styled Components, and we use the excellent Styled System to attach “system props” to our component. Here’s how we describe these props in our documentation:

System props apply standard sets of properties to a component that can be used to alter its appearance on the fly.

We hook these system props up to our design tokens, so that consumers of our components can customize styles using our design tokens. Here’s an example of setting a color: <Text color="green.500" />.

We are very careful about which system props we apply to which components. We don’t want consumers to be able to change every style on any component, so we break the system props out into groups (a technique which we shamelessly stole from the GitHub Primer team, who do the same for their components):

  • COMMON
  • TYPOGRAPHY
  • BORDER
  • LAYOUT
  • POSITION
  • FLEX_CONTAINER
  • FLEX_ITEM

Every component in our system gets the COMMON group, which allows consumers to change the margin, padding, color, or background color of the component.

On every component page in our design system, we let the user know exactly which groups of system props that component has access to. When you hover over those groups, you can see which props are included therein:

This component gets the COMMON and LAYOUT system prop groups.

When developers first hover over these groups, their faces light up when they realize how much power is baked into our components. The system props let them compose UI in half the time, without having to write any CSS. Most importantly, system props make it laughably easy for developers to use our design tokens. When the most consistent thing is also the easiest thing, developers don’t have to break out of the system to get their work done, and you end up with a much more consistent experience.

What’s next

Getting our component library integrated with our design system is really just the beginning for us. If we were thinking in terms of version numbers, we would say that our system is now at version 1.0.0, which means there is plenty of room to grow. Here are some things we are focusing on next:

  • Education in the form of workshops with the web developers and product designers on our team. New things come with a learning curve, and we want to make sure we are supporting our users by helping them understand the tool we have created.
  • Reliability in the form of visual snapshot testing for our components. We want to be able to release updates to our component library with confidence that we aren’t breaking anything for anyone. We already unit test our components, but we will be working to integrate visual tests so we can ensure our components stay pixel perfect when we make changes.
  • Expanding our offering by adding more components and continuing to document existing ones. We are just getting started with what our library offers, and we want to increase contribution to our system from engineers who are not directly involved with the projects. In addition, we are updating documentation as we go in response to commonly asked questions and use cases presented by our users.

All of this work will happen in parallel with the primary task of our design systems team — taking care of people. This piece has touched on a lot of the flashy artifacts of our system, but a majority of the work happens in Slack channels, Google Doc comments, and conversations with our team. Our system doesn’t mean anything without a diverse culture of collaboration and contribution that ensures sure we’re accurately representing our product and teams.

Finally, it’s important to note that we didn’t do any of this work in a vacuum. I want to highlight a few people and projects that have helped us get to where we are now:

If you want to learn more about the design systems team at Sprout Social or what we’re up to, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @chase_mccoy or email our team at designsystems@sproutsocial.com. And of course, you can check out our design system, Seeds, at sproutsocial.com/seeds.

Reading list for the week of April 1

roundup

How the Blog Broke the Web
A great piece on how the reverse chronological blog format pioneered by Movable Type and the like ruined the curated, library-style personal homepages of the early web.

Dates didn’t matter all that much. Content lasted longer; there was less of it. Older content remained in view, too, because the dominant metaphor was table of contents rather than diary entry. Everyone with a homepage became a de facto amateur reference librarian.

The title is a bit of an overstatement, but I really enjoyed this one.

Visions Magazine
Visions is “a science fiction magazine where writers, designers and researchers of the past and present come together to explore the future”, and its first issue just dropped.

I love science fiction almost as I love typography, and this seems to be a stunning marriage of both. Ordered immediately.

Brent Jackson: Interoperability
Brent’s work has been one of the biggest inspirations on my own, and I make use of a lot of his ideas and tools on many sites that I work on (including this one, and Seeds). He’s proposing a unified theme specification to use amongst tools such as Styled System.

Unifying the way we theme and style web apps means no lock-in to any technology, and I’m always in favor of that. I’m excited to see what comes from Brent’s proposal.

Today on their blog, Gatsby announced the release of new schema customization APIs in version 2.2.0.

I’ve been using these new APIs in the alpha release on my site for a bit now, and I’ve come to realize how great they are thanks to an example by Jason Lengstorf. He uses the new APIs to create a generic blog schema, and then creates nodes based on data from multiple sources.

This is brilliant because it means your UI can be completely agnostic of where your data is coming from. Jason’s example sources data from multiple file types locally and creates a set of generic nodes that represent a blog post. The query to get the data you need to populate your UI is very clear:

allBlog(sort: { fields: date, order: DESC }) {
  nodes {
    title
    date
    content
  }
}

I adapted my site to do the same things, but in my case I am sourcing most of my data from WordPress, and also pulling in MDX files locally. This solves a big issue I had been facing — how could I merge and sort data from many sources by a common factor (like a date field) in a way that is abstracted from the UI code of my site. This totally solves that.

What’s great is that, as long as my schema doesn’t change drastically, I can feed in as many data sources as I want in the future and I will never have to change any of my queries or UI to support the new data sources. That’s a huge win especially when you consider the upcoming themes feature, which allows us to abstract away parts of our sites (configurations, data sources, UI, etc) entirely. These new APIs paired with themes is next level.

Congrats and terrific work to all the contributors over at Gatsby that made this possible. It’s incredible how easy it’s becoming to build great developer experiences on top of Gatsby.

Reading list for the week of March 14

roundup

Panic: What’s Next for Coda?
Panic is reworking Coda from the ground up as a new app with a new name, tailored to modern web development. I am irrationally excited about this. Panic makes some of the best apps out there, and I will be lining up to give them money for whatever the new app is called.

I also appreciate how self-aware Panic is being here — it takes guts to admit that your app is out of touch with how users work today. Props to them for realizing they need to start over.

Reeder 4 for Mac Beta
Reeder has always been my favorite RSS app for both Mac and iOS, and today the beta for the upcoming version of the Mac app dropped (with the iOS app soon to follow, apparently). Not many apps have been in active development for as long as Reeder has.

Accessibility Report for Managers
Brilliant:

This tool helps translate the failing Accessibility rules on a website into actual understandable problems that real users might be facing by generating dummy feedback from dummy users.

Try plugging in your website and see if the resulting tweets can make your product managers care about accessibility.

Reading list for the week of March 6

roundup

I’ve been meaning to share more of the interesting stuff that comes across my radar, but haven’t felt like making a bunch of tiny posts. Figured I’d wrap them up in a weekly roundup and share batches at a time. Here’s the inaugural edition:

Storybook 5.0
The contributors behind Storybook just dropped version 5, which features a new design that looks great. I’ve been using Storybook in a personal project lately and I’m still not sure it’s for me, but I am always impressed in how great of a tool it is.

Wiby
Wiby describes itself as “a search engine for older style pages, lightweight and based on a subject of interest. I am trying to create a web more reminiscent of the early internet.” I can dig that. Fun to poke around and see what turns up.

Tools & Craft Episode 03: Ted Nelson
Notion’s Tools & Craft series has been excellent so far, and this latest episode with one of my heroes is no different.

CSS Remedy
A project from the Mozilla Developer Outreach team that “sets CSS properties or values to what they would be if the CSSWG were creating the CSS today, from scratch, and didn’t have to worry about backwards compatibility.” Pretty cool to read through the comments and get the historical perspective of why certain things work the way that they do in CSS.

Squoosh
Like ImageOptim, but on the web. A handy tool to keep in your bookmarks.

design systemswork

I had an idea during a meeting today — what if we had a Slack bot that looked for common key words and phrases and suggested content from our design system? About twenty minutes later I had a prototype of this running and installed in our Slack workspace, and it is all thanks to Botkit and their botkit-slack Glitch project.

Shout out to Glitch for being incredible. I was able to remix the Botkit project and have my own version running in seconds. The app features a pretty ingenious interactive setup guide that walks you through the configuration by having you input your API keys and then giving you the exact values to paste into Slack’s app site and the Glitch editor. The process was flawless and a perfect example of a developer experience that just works.

DHH via Signal v. Noise: Designing for the web ought to mean making HTML and CSS

All great design, in any medium, involves learning how to work with the grain instead of against it.

These mock designs almost always focused on pixel perfectness, which meant trying to bend and twist the web to make it so. Spacer pixels, remember those? We were trying to make the raw materials of the web, particularly HTML, then latter CSS, do things they didn’t want to do. Things they weren’t meant to do.

What’s great about the ubiquity of the web is that designers don’t necessarily have to write HTML/CSS anymore in order to work with the grain. Purely visual tools today like Sketch and Figma already mirror the way the web works better than ever before.

For example, these tools are now able to model responsive designs and allow the user to decide how and when elements should respond when they are resized. This isn’t the web — but it’s closer to the web and keeps getting closer. Designers today who don’t know HTML/CSS can still work with the grain if they do their due diligence.

CSS-Tricks recently got a slick new redesign, and Chris wrote a great piece on the process and some of the unique design details and how those were implemented.

XOXO 2018

XOXO is “an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet,” which is exactly as amazing as it sounds.  

Many of the people in my online circles have been going to XOXO since the beginning, and I knew that if the opportunity ever came for me to go I would jump on it. I was afraid that the festival was gone for good after it failed to return in 2017. Lucky for me, the Andys came back this year for XOXO’s sixth iteration, and its biggest ever. 

I traveled out to Portland, OR in September (my first time visiting), and I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed my experience there. Both the city and the conference were invigorating, and I can’t have imagined a better backdrop for this group of folks. Now that the conference videos have been uploaded, I wanted to take the time to share some of my favorite topics, events, and highlights from my trip. 

Art + Code

XOXO is both a festival and a conference. While conference talks took place (and were recorded) during the day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, festival events were in the evenings and were not recorded. I felt bad about missing some of the evening events, but the ones I did catch felt even more special because they were shorter, more intimate, and ephemeral. They left me wanting to explore and learn more about the speakers and projects I saw, and in that way the festival events stuck with me much more than the recorded conference events. 

Friday and Saturday night both featured an arcade full of indie game creators showing off upcoming games as well as a dedicated room for tabletop games. Friday night featured two sets of shorter talks: Art + Code and Film & Animation.

I chose to skip the film and animation talks so that I could catch as much of the Art + Code stuff as possible, and I’m glad I did. Art + Code turned out to be my favorite part of the programing at XOXO. While I can’t share any videos of the talks (since they weren’t recorded), I can share links to some of the demos and their creators.

Art + Code was sponsored by Figma and hosted by Jenn Schiffer, Glitch’s director of community engineering. For a good roundup of the talks from the night, I highly recommend reading Glitch’s official piece, put together by Maurice Cherry. There are enough links in there to keep you occupied for quite a while. 

The highlight of the evening for me was Baratunde Thurston and the demo of his app, Living While Black. The app generates headlines about white people calling the cops on black people, and asks the user to guess whether the headlines is real or not. Baratunde also talked a bit about the grammar and patterns of racism in our culture, which was fascinating. Glitch has a terrific interview with Baratunde over on their blog that I recommend you check out.

Another favorite from the evening was Janelle Shane‘s talk about training AI to generate knitting patterns, and then knitting those patterns to bring them into the physical world (here’s her post about it, including pictures!). Janelle also has some hilarious examples of using AI to create art over on her blog, which she shared with the room and told stories of how they came to be. Many of the talks centered around using code to create art, which was very inspiring for my own work

Imposter syndrome

Creatives are a highly dissatisfied bunch, often in no place more so than themselves and their own work. This is something that I have struggled with quite a bit in the past few years, and I’ve found solace knowing that others share in that struggle and that there is a wealth of experiences to learn from. No place is that more true than on the internet. 

The web is often where we’re confronted with our greatest feelings of inadequacy. Members of marginalized groups especially cannot exist online without being told that they’re not good enough (among other, more awful things). But there are other ways that our self confidence and value are eroded on the internet, and Helen Rosner told a wonderful story of her experience dealing with those situations. 

Another favorite of mine was Open Mike Eagle’s thoughts on this subject. He articulated how difficult it can be for a creator to communicate about their work and what it means to them:

Sometimes we need the reminder that imposter syndrome does not an imposter make. Our creative heroes face the same struggles, and they overcome it by being honest and open about their experiences. Sharing those feelings with another person (or in the case of XOXO, a couple of thousand people) is really something special. 

The inclusive web

Another theme that was woven throughout the festival was that the web should be place where all people are represented. The web is what we make of it, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that we have the power to shape the form of our medium.

In what may be my favorite talk of the entire weekend, Claire Evans spoke about the women who helped create the web as we know it, and how they have been pushed to the edges of history to make room for their male counterparts.  I was so inspired by the stories of early hypertext pioneers of whom Claire spoke, and so surprised to discover that their stories were unknown to me beforehand. 

Claire is the author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. I’ve since read her book and I can easily say that Broad Band is the best book I have read this year. I highly recommend picking it up.

Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk was cut from the same cloth as Claire’s. Jennifer is a journalist and emoji activist who is a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and founder of Emojination. She spoke about joining the subcommittee and advocating for more inclusive, diverse emoji to better represent the people who are using them to communicate. She also touches a bit on emoji as language and how we use them to communicate, which I thought was very fascinating. 

Portland

Hale Pele lived up to the hype as one of the best tiki bars in the country. Go with a group of friends and hang out for a few hours. 

If you like Chinese food (especially dumplings), check out Duck House. The pork wontons in chili oil were incredible 😍. Pok Pok‘s wings were as legendary as everyone had told me they would be. The northwest location was was less busy than the others.

Really, just stick to Neven’s recommendations and you won’t be disappointed. 

Until next time

XOXO succeeds because it defers to the experiences of its community. It invites a group of interesting people from the internet into a physical space to discuss, share, and question their work with other like-minded folks. XOXO isn’t one thing — it’s a lot of things that are constantly changing. I don’t expect next year’s festival to be anything like this year’s, and that’s why I am so excited to go back to Portland in 2019 to do it all again. 

The Andys have created an environment that reflects the experiences of those who occupy it. XOXO is fluid and changing because working on the internet requires us to constantly change the ways we think and interact with one another. We shape our online environment, and we shape XOXO too. 

I hope to see you there in 2019.  

Kent C. Dodds demoed a really neat trick to create a simple URL shortener using Netlify. He even created a package called netlify-shortener that makes it easier to automate the whole process. I recreated this setup and it works perfectly. Thanks Kent! Also, Netlify is probably my favorite tool out there right now; I can’t believe it’s free for most uses. 

Friends With Secrets is a new project from Akilah Hughes, Robyn Kanner, and Timothy Goodman:

Three friends with different backgrounds participated in online text therapy sessions from January to April 2018. Friends With Secrets captures a slice of their lives — the good, the bad, the heartbreaking — and how they try to process the world around them.

Each of the transcripts are honest, painful, and fascinating. It takes a lot of courage to be this vulnerable on the internet. Another thing I love about this — the project is an excellently crafted website. Hypertext is the perfect medium for an experience like this.

personalphoto

My first Midwest experience outside of Chicago. Devil’s Lake in the fall was magical.

Thanks to my friend Patrick, I had the opportunity to see Death Cab for Cutie in concert this week at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. The venue was absolutely gorgeous, so much that sitting up in the rafters was actually kind of nice.

Auditorium Theatre

The best part of the night, though, was the surprise performance of Transatlanticism, in its entirety, in honor of the album’s 15th anniversary. It was really a treat to get to experience such a unique show.

Making Computers Make Art

It seems as though everything I gravitate towards in life tends to be at an intersection of art and technology. I spend my days building tools for designers, and thinking about how we design things for people but with technology.

Perhaps the most straightforward example though is generative art, which seems to be gaining more and more interest in my corner of the internet. I think it’s because writing code and/or designing things is so often a means to an end for many of us. Our jobs expect creativity, but demand results.

I’ve found that exploring generative art has helped me maintain a creative outlet that exists purely in service of making something that delights me. Something like that is all too rare lately.

There have been quite a few excellent resources that have helped me jump into generative art that I would like to share both as a reference for myself, and as a way of lowering the barrier of entry for anyone else who wants to try their hand at creative coding.

Some History

Generative art as we know it came about in the 1960s and was directly linked to the rise of the computer industry. I love that for as long as computers have existed, there have been people who see their potential for art as well as science.

George Nees was one of the first to show off graphics made using computers, and worked on that he called “computer-scultpures” using tools like milling machines and plotters.

Generative art is distinguished from computer-generated art in that it is autonomous to some degree. A generative artist differs from a painter or sculptor in that they are not responsible for every decision that leads to the finished piece.

Instead, generative artists create systems that can make some of the decisions alone. The artists gives the direction, but allows the computer to steer the vehicle.

This leads to a certain serendipity in the finished product. Pieces can be different every time that you look at them, and in many cases will never output the exact same piece twice. The fleeting nature of the work is what appeals to many.

Perhaps the biggest pioneer of generative art is Vera Molnár, whose work in the space of computational art still holds up today, even though she was doing work with tools that were comparatively ancient to what we have at our disposal now. I strongly encourage you to browse through some of her pieces online.

In one of her most famous series, Structure de Quadrilateres, she takes a collection of rectangles and introduces randomness while somehow maintaining a natural rhythm:

quadrilate.jpg

If you would like to learn more about Vera Molnár and her works, I recommend reading this recent piece about her on Hyperallergic.

There are so many more amazing generative artists to learn about. For instance, Sonia Landy Sheridan founded a new department called Generative Systems in 1970 at the Art Institute of Chicago. She has a fantastic website where you can see some of her art and read more about the Generative Systems department.

Another piece I’d recommend is Jason Bailey’s post on Artnome titled Why Love Generative Art? It provides a brief history of generative art and the way that the practice has progressed since its inception.

I encourage you to take some time to appreciate and learn about the people who paved the way for generative art. It makes for an excellent opportunity to find some inspiration for your own work.

Practical Magic

Now that you know a bit of the history behind generative art, I’d suggest jumping in yourself by learning how to create something simple.

There are lots of technologies out there designed specifically for creative coding. Arguably the most famous of those are p5.js and Processing. I recommend starting with p5.js because it’s built on JavaScript — which a lot of folks already know — and it’s easy to get started using it right in the browser.

In fact, my favorite way to create generative art is in CodePen. You can easily add p5.js as a script in your pen, or you can use this template I created for quickly getting started with a new p5.js sketch.

No matter which tool you use, it shouldn’t be too hard to find resources for learning how to draw some basic shapes. One of my favorites is Daniel Shiffman’s video series on creative coding. Watching along and coding examples from a tutorial is a great way to learn. Daniel even has a video series that covers the foundations of JavaScript in the context of p5.js.

Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s important to start learning how to introduce autonomy into your pieces using loops and noise.

Tim Holman created one of my favorite resources out there for taking your art to the next level. Generative Artistry is a series of lessons describing fundamental concepts or recreating pieces that teach invaluable skills. I learned the basics of circle packing from the site, and that allowed me to make stuff like this:

circle-packed

I especially love that Tim breaks down how to recreate famous pieces from some of the people I mentioned earlier, like Vera Molnár and Georg Nees.

It’s also important to cultivate an environment of inspiration around generative art. I find that because the possibilities of autonomous art are so limitless, it helps me to take a piece that I like and use it as a starting point to riff on.

Daniel Eden’s gallery is excellent not only for the pieces themselves, but because Dan accompanies each with a description of the basic logic used to achieve the result. Recreating some of his pieces helped me learn techniques that I have made use of many times since. Dan also wrote a great piece on how he got started with generative design.

Another favorite of mine is Heydon Pickering’s mutable.gallery, which features sketches that can be re-generated to produce unending, unique permutations. I love how Heydon makes it so easy to share the piece that you generate, making each one feel more special somehow.

Finally, I suggest you follow Matt DesLauriers on Twitter and Instagram. Matt’s work is amazing, and he represents the community well by sharing his processes and learnings as he grows.


I love making generative art because its edges are blurry, and I can step off of them without worrying about technique or execution. Happy accidents are easy to make and often result in some of my favorite pieces.

Ultimately, generative art is about rolling with the punches and letting the medium itself influence the work. I think flexing those types of muscles has made me a better designer overall. Maybe it can do the same for you.

Very excited to be attending XOXO in Portland this September. If you’re going to be there, hit me up and let’s hang out. Find me @chase in the XOXO attendees Slack.

Mikhail Gündogdu attended a ton of design system conferences and collected all of the knowledge into a great piece.

I especially like what Diana Mounter has to say about feeling imposter syndrome with your design system compared to other companies’ systems:

That’s why Diana says you shouldn’t worry about comparing your design system to any other organization’s system, because thats not what proves its success. Instead, Diana says, push your design system out and analyze utilization to measure its success. Chaos will be a natural part of something so new to the practice as design systems, so focus on what matters and take advantage of the chaos. Are people using the design system in their workflow, and contributing back to it to make it better?

I can attest that comparing your design system to others out there is a fool’s errand. Companies are different, and so should be their systems.

Some prompted thoughts on design

Invision is writing a piece on the design team at Sprout Social, and they asked us to answer some questions about design and how we work at Sprout. I wanted to post my answers here as well since most of them probably won’t make it into the finished piece.


What’s your best advice for designers who are the only designer at the org, or even designers who can’t seem to get buy-in from executives?

The best way to get buy in is to give others no reason not to buy in. Do the due diligence of research, testing, and building before you go to bat for your ideas. Talk to people one-on-one and try to understand their hesitations to being on board with your idea. Once you know the problem, you can chase solutions.

Do other teams (like marketing, engineering, etc.) there use design thinking or any design methodologies/skills?

Every person at Sprout that touches any aspect of the product is a designer. Engineers think about how to design scalable systems so that they can realize new features. The education team designs resources and methods to teach users how to best take advantage of the product.

Our responsibility as designers is to realize that everyone here at the org designs in some way, and sometimes they need help in understanding the best way to design effectively to solve whatever problem they are tasked with. We can’t hold design as a practice hostage, as if it’s only for the select few. We need to give away our tools and knowledge so that everyone can get better.

How can we all give better design feedback?

When giving feedback, try as hard as you can not to be prescriptive about the solution. If you’re thinking in terms of the how, you might be missing important details in the why of the problem.

I like to try to create a common foundation for feedback by framing it in a standard way:

The objectives for a product are to…

1. Reach its goals…
2. For the given audiences (personas)…
3. By creating a design with the right behaviors and characteristics (principles)…
4. To produce the desired experience when used in the applicable contexts (scenarios)

Imagine you’re having a heart-to-heart with a young designer. Give her 5-10 pieces of your very best advice.

  1. Start your process with words. Design is about communication, and writing is the purest form of that.
  2. A picture says a thousand words. If you can create a great solution with writing, you’re on track to producing an even better visual design.
  3. Just as writers edit their words, go back and edit your designs. Remove unnecessary flourishes and distill the design into the purest form of itself.
  4. Understand that when you’re designing software, you can’t design an experience for a user because you can’t control the experience. A user’s experience is personal and specific to them and their environment. All you can do as a designer is architect solutions that will not disrupt a user’s experience.
  5. Show your designs to people who don’t know anything about the problem you are trying to solve. Make it clear for them.
  6. Don’t listen to me, I don’t know what I’m doing.

No Reservations

I don’t have the words to describe what we’ve lost in Anthony Bourdain. Instead, I thought I would share some things that I love about him. The first that comes to mind is his first visit to a Waffle House:

He had some beautiful words on Chicago, the city I love.

Eater also has a great write-up on Bourdain’s thoughts on Chicago.

And, of course, there’s the infamous New Yorker piece that led to Kitchen Confidential.

Anthony had a way of writing that was simultaneously eloquent and effective while avoiding snobbery and pretense.

He used his influence and stature for good, and ultimately that’s what I will remember the most about him. R.I.P.

Emoji and Markdown make for a pretty good storyboarding tool.

Exploring Seattle

I am lucky enough to work at a company that has a Seattle office, and that I have a good reason to visit regularly. A few coworkers and I went out there the week of May 6, and this happened to be my first visit to the Pacific Northwest.

We were greeted with beautiful weather during our trip, with temperatures in the high 60s/low 70s. Check out these mountains I captured during our descent into SeaTac:

The weather was so nice that we decided to join a coworker in a nearby park for a few beers and some frisbee fun. Spring had recently sprung, and everything was so green. It was a nice departure from Chicago, which was just on the edge of spring.

The Sprout office in Seattle is right on the water, a block or two north of Pike’s Place. Our hotel was in such a location that we had to walk through the market every morning on the way into the office. The market early in the morning was full of great smells and vibrant colors.

Our hotel had an amazing rooftop bar that offered some of the best views of the whole trip.

A major highlight of the trip was getting to spend some time with the devices design team at Amazon HQ. We got to talk shop with some talented folks, and also tour the beautiful Amazon spheres and offices. Look at those views!

Seattle is a wonderful city, and I can’t wait to return. Hopefully next time I can get out of the city a bit to do some hiking.

Panic has published their annual report for 2017 and it’s full of great stories and details about the app business. Highlights are a new Coda, and a mysterious game 👀

Personal Finance Perfection

My bank of choice is Simple. They’re online only, care about design, and make it easy to manage money by building saving & analysis tools on top of the bank itself (instead of a third party tool that connects to a bank).

Up until this week, saving money with Simple was pretty good. Their goals feature makes it easy to bucket money into categories. My process for managing money with Simple was something like this:

  1. At the beginning of the month, move money from my “safe-to-spend” bucket to various goals. Things like rent, groceries, entertainment, car payment, etc.
  2. Whenever I spend money, use Simple’s “spend from goal” feature to spend it from the appropriate goal.
  3. At the end of the month, whatever is leftover in my goals is mine to keep. I move it to a savings goal and replenish each goal with my monthly allowance for that category.

This worked pretty well. The main annoyances I had with this were that every month I had to manually refill the goals with the correct amount (after first emptying the leftovers into savings), and I had to manually set transactions to spend from certain goals.

Lucky for me, the Simple team addressed these exact frustrations this week with the launch of two features called Funding Schedules and Auto-Spend.

Funding Schedules allow you to automatically move money into goals on certain dates/frequencies.

Auto Spend lets you associate transaction categories with goals, so that transactions in certain categories always spend from a particular goal. They also added the ability for transactions to “remember” what category they are in and automatically categorize themselves in the future.

These features change the game for me.

Now, my process (after some initial setup) looks more like this:

  1. If Simple doesn’t categorize a transaction correctly, fix the category. I only ever have to do this once since Simple remembers my selection in the future.
  2. At the end of the month, move the leftover money in my goals to my savings goal.

Boom. Simple takes care of the rest.

As far as setup goes, it’s as simple (ha ha) as creating your goals and setting a funding schedule that fits. I like to do my finances monthly, so I set mine up to automatically refill on the first of every month. Simple gives you the flexibility to choose whatever dates/frequencies you like.

Next, you choose which categories go along with which goal. My “Groceries/Food” goal is associated with categories like grocery stores, restaurants, and convenience stores. Whenever I spend money at one of those places, Simple removes it from my goal instead of my safe-to-spend balance.

Now, my personal finance is completely automated. I can set my budget and forget it (aside from the occasional incorrect categorization, which is easy enough to fix). If you use an envelope-style budget, you know that the worst part is maintaining your system manually. With these new features I no longer have to do that, which encourages me to stick to my budget instead of ignoring it because it’s a pain to manage.

With these new features, I can’t recommend Simple enough. They had a period of moving very slowly with new features, but lately they have been knocking out of the park with shared accounts, paper checks, and these new goal features.

Sign up for an account with this link (it’s free) and we will both get $20.

✨ A T L A N T A • S2E6 ✨

Probably the best piece of television I have seen in the past 12 months. Came out of left field and was more successful than most movies that attempt it. Atlanta is a masterpiece.

Designing Proactively

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to be proactive in the practice of design. It seems as if this is more relevant today than ever, with the increasing responsibility of designers to make things that won’t harm people or their minds.

What is proactive work? Depends on your job.

For a chef, it may mean sourcing local ingredients before writing the menu.

A record producer may seek out up-and-coming talents to anticipate trends.

Photographers often shoot photos already knowing which edits they will apply later.

When good programmers write code they also anticipate change, so they make it as extensible and flexible as possible.

Architects never start designing a structure without understanding its location, purpose, and inhabitants.

So, what does it mean to do proactive work as a designer?

Just like a chef, we have to source ingredients (knowledge and context) before designing a product. We have to anticipate trends in the industry and know when to follow them, and maybe more importantly, when not to follow them. We have to prepare for how our designs will change with future requirements and when real users interact with them. We have to design responsibly, considering edge cases and social impact. And of course, to design well, we need to be informed about the contexts in which our work will be used.

In short, proactive design is design that takes its time to prepare for the side effects of real life.

That form you designed may not work on mobile browsers. That new feature you built might increase profit, but does it harm your user’s quality of life? Does your design system scale when you add a new feature to your product?

Designing proactively takes time, attention, and having the power to say no (or maybe “not yet”) to certain stakeholders. And if you’re not being proactive, you may not be doing your due diligence as a designer.

A question for my JavaScript people: what is the JS equivalent of Swift’s optional chaining? E.g., execute method foo on bar iff bar exists. Hate having to check if something exists before I try to access it.

John Adams on our duty to future generations

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams

Frank Chimero has published a new essay about the pains of working on the web. I especially liked this sentiment:

I wonder if I have twenty years of experience making websites, or if it is really five years of experience, repeated four times.

Please do read the whole piece.

Stream of consciousness thoughts on styling components

(useful) useless knowledgedesigndesign systemsramblings

Orphaned CSS. What happens when you delete an element or class? Post-compile auditing? Nah. Can you really trigger every possible state reliably?

CSS only makes sense for apps if one person is writing it responsibly.

Take the decisions away from everyone because it’s shitty to hold everyone accountable for changes they make in a global namespace.

Why should we conditionally add a class that styles the thing rather than just conditionally styling the thing itself?

Styles-in-JS aren’t the thing — they’re the thing that gets us to the thing

When dealing with complexity in software development, a lot of the headache comes from managing state.

In the simplest abstraction, an application is a function that maintains state, and performs some action on or with that state to produce an output.

That state could be a lot of different, hard to predict, things: user input, time/date, external APIs, databases, etc. I will leave the problem of application state to smarter people than me. I want to focus on component state.

How can we simplify state management in our application by simplifying it in each component?

Every component is like an extremely small application. In most cases, we give components some data and they perform actions that produce a visual output. Components may be interactive, and receive new state over time. They may also access external state like a database or API. For my purposes, let’s just say that a component follows this formula:

state + internal logic = output

The internal logic bit is the interesting part to me, and is where the styling of a component is handled. With existing patterns, the component uses the input state to identify itself to our CSS, which then applies styles. This means that the component creates its own, internal state. I want to argue that this is an anti-pattern that we should avoid.

The more state an application has, the harder it is to reason about the logic of that application. The same applies to components.

State is challenging because we have to 1) manage the state, 2) track the state as it flows through its domain, 3) give access to state appropriately, and 4) ensure the integrity of state.

Right now, we don’t style our components. We apply styles to descriptors that we then apply to our components. This changes our original component formula to this:

state + internal logic + styles = output

What if instead of separating our state into two layers to produce our output, we just styled the thing itself. Then we would have a 1:1 mapping of state to styles. It would improve every aspect of state maintenance:

  1. State would no longer have to be managed in two places to produce a styled output
  2. State would not need to be tracked between our components and their stylesheets (which is an inherently manual process)
  3. Every component would only have access to its own state, and would not be able to affect the state of any other component (CSS is global and mutable)
  4. Because state would not be duplicated, maintaining its integrity would be that much easier

When we choose not to split a component’s state to apply styles, we treat each component like a pure function:

A pure function is a function where the return value is only determined by its input values, without observable side effects.

No side effects. No maintaining explicit relationships between components and their styles by means of selectors. A component’s output would be 100% determined by its input, and could not be affected by global styles or incorrect mapping between state and styles.

No more of this:

if state.type == primary, then className = “Primary”

.Primary {
  color: blue;
}

This is bad because what if we get rid of the type state? Who will make sure that the .Primary class gets deleted? Or what if something else defined styles for the .Primary class? Which one wins? Why should we have to keep track of what the .Primary class looks like rather than just looking at the description of our component?

Instead we should write this:

if state.type == primary, then color = blue

Style the thing, not a description of the thing.

lyricsmusic

there’s a scratch on your shoulder
it crushes me like lead