Discipline

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This past week I’ve been spelunking into the cavernous maw of our CSS as I refactor our codebase to be more resilient, predictable, legible. And in between these lines of code, the tens of thousands that make up our application, I can still see my mentor Dora Chan down here even a year after she left my team.

And I’m glad I still see her down here, because at these depths you need every friend you can get.

I see her in the classnames and abbreviations, the terseness of the documentation, the way things click-clack together effortlessly, automatically, as if we’re still hacking away together and she’s sat right next to me explaining each and every line.

My mentor is perhaps the most blunt person I’ve ever met and the code she left behind is so very much like her.

Here is the secret of design that only the best recognize: every interface is an argument. And oh boy did my mentor know how to argue. Although I mean that in the classical sense of debate and rhetoric – the bettering of oneself through analysis, through friction, and intellectual conflict yada yada. After more than a year her code is still challenging me though, pushing me to try harder, to focus, to not shy away from hard problems or hesitate, but persevere instead.

That’s what I admire most about my old mentor; her discipline. It was unwavering and absolute. When she focused on a problem it was like watching a giant laser blow a planet into a million tiny pieces, tearing asunder the oceans from the earth. It was both impressive and frightening at the same time and to this day I still fear that giant laser turning on me.

I notice her discipline in the code, in the interfaces she built. The code isn’t ever trying to be smart, it’s never trying to show off. This kind of code and design requires something much more beyond CSS trickery, nice typefaces, and gradients though. It requires turning up every day and focusing intently on a thing, shaving pieces off the problem diligently in the hope that something wonderful can be carved out of it all.

In one of my favorite novels Close to the Machine, Ellen Ullman writes about this quality of discipline and how she aspires to work. Sadly I can’t find the quote since it appears that a thief has nicked my copy – but! – I remember that Ellen wrote about watching her father as a young child and how he worked at his desk late into the night. He would be entirely focused on the work at hand, transported to some other realm in the process, and she describes that it’s this state of intense focus that she aspires to every day.

For me though, that aspiration of discipline comes from type designers.

This is going to sound very strange but this is the reason why I packed up my life and moved to Reading, a city just outside London, to study at the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. I had the rarest of opportunities to sneak into their world for a moment and watch type designers from a distance. I could learn how they do it – how they have such unwavering, other-worldly patience for making such beautiful things.

I wanted to learn how to work like they do. How to sweat the details. How to care that much about the work until this one letter on a screen – this one, tiny pixel – consumes your entire day and then your week and then your month.

Take this post by Jesse Ragan as one small example: you can see it in the proofs for the type family Study that there’s this intense attention to detail. You can see that type designers are like archivists or librarians – their attention is unshakeable:

I love posts like this where it’s clear that the writer is obsessed with a topic and just can’t shake off the idea no matter how stubborn that might be. But that stubbornness, with a little discipline, might soon pay off as Jesse shows with the completed Study family:

I would make sure to check out that microsite as well as the italic in the specimen PDF. I particularly like the lowercase f as it has a tiny foot that points in the opposite direction:

Despite looking at a bunch of neat type specimens, yesterday was certainly a tough day though. I had to haul myself out of the codebase to take some time off for the Christmas break. I had to go about realigning my senses for the above-ground world where people breathe oxygen and the CSS language isn’t the most important thing in the universe.

But I want to return to it all—that codebase I mean—desperately. I want to see my friend again down in those depths one last time. I want to see her work, appreciate every line of it, and follow the beacons she set down for me. Because there’s still so much work left to do, and I have so much left to learn.