Open Source Design

This upcoming weekend, I’m presenting at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco on The Untold Struggles of Open Source Design. My presentation is based on my experiences as a designer and contributor to WordPress, and goes into issues around attracting and retaining designers, process, and leadership.

As I work on my presentation, I’m realizing more and more the need to cross-pollinate with other open source communities. WordPress is an older community, but we’ve seen a lot of turnover in the past twelve years. Some of our habits are engrained based on our long history. There’s a lot we can learn, both from more well-established projects and from newer projects.

So, consider this my public commitment to learn from and share more with other open source design communities. I’ve started by asking around about what communities currently exist. I’ve received a number of replies I hope to look more into:

If you’re a design contributor to another open source project, let’s chat.

The Social Internet

Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

— Hossein Derakhshan, Social Media Is Killing Discourse Because It’s Too Much Like TV

While I pulled out this specific quote about writing and typography referencing Neil Postman’s work because it resonated with me as a designer and someone who blogs, Derakhshan’s entire piece is a valuable critique of social media and the current state of the internet.

Derakhshan’s online activism and his blog landed him in an Iranian prison for six years. A notable early blogger, he found the internet after his release a radically different place from the internet he knew before incarceration. He wrote about this (ironically) on Medium in 2014. I remember reading his post then and finding myself tentatively nodding along with with a lot of what he wrote. I’ve just reread it and I find it all the more relevant in a post-2016-election America. Take, for example:

“Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.”

Reading that reminds me of the Verge’s recent article, “Facebook and Google make lies as pretty as truth.” All embedded content, for good and increasingly for ill, is treated with the same amount of weight. It’s easy to game. It’s becoming increasingly harder to tell truth from lies, high from low quality, and ads from, for a lack of better words, real content. This is a design problem that as an industry we need to be cognizant of. We need to work towards some sort of solution.

Reading both of these pieces again, it also reinforces the importance of owning your own content. Just look at Vine. As our freedoms start to wane, the open web becomes all the more important. Start your own blog rather than relying solely on someone else’s platform. Backup regularly. Write frequently.

I’ll try to write more this year as well.

H/T John Maeda for sharing.

Behind the Scenes of Twenty Seventeen

It’s a wrap! After months of work and over 100 individual contributors, Twenty Seventeen, the new default theme for WordPress, shipped yesterday in WordPress 4.7 “Vaughan”:

WordPress 4.7 “Vaughan”

Twenty Seventeen was the first default WordPress theme I’ve had the pleasure of working on. I wanted to talk a little bit about the design and history of theme, and how we got to where it is now.

The design that would eventually become Twenty Seventeen went through a couple iterations. At its earliest, it was a one-page restaurant theme that we didn’t feel comfortable tackling yet at Automattic. Once we figured out a good way to do multi-page homepages, I brought it back up and it was suggested I turn it into a business theme. This theme would eventually become Lodestar, a yet-to-be-launched theme on

Another couple rounds of iteration to introduce a more interesting grid, sharper typographic system, and the idea of video headers brought us to where Twenty Seventeen is today.

The coolest part of Twenty Seventeen wasn’t just watching it come to life, it was also watching it work with WordPress core to introduce new features: video headers, starter content, and even edit shortcuts (another feature I worked on alongside the Customizer team). The theme worked well with the release, which was centered around the idea of “your site, your way.” 4.7 is one of the most exciting releases yet, and I’m happy Twenty Seventeen contributed to that.

Of course, any good default theme also needs a strong team behind it. Working with Laurel Fulford and David Kennedy on the theme has been an absolute pleasure. Laurel coded my designs with accuracy and precision, and was ever patient and gracious in the face of my nitpicking. DK kept us on-track, and made the hard decisions that led us to success. You can read his writeup here:

Dear Twenty Seventeen Contributors

I’m thankful for all 103 contributors who helped create Twenty Seventeen:

aaroncampbell, acmethemes, adammacias, afercia, ahortin, akshayvinchurkar, alex27, allancole, anilbasnet, b-07, binarymoon, bradyvercher, brainstormforce, caspie, celloexpressions, claudiosanches, clorith, davidakennedydavidmosterd, delawski, dimadin, dineshc, doughamlin, electricfeet, enodekciw, fencer04, for, grapplerulrich, hardeepasrani, helen, hiddenpearls, idealien, imnok, implenton, implenton, initial, iv, joefusco, joemcgill, johnpgreen, jordesign, joshcummingsdesign, joyously, juanfra, karmatosed, laurelfulford, leobaiano, littlebigthing, lukecavanagh, mageshp, mahesh901122, manishsongirkar36, mapk, mattwiebe, mbelchev, metodiew, mor10, mrahmadawais, netweb, nikschavan, nnaimov, noplanman, nukaga, ocean90, odysseygate, patch, patilvikasj, peterwilsoncc, pratikchaskar, pressionate, presskopp, rabmalin, ranh, rianrietveld, ryelle, sami, samikeijonen, sandesh055, sgr33n, sirbrillig, sixhours, smyoon315, snacking, soean, sstoqnov, swapnilld, swisspidy, swissspidy, taggon, tg29359, themeshaper, transl8or, tsl143, tywayne, valeriutihai, voldemortensen, vrundakansara, westonruter, williampatton, yoavf, yogasukma, and zodiac1978.

All you folks were a pleasure to work with. We made a pretty dang nice default theme, if I do say so myself.


It’s taken me a while and a lot of thought, but I’m finally throwing the switch and removing comments from my blog for good.

Goodbye to Comments – Ryan Markel

My colleague Ryan Markel offers insights into why he’s removing comments from his blog. I agree with his reasoning, and to be honest, I’ve considered doing the same for my blogs — but receiving comments on my blog itself is rare enough that I’ve never bothered. If anything, most of my engagement happens through Facebook or Twitter.

Maybe I’ll also turn off comments when I eventually launch the site redesign I’ve been working on. Who knows?

Design Feedback

As some of you probably know, I’m a design contributor for WordPress. Lately, I’ve been working on Twenty Seventeen, the latest default theme. It’ll be released this December with WordPress 4.7.

A topic I wanted to bring up early in the public process for making Twenty Seventeen was design feedback. Designers, either through art school (which I didn’t go to), or working with other designers on teams, or even open source contributing, need to learn how to give and receive feedback. Most other people don’t have to learn this skill to succeed at their jobs. However, anyone can learn how to give good design feedback, even if you aren’t a designer. In fact, I believe it’s a good skill for anyone working in product design to learn. If you’re an agency designer, it’s also a good skill to teach your clients.

Here’s how I think good design feedback should be structured:

  • Empathize. Remember that behind every design is a person. If you wouldn’t say it to this person’s face, don’t say it on the internet.
  • Start with “I think…” and finish with “because…”.
  • Comment on particular elements that don’t work in the design, like the typography, colors, hierarchy, and composition. Try to be as specific as possible.
  • Stick to goal-oriented feedback: “This theme can become a better default theme for more users if it did [x], [y], and [z].”
  • Frame feedback as suggestions, not mandates. “What if you…” and “How about if you tried…” are great ways to present alternate ideas to a designer.

Twenty Seventeen’s been going swell and we’ve had a lot of great contributions and feedback from the community. Thanks to everyone who’s left a comment, or made a GitHub issue, and helped keep the process positive. :)

Attending CSSConf

Earlier this week I attended CSSConf in Boston, the city where I conveniently happen to live. :)

This was my first CSSConf, and it had a very different vibe than the other conferences I’ve attended lately. Unlike An Event Apart, it was a smaller, intimate conference — but unlike a WordCamp, it focused with just one track both days. In general, I’m a big fan of one-track conferences. They feel more curated and eliminate the need to debate between different talks or speakers.

Throughout the conference, there was some division amongst speakers about the nature of CSS, which I feel like narrows down into “fuck the cascade” / “embrace the cascade,” with programmers on one side and front-end devs on the other. As a designer, I find myself in the embrace camp.

Some of my favorite talks of the conference were Will Boyd’s Silky Smooth Animation with CSS, Sara Soueidan’s SVG IRL (which ended up being more along the lines of “embrace hacks when you have to,” with lots of different tips and tricks from a recent project she’s been working on), Justin McDowell’s Bauhaus in the Browser (my top fave!), and Alisha Ramos’ Coding is a Privilege.

The videos are already starting to go up online:

Thanks to all the organizers and speakers for a great conference!

Say Hello to Twenty Seventeen ??

It’s that time again: time to build a new default theme for WordPress! WordPress 4.7 will launch with a brand new theme – Twenty Seventeen. Designed by Mel Choyce (@melchoyce), Twenty Seventeen sports a modern look and will make a good base for any business website or product showcase.

— Say Hello to Twenty Seventeen ?? – Make WordPress Core

More to come at the end of the cycle, where I’ll talk about the whole process behind the theme, but for now I wanted to announce that I’m working on Twenty Seventeen, next year’s default WordPress theme. ?

Check out the post for more details, and key an eye out for my full write-up once WordPress 4.7 is released later this year!

Designers and Chefs

“Rules? There are no rules. Do whatever you want.”

— Grant Achatz, A Chef’s Table (2×01)

In a recent newsletter, Tobias van Schneider talked about his fascination with chefs. While designers get pushed towards management as their careers progress, chefs continue cooking. They don’t put down their knives when they run a restaurant; they continue to create and innovate and push boundaries. It’s something many designers aspire to, but rarely accomplish.

I’m also fascinated and inspired by chefs. I love food and I love eating. I love cooking, too, though my skills there are average. When I watch documentaries about chefs (I’ve recently been enjoying season 2 of Chef’s Table) I see a lot of parallels between cooking and designing. Maybe it’s because both are “craft” fields. We’re both creative; we both make. When I listen to Grant Achatz, Dan Barber, Ed Lee, and April Bloomfield talk about cooking, I’m reminded of designers in similar positions: Eric Meyer, Frank Chimero, John Maeda… I see in them a kind of creative thinking I aspire to achieve. Their journeys resonate.

People have been cooking for the whole of human history. Somehow, we’re still discovering new flavor combinations, new dishes, new techniques for cooking. There’s always more room for experimentation and innovation.

Web design has been around for what — 25 years? It’s younger than I am (what a weird thought). It builds upon a hundred years of graphic design, hundreds more years of printing, but as a whole feels like a young field. (Maybe that’s just my inadequate grasp on art history. Guess I should have taken a class in college.) Our medium is always evolving. What I’m designing now might not even be relevant in a couple years, when we move on to new interfaces. Digital design is a moving target, and that makes it super exciting.

Bias in Design

Designers can get lost thinking ‘this is what I would do in this situation.’ But we are biased and need to always open ourselves to other perspectives in order to do our best work.

Designing Gaming for Everyone

Great article on how Microsoft is working to make gaming more accessible. I especially love that they brought in gamers with various degrees of hearing and verbal abilities as subject matter experts.

As designers, we should always be challenging our own biases and assumptions. That means testing our products with the people who will be using them, gathering feedback, and constantly iterating. That means listening, first and foremost.

h/t Kelly for sharing.