Esther Lee

Musings of a designer & would-be writer

As much as I love to design, sketch and doodle, I really enjoy writing. I have Nuclear Briefcase on the Ghost blogging platform plus articles on LinkedIn Publishing — but least all this writing keeping me from making mischief & mayhem.

If someone else builds it, they will come…


Forget about the soup. Forget about the nuts.

For years I insisted on creating my own online portfolio site from scratch. I'm proud, stubborn and yes, a little arrogant in that way. My digital coming-of-age had nothing to do with social media or web 2.0 anything, and everything to do with self-taught, blood-sweat-and-tears (and no small amount of @#$%&*?! hair pulling) hard coding. This will sound super cheesy, but (said as if spoken to a 30-something Millennial) when I was your age, there was no Facebook, no Google, no SnapChat or Instagram, and definitely no sign of a chirp, much less a Twitter.

It's laughable to think that not long ago, we were stumbling around on Lycos and AOL via Netscape Navigator (!), fiddling with framesets, oohing and aaahing over GIFs (which funnily enough have made a huge comeback with social media). GIF with a hard G as in graphics and not the G in giraffe, because GIF = Graphics Interchange Format. Sorry I had to interject that pet pronunciation peeve of mine in there. Adobe's Flash was The Next Big Thing, and everyone was Actionscripting like there was no tomorrow. Except that there was to be no tomorrow for Flash, as Adobe finally announced (well, again, after Steve Jobs declared it a goner in 2010) that they would pull the plug and stop Flash Player support and distribution as of 2020.

Listen, I was just as hooked on Flash as anyone with a penchant for both graphic design and coding could be at the time. I loved the clean vector-based lines and shapes and the über-smooth transitions and the integration of timeline-based animations. Fast-forward to five years ago (give or take one or two) and the democratization of the internet. Enter the Conquering Open-Source Code, or what we refer to as modernized web design standards: HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, jQuery. I quickly switched gears and taught myself how to program interactivity starting with jQuery, and then as Microsoft improved browser compatibility (seriously, it was about time!), leveled up to creating advanced animations and transitions using CSS3.

Given all that a front-end developer has to know how to do, including having an "eye for design" I was pretty darn smug and pleased as punch that I could create a loverly and fully functional multi-page website from soup to nuts in a matter of days. But as the years dragged on and technology began to outpace our capacity to absorb the constant changes and demands, I realized that I was just being really silly about doing it all by myself.

So what if I could start with nothing more than a blank white screen with a blinking cursor and turn it (with the help of the almighty internet, of course) into a bona fide web page? So what if I could write code without needing WYSIWYG software? Big freakin' deal. It was literally killing me. I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. I'm not sure who to sue for the permanent hunch in my back from years of sitting in front of a computer 12-16 hours a day.

Look, Ma—no code!

Even then, there was a veritable smorgasbord of online DIY so that everyone and their grandmother could have a personal site, starting with boilerplate front-end frameworks such as Foundation and Bootstrap and content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress and Drupal and Joomla. But these required more than a passing knowledge of PHP and were notoriously complex even for developers to customize and maintain.

Nowadays there are premium WYSIWYG site builders like — er, ahem (cough) — SquareSpace. There's Wix and Weebly and Voog and Strikingly and the list goes on and on and on and on (it really does). Unlike the days of yore, you no longer needed to set up a virtual server "tunnel" on which to run and sandbox your site while you were building it. You no longer needed to link to or download and then update jQuery libraries, or hunt through hundreds of lines of code if your website "broke" and the mistake could be anything (anything, I say, including a single misplaced semicolon), or push and pull code snippets to and from GitHub or CodePen.

So I finally decided it's time. It's time to tear down my old site ("old" meaning 5 years, which is practically ancient by today's fast-paced standards) and opt for one that's built with SquareSpace. I felt sad and relieved at the same time. It's as though you've been living for years and years and years in a tiny old house which you lovingly built brick by brick with blood, sweat and tears. And then you look around and notice that all your neighbors have shiny new prefab modern condos — complete with building maintenance, parking, housekeeping, laundry on the premises, and even optional daycare. And your house has gotten drafty, the roof keeps leaking, and the plumbing is going bye-bye.

The downside to this is what it's always been: Customization. Interestingly, this very notion of tweaking the look and feel of your site so that it doesn't look like everyone else's is being overtaken by the trend of minimalism. Tons of negative space. Slab-serif or sans serif fonts up the whazoo. Colors and lines and shapes are flat, solid and sparse. Flashy (pun intended) animations have become subsumed by transitions — subtle, simple dynamics to tip the user off that they've hovered over a link or clicked on a button. It makes the shift from building-with-bare-hands to moving-into-a-furnished-condo that much easier. Unfortunately, you're still dealing with a structure that someone else built and painted and kinda sorta decorated. And some of those things simply can't be altered without a world of pain.

Nonetheless, it feels good to be leaving that old tiny house that I built. It feels good to be leaving the really big stuff — the leaks, the plumbing, the electric wiring, the gas lines — in someone else's capable hands. I don't have to fret and have panic attacks over whether or not my new code snippet will play nice with my old jQuery library. I don't have to wring my hands over setting up media queries for breakpoints and worrying about whether or not things will look the same across three browsers and half a dozen mobile devices.

As a wise person once said, "You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to build a better mousetrap."

I'd like to add that now, you don't even have to build a better mousetrap if you can find someone else to build it for you.