Shared Language – the Key to the Kingdom

‘I like it’, or more often; ‘I don’t like it’ – we hear these two phrases more than any others when we’re presenting solutions / proposals / ideas to colleagues, clients, and managers. But what does it mean? Even the famously creative and design-literate Steve Jobs was renowned for saying ‘I know it when I see it’ when faced with product options – an equivalent and equally unhelpful response to ‘I don’t like it’, or as Jobs was more fond of saying ‘It’s shit.’

The Beyond Tellerand Conference ran on the 21st & 22nd November – a gathering of web designers, developers, information architects, writers for the web (and the occasional project manager) in Dusseldorf. A succession of creative, thought provoking, entertaining and occasionally inspirational people took the stage over twelve sessions to talk about how to make the web better, with subjects ranging from the technical (live coding demos of animations in JavaScript, and the pros and cons of different mobile phone emulators) to the inspirational (The Invisible Side of Design, design as a craft) via the useful (Progressive Enhancement, Creating Dashboards & Data Visualisations that Resonate, Hands On CSS and HTML).

Watching (frequently German) people speak eloquently in English to a primarily German audience, and thinking about my own paltry grasp of the German tongue, I was struck by the similarities in learning the languages of other countries, and of learning the language of a new discipline; like web design, or coding in JavaScript.

Over dinner with German friends, we talked as we often do about language, and I made the point that while I could understand a reasonable number of German words, I struggled to put them together into sentences and phrases – to understand the context of the words, and so their meaning – although its always easier to make sense of an unfamiliar language, or concept when you’re listening rather than talking. As the old saying would have it – there’s nothing like teaching a subject to get you to learn it.

Blanket statements are easy, but they’re also meaningless without context. Why do you like it? Why do you love it? What is it that you find boring / offensive / different to your expectation?

In learning the language of a discipline: the language of web design – the vocab may be familiar: the elements of HTML5, and CSS3, the basics of typeface and layout, and what constitutes a clean simple design (good), and a busy cluttered design (bad). But in the hands (and from the mouths) of accomplished proponents in these dark arts, the terminology takes on a new level of significance – the relationships between them become clearer, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acquires meaning, borne of a progressively deeper understanding, through progressively more meaningful conversations with people who know more.

My understanding of the language of web design has taken a solid step forward thanks to all those who contributed at Beyond Tellerand.

I liked it.