What My Old Design Projects Have Taught Me

If you take a look back through your portfolio, what do you see? Maybe it brings back memories of a certain challenge you faced or a really difficult client. Perhaps you cringe at the sight of a dated look or now-extinct technology. I hear you.

Over the past couple of decades, my career has had its share of hits and misses. And, for the longest time, I was really embarrassed when looking through some of my older projects. But time brings perspective and you start to see things in a different light.

Because, regardless of how a particular project turned out at the time, it was a learning experience nonetheless. As I think back to the variety of sites I’ve built, I wanted to share some of the most important lessons that came from them.

So, in no particular order, here are some valuable things I’ve learned from past projects.

Code Can Be More Resilient Than You Think

In the past few years, I’ve found myself retrofitting some older websites for responsiveness. These sites were built in the days before smartphones really changed the world, and it was important that they at least looked and functioned well on small screens.

What I discovered is that, in most cases, this wasn’t terribly hard to do. I had a range of different sites to retrofit, as well. Everything from early experiments in WordPress to table-based static HTML. While the table layouts were generally the most time-consuming, I was amazed at how well I was able to convert them to CSS within just a few hours. And the CSS-based layouts were even easier to deal with.

To me, this demonstrates that HTML and CSS are quite resilient and much of what an old site has can be salvaged in these types of situations. That’s not to say everything is semantically perfect, but you can indeed squeeze some more life out of an old site.

Typography Isn’t an Afterthought

At one time, the web was severely limited when it came to fonts. That may be one of the biggest evolutionary changes over the past 20 years. But I’m not sure that any amount of cool fonts could have saved me from my previous poor decisions with typography.

For instance, I was obsessed with small type. I’ve found a number of old projects where the font size was set incredibly low, and the leading forced lines to be virtually squished together. As you may have guessed, the result was content that was very difficult to read.

As for why I did this, I have a theory. I know that, at the time, small text was seen as more visually-appealing. Display technology wasn’t very good in those pre-Retina days, and fonts often looked jagged at larger sizes. Tiny text was one way to combat that effect. It was as if the look of the text was more important than what it was actually trying to say.

Since then, it’s become clear that type is meant for way more than looking pretty. If it’s not readable, it’s not accessible.

Creativity Can (Still) Solve Problems

The various hacks I used to put a site together is almost hilarious to think about now. And I know that I wasn’t alone in implementing them.

Workarounds like slicing up large images (and putting them into a complex table layout, no less), adding various code for compatibility with older versions of Internet Explorer, and all manner of vendor prefixes were like virtual duct tape. They held everything together, tenuous as it all was.

While the practice itself wasn’t necessarily great, it was done for a noble cause. The goal was to make a site work for the widest range of users possible. And that’s still true today.

And, even though the concept of “hacks” is no longer in fashion, the creative energy behind them certainly is. The big difference is that we have the tools to solve design challenges in a more appropriate way. Now, creative use of those tools can get us past just about any obstacle.

For Best Results, Clients Require Guidance

This was one of my hardest-learned lessons. As a young designer, meeting with clients was essentially like taking an order. I wrote down what they wanted and did my best to deliver.

While you can certainly get by with that strategy for a little while, it’s not so great in the long term. Web projects don’t turn out so well without a carefully-crafted plan. And it’s nearly impossible to do that when the people making the decisions don’t have the information they need.

That’s actually a big part of a professional web designer’s job, even though we don’t always talk about it. We’re the experts hired to ensure that a website is attractive, functional and accessible. But if we stay silent in those client discussions, the end result won’t be up to par. Nobody wins in that situation.

These days, I’m not afraid to offer up an honest assessment of a client’s ideas and try to help them find the best path forward. It’s usually well-received and appreciated. And the outcomes are much better, to boot. It becomes obvious as I look at more recent projects as opposed to those built when I was but a youngster.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change for the Better

For me, change has always been the monster hiding underneath my bed – ready to strike the minute I’m comfortable with a process or technology. Early on in my career, I spent an unhealthy amount of time fearing and resisting changes to how I got things done.

I was terrified of CSS layouts. The thought of using a database made me break into a cold sweat. Writing PHP? Forget about it.

But a look over my portfolio proves that my fears were unfounded. I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest anything. But I did find a way to evolve over time. Back in 1995, I started hand-writing HTML in a text editor. And, somehow, all these years later, I’ve managed to learn new skills and (for the most part) stay with the times.

Sure, change still sends a little shock to my system (I’m looking at you, JavaScript). Yet, I’m much more confident in my ability to adapt. Why? Because I’ve done it before.

Revisit Your Rise

Love them or not, your old projects are there for a reason. Sure, maybe they don’t look or function quite as well as that fancy new thing you just released. But there are still some valuable lessons to be learned from them.

For this reason, I’d highly recommend taking a look through your archives. Not only can you gain some insight into your evolution as a designer, but you can also see how you’ve already put those lessons to good use.

In fact, you may not realize just how far you’ve come until you revisit the past.

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