We catch up with designer Jon Tan, who will make a welcome return to the stage at Pixel Pioneers Bristol next month, to discuss durable, inclusive, and aesthetic design, running co-working studio Mild Bunch, and more
It's good to have you back, Jon. You've been a bit quiet. What have you been up to?
Thanks! The truth is, a few years go I got pretty sick, but the world keeps turning regardless, so I took a personal decision to try and focus on what was important: Being well, looking after my sons, and maintaining my design practice as far as possible. That meant some things had to go by the by, and one of them was speaking engagements and the travel that goes along with them. The other was writing and publishing.
In the meantime my studio, Mild Bunch, has still been running, Fontdeck was still serving millions of font instances until not so long back, and I've still been helping clients, and doing occasional short bits of writing like a recent article for TYPE magazine. There’s also been a few community things with friends over the last few years, such as crowd funding over a quarter of a million pounds in three days to buy an ex-squat to put into use for local folks, and work with a local homeless charity.
What excites and annoys you most about design these days?
The good bits are constant: Being able to help, solve problems, make the most of opportunities, and take chances. Then it’s the details, the joy in the details, and typefaces of course — to me one of the ultimate tools of human expression, always and forever. Annoyances are manifold (age makes this inevitable!) but usually hinge around entropy. As designers we try to design interfaces that manage entropy (the tendency for things to break down and become messy and confused), and when we do that well that's some of our best work for our clients, their audience, customers or service users.
What I find a little frustrating is design that isn’t durable, but that seem to press too hard at the edge of what's possible, robust, and sustainable, either ignoring or actively helping entropy by making the experience fragile. Excluding fellow humans by not taking accessibility into account is one of the most glaring examples. That’s not to say that ambitious, bold, futuristic work can’t be durable, inclusive, and aesthetic, too. It can. It just often isn’t. Some of that is the weight of commercial interests which aren’t bad in their own right, except when they encourage designing for impact above anything else, including the immersion and universality that also gets the job done. In that sense, it feels like a retrograde step towards the old ad and marketing agency era, but arguing that would be an article in its own right. Finally, there’s the less critical but still crucial aesthetic direction the web has taken as a whole, which feels more homogenised and predictable than ever, but not necessarily more usable.
How important are web standards in 2019?
The process of new technologies being standardised and implemented will always be important as long as consistent rendering across browsers is. So web standards are as important now as they’ve ever been.
What is durable design?
Durable design is about the kind of relationships we encourage, enable, and enact using design. It’s how we consider entropy, and the people using our work, either as the administrators, audience, or future adapters. It’s solving problems with design first, not just with code. For me, it’s a tenet of my practice — along with being inclusive and aesthetic — and hopefully I’m a better designer for it.
What can we expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers Bristol?
It’s the last talk of the day, so I’d love it if people enjoyed it as a way to close out a great day more than anything else. I hope they might take away some useful history, with one perspective on how we got where we are, and some thinking and techniques around how we get where we’re going next with our practice, while we also get on with earning a living.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the nine years of running co-working studio Mild Bunch?
It’s all about people. The story of a space and a life working in that space is about the humans who’re there alongside us. They create the culture. Culture can be encouraged and fostered, but it can’t be manufactured. All the table tennis tables, Tardis-themed phone boxes, artificial turf, and Lego desks in co-working spaces are fun (I’d love it if we had space for a football table) but they do not make a co-working community of real friends. The people do, and I’m so lucky to have met, worked with, and become close to some amazing humans thanks to what we created together at Mild Bunch.
Apart from Jon's talk, Pixel Pioneers Bristol covers practical web animation, CSS layouts, DevTools, the JAMstack, conversational design, optimising experiences for multiple devices, and more. Get your tickets today!