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2018 Staff Favorites

Last year, the team here at CSS-Tricks compiled a list of our favorite posts, trends, topics, and resources from around the world of front-end development. We had a blast doing it and found it to be a nice recap of the industry as we saw it over the course of the year. Well, we’re doing it again this year!

With that, here’s everything that Sarah, Robin, Chris and I saw and enjoyed over the past year.


Sarah

Good code review

There are a few themes that cross languages, and one of them is good code review. Even though Nina Zakharenko gives talks and makes resources about Python, her talk about code review skills is especially notable because it applies across many disciplines. She’s got a great arc to this talk and I think her deck is an excellent resource, but you can take this a step even further and think critically about your own team, what works for it, and what practices might need to be reconsidered.

I also enjoyed this sarcastic tweet that brings up a good point:

I’ve been guilty myself of commenting on a really clean pull request just to say something, and it’s healthy for us as a community to revisit why we do things like this.

Sophie Alpert, manager of the React core team, also wrote a great post along these lines right at the end of the year called Why Review Code. It’s a good resource to turn to when you’d like to explain the need for code reviews in the development process.

The year of (creative) code

So many wonderful creative coding resources were made this year. Creative coding projects might seem frivolous but you can actually learn a ton from making and playing with them. Matt DesLauriers recently taught a course called Creative Coding with Canvas & WebGL for Frontend Masters that serves as a good example.

CodePen is always one of my favorite places to check out creative work because it provides a way to reverse-engineer the work of other people and learn from their source code. CodePen has also started coding challenges adding yet another way to motivate creative experiments and collective learning opportunities. Marie Mosley did a lot of work to make that happen and her work on CodePen’s great newsletter is equally awesome.

You should also consider checking out Monica Dinculescu‘s work because she has been sharing some amazing work. There’s not one, not two, but three (!) that use machine learning alone. Go see all of her Glitch projects. And, for what it’s worth, Glitch is a great place to explore creative code and remix your own as well.

GitHub Actions

I think hands-down one of the most game-changing developments this year is GitHub Actions. The fact that you can manage all of your testing, deployments, and project issues as containers chained in a unified workflow is quite amazing.

Containers are a great for actions because of their flexibility — you’re not limited to a single kind of compute and so much is possible! I did a writeup about GitHub Actions covering the feature in full. And, if you’re digging into containers, you might find the dive repo helpful because it provides a way to explore a docker image and layer contents.

Actions are still in beta but you can request access — they’re slowly rolling out now.

UI property generators

I really like that we’re automating some of the code that we need to make beautiful front-end experiences these days. In terms of color there’s color by Adobe, coolors, and uiGradients. There are even generators for other things, like gradients, clip-path, font pairings, and box-shadow. I am very much all for this. These are the kind of tools that speed up development and allow us to use advanced effects, no matter the skill level.


Robin

Ire Aderinokun’s blog

Ire has been writing a near constant stream of wondrous articles about front-end development on her blog, Bits of Code, over the past year, and it’s been super exciting to keep up with her work. It seems like she’s posting something I find useful almost every day, from basic stuff like when hover, focus and active states apply to accessibility tips like the aria-live attribute.

“The All Powerful Front-end Developer”

Chris gave a talk this year about the ways the role of front-end development are changing… and for the better. It was perhaps the most inspiring talk I saw this year. Talks about front-end stuff are sometimes pretty dry, but Chris does something else here. He covers a host of new tools we can use today to do things that previously required a ton of back-end skills. Chris even made a website all about these new tools which are often categorized as “Serverless.”

Even if none of these tools excite you, I would recommend checking out the talk – Chris’s enthusiasm is electric and made me want to pull up my sleeves and get to work on something fun, weird and exciting.

Future Fonts

The Future Fonts marketplace turned out to be a great place to find new and experimental typefaces this year. Obviously is a good example of that. But the difference between Future Fonts and other marketplaces is that you can buy fonts that are in beta and still currently under development. If you get in on the ground floor and buy a font for $ 10, then that shows the developer the interest in a particular font which may spur more features for it, like new weights, widths or even OpenType features.

It’s a great way to support type designers while getting a ton of neat and experimental typefaces at the same time.

React Conf 2018

The talks from React Conf 2018 will get you up to speed with the latest React news. It’s interesting to see how React Hooks let you “use state and other React features without writing a class.”

It’s also worth calling out that a lot of folks really improved our Guide to React here on CSS-Tricks so that it now contains a ton of advice about how to get started and how to level up on both basic and advanced practices.

The Victorian Internet

This is a weird recommendation because The Victorian Internet is a book and it wasn’t published this year. But! It’s certainly the best book I’ve read this year, even if it’s only tangentially related to web stuff. It made me realize that the internet we’re building today is one that’s much older than I first expected. The book focuses on the laying of the Transatlantic submarine cables, the design of codes and the codebreakers, fraudsters that used the telegraph to find their marks, and those that used it to find the person they’d marry. I really can’t recommend this book enough.

Figma

The browser-based design tool Figma continued to release a wave of new features that makes building design systems and UI kits easier than ever before. I’ve been doing a ton of experiments with it to see how it helps designers communicate, as well as how to build more resilient components. It’s super impressive to see how much the tools have improved over the past year and I’m excited to see it improve in the new year, too.


Geoff

Buzz about third party scripts

It seems there was a lot of chatter this year about the impact of third party scripts. Whether it’s the growing ubiquity of all-things-JavaScript or whatever, this topic covers a wide and interesting ground, including performance, security and even hard costs, to name a few.

My personal favorite post about this was Paulo Mioni’s deep dive into the anatomy of a malicious script. Sure, the technical bits are a great learning opportunity, but what really makes this piece is the way it reads like a true crime novel.

Gutenberg, Gutenberg and more Gutenberg

There was so much noise leading up to the new WordPress editor that the release of WordPress 5.0 containing it felt anti-climactic. No one was hurt or injured amid plenty of concerns, though there is indeed room for improvement.

Lara Schneck and Andy Bell teamed up for a hefty seven-party series aimed at getting developers like us primed for the changes and it’s incredible. No stone is left unturned and it perfectly suitable for beginners and experts alike.

Solving real life issues with UX

I like to think that I care a lot about users in the work I do and that I do my best to empathize so that I can anticipate needs or feelings as they interact with the site or app. That said, my mind was blown away by a study Lucas Chae did on the search engine experience of people looking for a way to kill themselves. I mean, depression and suicide are topics that are near and dear to my heart, but I never thought about finding a practical solution for handling it in an online experience.

So, thanks for that, Lucas. It inspired me to piggyback on his recommendations with a few of my own. Hopefully, this is a conversation that goes well beyond 2018 and sparks meaningful change in this department.

The growing gig economy

Freelancing is one of my favorite things to talk about at great length with anyone and everyone who is willing to talk shop and that’s largely because I’ve learned a lot about it in the five years I’ve been in it.

But if you take my experience and quadruple it, then you get a treasure trove of wisdom like Adam Coti shared in his collection of freelancing lessons learned over 20 years of service.

Freelancing isn’t for everyone. Neither is remote work. Adam’s advice is what I wish I had going into this five years ago.

Browser ecology

I absolutely love the way Rachel Nabors likens web browsers to a biological ecosystem. It’s a stellar analogy and leads into the long and winding history of browser evolution.

Speaking of history, Jason Hoffman’s telling of the history about browsers and web standards is equally interesting and a good chunk of context to carry in your back pocket.

These posts were timely because this year saw a lot of movement in the browser landscape. Microsoft is dropping EdgeHTML for Blink and Google ramped up its AMP product. 2018 felt like a dizzying year of significant changes for industry giants!


Chris

All the best buzzwords: JAMstack, Serverless, & Headless

“Don’t tell me how to build a front end!” we, front-end developers, cry out. We are very powerful now. We like to bring our own front-end stack, then use your back-end data and APIs. As this is happening, we’re seeing healthy things happen like content management systems evolving to headless frameworks and focus on what they are best at: content management. We’re seeing performance and security improvements through the power of static and CDN-backed hosting. We’re seeing hosting and server usage cost reductions.

But we’re also seeing unhealthy things we need to work through, like front-end developers being spread too thin. We have JavaScript-focused engineers failing to write clean, extensible, performant, accessible markup and styles, and, on the flip side, we have UX-focused engineers feeling left out, left behind, or asked to do development work suddenly quite far away from their current expertise.

GraphQL

Speaking of powerful front-end developers, giving us front-end developers a well-oiled GraphQL setup is extremely empowering. No longer do we need to be roadblocked by waiting for an API to be finished or data to be massaged into some needed format. All the data you want is available at your fingertips, so go get and use it as you will. This makes building and iterating on the front end faster, easier, and more fun, which will lead us to building better products. Apollo GraphQL is the thing to look at here.

While front-end is having a massive love affair with JavaScript, there are plenty of front-end developers happily focused elsewhere

This is what I was getting at in my first section. There is a divide happening. It’s always been there, but with JavaScript being absolutely enormous right now and showing no signs of slowing down, people are starting to fall through the schism. Can I still be a front-end developer if I’m not deep into JavaScript? Of course. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t learn JavaScript, because it’s pretty cool and powerful and you just might love it, but if you’re focused on UX, UI, animation, accessibility, semantics, layout, architecture, design patterns, illustration, copywriting, and any combination of that and whatever else, you’re still awesome and useful and always will be. Hugs. 🤗

Just look at the book Refactoring UI or the course Learn UI Design as proof there is lots to know about UI design and being great at it requires a lot of training, practice, and skill just like any other aspect of front-end development.

Shamelessly using grid and custom properties everywhere

I remember when I first learned flexbox, it was all I reached for to make layouts. I still love flexbox, but now that we have grid and the browser support is nearly just as good, I find myself reaching for grid even more. Not that it’s a competition; they are different tools useful in different situations. But admittedly, there were things I would have used flexbox for a year ago that I use grid for now and grid feels more intuitive and more like the right tool.

I’m still swooning over the amazing illustrations Lynn Fisher did for both our grid and flexbox guides.

Massive discussions around CSS-in-JS and approaches, like Tailwind

These discussions can get quite heated, but there is no ignoring the fact that the landscape of CSS-in-JS is huge, has a lot of fans, and seems to be hitting the right notes for a lot of folks. But it’s far from settled down. Libraries like Vue and Angular have their own framework-prescribed way of handling it, whereas React has literally dozens of options and a fast-moving landscape with libraries popping up and popular ones spinning down in favor of others. It does seem like the feature set is starting to settle down a little, so this next year will be interesting to watch.

Then there is the concept of atomic CSS on the other side of the spectrum, and interesting in that doesn’t seem to have slowed down at all either. Tailwind CSS is perhaps the hottest framework out there, gaining enough traction that Adam is going full time on it.

What could really shake this up is if the web platform itself decides to get into solving some of the problems that gave rise to these solutions. The shadow DOM already exists in Web Components Land, so perhaps there are answers there? Maybe the return of <style scoped>? Maybe new best practices will evolve that employ a single-stylesheet-per-component? Who knows.

Design systems becoming a core deliverable

There are whole conferences around them now!

I’ve heard of multiple agencies where design systems are literally what they make for their clients. Not websites, design systems. I get it. If you give a team a really powerful and flexible toolbox to build their own site with, they will do just that. Giving them some finished pages, as polished as they might be, leaves them needing to dissect those themselves and figure out how to extend and build upon them when that need inevitably arrives. I think it makes sense for agencies, or special teams, to focus on extensible component-driven libraries that are used to build sites.

Machine Learning

Stuff like this blows me away:

Having open source libraries that help with machine learning and that are actually accessible for regular ol’ developers to use is a big deal.

Stuff like this will have real world-bettering implications:

And this!

OK, OK. One more

You gotta check out the Unicode Pattern work (more) that Yuan Chuan does. He even shared some of his work and how he does it right here on CSS-Tricks. And follow that name link to CodePen for even more. This <css-doodle> thing they have created is fantastic.

See the Pen Seeding by yuanchuan (@yuanchuan) on CodePen.

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