I recently finished reading The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford, and in the book he speaks of observing the individuals working as organ builders. He tells of the slowness of the process, much done by hand, then spends a bit of time musing on the long game of organ building. In it, one must respect the work of the person who came before, and also think of the person who will be maintaining the organ, and learning from their work in the future.
Throughout, I couldn’t stop myself from paralleling organ building with web development, as I am wont to do. Web development depends so heavily on the past and the future, both respecting the standards and best practices that came before, and looking to the future and working in a way that will allow for flexibility down the line. Compared to building an organ, all of this is happening in a heavily compressed amount of time.
In making the parallel, and taking it a little further, I was incredibly inspired by the following, taken straight from the book:
“The preparation—getting the cutups right, getting them straight, manipulating the windway sizes and the toe holes—you could train a monkey to do that sort of thing. Just give them the list and they do it. If that’s done really really well, that’s ninety-seven percent of the work. After that ninety-seven percent is finished, the pipe will make a sound, it’ll play. Getting it to play beautifully, that’s the last three percent. And that’s where I’d like to say the artistic integrity of the voicer is put to use, and it’s at that point where the good voicer who has done really well preparing the pipes can take all the math and all the science, if they so desire, and you can start to throw some of that out the window. Now we’re not in the science book anymore, we’re not studying the math, now we’re making music.”
It’s impossible to take web development seriously without great attention to the design, and design is music. The organ builders are involved in a tedious operation that ultimately results in music. Web developers spend months preparing a site the results in design. It’s design that hits the screen, not the development. No matter what you did in development, does it create music?
Maybe the numbers all add up, they make sense, they’ve been engineered to perfection. Is the website a technical feat, it’s perfectly functional, but it just doesn’t seem to have a point of view? It’s easy to get caught up in the engineering of a website so much that the product of all that work doesn’t present itself as an emotional experience. And isn’t that what we’re doing on the web? If we were to throw emotion and perspective and impact out the window, we wouldn’t have much use for CSS. Why would we get halfway there and then give up when we’re so close?
I urge you to spend that last 3 percent, and rebel. Go against the numbers, use your gut. Make something that feels like music. Make something that will inform the future.
I'm a web developer at Washington University in St. Louis. I write about WordPress, CSS, JS, accessibility, and more.