Hatch Design Talks 2023





Is Atomic Design dead?

Is Atomic Design dead?

Brad Frost

Brad Frost

Author & Design Systems Consultant

Author & Design Systems Consultant

About the Episode

Our 2023 season starts with no other than Brad Frost, author of Atomic Design and probably the person we owe a lot of our mental models for how we deal nowadays with Design Systems. Besides talking about the current state of Design and his masterclass at Hatch, we dive into AI, holding onto things you love that don't necessarily pay the bills, and he reveals the story on how that famous astronaut helmet came to be. This episode, and Brad's participation at Hatch Conference is presented by Bloomberg.



Damian: hi Brad. Thanks so much for being with me. Super excited to have you both at the conference and at this mini podcast that we do. .How are you doing today?

Brad: I'm doing great and thank you for the invite to be a part of this whole show. It's really exciting.

Damian: Speaking of you're going back into the pre pandemic, let's say rhythm of actually flying a little bit around the world every year. How does it feel? How are you managing the feelings?

Brad: Yeah. I guess I won't know until it, it happens, but yeah, it is very strange and a bit surreal to be returning to.

In person things and traveling again, just in, in general, whether for a conference or not. But yeah, it was a huge part of my identity, of a huge, part of my, rhythm of life. And my family went through the ringer over the last number of years, so I feel like I'm emerging.

Almost definitely not a return to anything, although it is technically true. It, I almost feel like a totally new person. In a new phase of life. My, my daughter's five and whenever, the last time I was going to Conferences in person. She was, still in diapers and it's just a different game now, yeah.

Very excited though. It will be a ton of fun, but I'm sure that it'll hit me.

Damian: Once you're on the plane.

Brad: Yeah. That's surreal feeling walking around for sure. A foreign place. So yeah, it's great.

Damian: And your talk is a bit of rite of passage, right? You're saying that you feel like a completely new person and here you come saying is atomic design dead?

Is this every, should I throw everything away now? What is going on? How did you arrive to the need of framing t he talk like this?

Brad: I admittedly that's pretty click-baity, so it's a kind of a special year in that atomic design is turning 10, and it is actually a really interesting time to be reflecting on a decade's worth of design system growth. And, a lot of people in general, I think still really misunderstand what atomic design is in general. So it's, it, the question is, is this all still relevant in the year 2023, but also just in general? We've spent the last decade again doing this work, nearly exclusively, and so it's been really wild to see how this is all grown up and, what problems are still there that were there a decade ago, what problems have been solved, what are the new problems, what's on the horizon? So yeah. Yeah. Clickbait title but, but hopefully anybody working in and around design systems, hopefully it's a pretty relevant to topic for

Damian: Yeah.

I think people will be curious as well to see how this has evolved and where this has gone.

When I was thinking about, I was gonna interview you and I was like, what do I wanna ask Brad Frost?

My first question was: ,What's the story with the astronaut helmet? Because I don't think I've ever read it or heard you talking about it. Yeah. How did it came to be and can you tell us the context about there in the back

Brad: Yeah. Yeah. It's hanging out in the, in my background now which is cool.

So the story is that one of the very first conferences that I. Went to and I did like a lightning talk. So it was me getting started talking about at the time this emerging thing that we soon called responsive web design and it was at, it is a conference called BD Conf and it was in Nashville. And Scott Gel was there and he introduced the Boston Globe responsive redesign like on, on stage. So it was like a very formative, very exciting time. And as fate would have it of a few people were getting together after the conference, just renting a cabin to talk about mobile and the web, because at the time the iPhone had come out, everybody was feeling their way around. There weren't really a lot of people solving these problems. And so a bunch of those people happened to be at this conference.

So we got together, we came up with "The Future Friendly Manifesto" which was encapsulating a lot of these concepts around how should we go about thinking about the intersection of the web and mobile and a lot of it, really holds up today. And at this Airbnb or whatever was like a closet full of costumes and toys and stuff and that helmet was there.

And since we were talking about kind of the future of the web, it ended up being a nice little mascot or symbol. And so we all took pictures with wearing our helmet and and yeah, it just stuck and that photo, which became my professional avatar, has stuck around a decade later, which is pretty wild.

Damian: But is the helmet that you have behind you the original one, or is that just like a replica?

Brad: So Josh Clark who was also there and is my to this day, my, my business partner and close closest collaborator. He actually got all the people that were there each their own toy helmet, which I think is really wonderful.

Damian: That's really cool.

Brad: My job now is to protect it from. A bunch of kids from destroying it,

Damian: Or just license it and just start mass producing it, right?

I wanna talk about your blog. You blog and you do it pretty often, it's I think one of the things that also, like in 10 years you've still kept doing pretty often.

Brad: Yeah.

Damian: And you recently blog about AI and how, the current lack of social structures to cope with impact. Can create some scary conditions. How do you particularly see AI impacting, particularly design systems and design system designers? And what do you think one can do on a personal level to be prepared for what's coming?

Brad: Yeah, it's, that's a big, it's a big question for sure. I think there, the more macro level thing is: This stuff is coming, it's eating, it's going to be eating away at a lot of jobs. That until very recently were, super high growth, very safe, secure job areas.

And I think that it is inevitable that AI will have an impact on it. I don't necessarily think that, we're all doomed. But at the same time, we're all going to be impacted by it. And so I think that it really, I think, underscores the necessity to further decouple what we do for money and your ability to make ends meet and feed your family and get access to healthcare and just do that stuff. So yeah, it's, those things have been pretty tightly coupled for a long time and I think that's gonna continue to AI is just yet another chapter in this kind of ongoing trend towards that, I think.

So that's the sort of macro level.

I think specifically in the world of digital design and development, and even more specifically in the world of design systems, I think that there's a really hand-in glove type situation when it comes to wielding AI as a tool. And the most obvious use case is, "hey: make me a website that has a header with a logo and a navigation in the search bar with this in the mega menu dropdown and this link or whatever. Give it this arrow with this background image. It says this and it drives to this page. And the button text reads this " and then the machine will just sp split that out.

So I think that is something that is pretty incredible. And I think ultimately good, right? And, it's, oh by the way, make me four different versions of it. Do the full height hero the takeover hero versus the half height hero, or do one with this call to action versus this call to action.

So to be able to iterate, in a really quick way and be able to produce this stuff really quickly. I think is pretty incredible and I think unlocks a lot of doors as far as, testing, getting things out there. Improving things in a way that in a much kind of tighter feedback loop than we've historically been able to do.

And then on the creation end of these things, when we talk about design systems, we're talking about at its heart, a library of reusable common UI components that all ought to be shaped the same way, have the same naming conventions and all of this stuff. And it's really cool because, like this stuff often takes a lot of manual work to align the names. And this is an area where, the computers can help us.

And in fact, we're me and my team are actually working on sort of stuff like this, that basically learn our conventions Yeah. And then be able to generate stuff according to those conventions. And it's. It works like it really does. It's so that's cool. Cause that ultimately translates to better quality, more predictable stuff.

I think the overarching trend or how I'm seeing it, is that designers and developers still very much, in fact more than ever, really need to know the fundamentals.

Because I think that any AI generated output shouldn't be trusted at face value. So there's still that process of interpretation. There's still that process of validating is this good? Does this look good? Is this usable? Is this accessible? Is this performant? Is this responsive?

I think that a lot of people have gotten used to their jobs effectively being rectangle makers there is a craft to that.

There is an art to that. There is joy in that, there, it's a lot of fun. . You do that process and I think that is something that, that is probably at least a fair bit of it is could end up on the chopping block. In the same way that we don't have people making handcrafted bow and arrow, things.

. But anyways, the idea is that this stuff, increasingly, the stuff of buttons and accordions and tabs and all of those things are already a commodity. And now what we're doing is just effectively further automating,

Damian: scaling.

Brad: Yeah.

I hope that transition happens, right? Because that means that we are using our talents and our skills and our critical thinking skills, and all of that's good stuff. To make better products.

And that, by the way, is the promise of design systems, AI or no AI, right? The idea is just and again, my colleague Josh Clark, wrote a really great post on this, is design systems are boring. Like they take care of the boring stuff, so you're not having to worry about the buttons border radius.

You're trying to make a the best product experience possible like that if that could already just be solved. Just grab that and throw it in and trust that yes, that border radius on that button is accurate. So I can save my brain space, my brain cycles for more interesting and worthwhile problems.

That's what we want to get to. So I'm hopeful that is going to happen. That's already happening as I've seen design systems grow up and take hold where you have teams doing things that are more pressing, that are more valuable than just. Recreating a card component for the 17th comic.

Damian: Yeah,

absolutely. Yeah. That's a really good good point of view. I'm curious about what that, what the first generation of designers who don't start with the craft and maybe start directly from the other side, it's gonna look like, but I guess we have to talk in the next, in 10 years again and see how that went.

Brad: If we're all still here.

Damian: Yeah.

Changing a bit, the topic you also share a lot about music and it seems to be a big part of what you do in your life. How do you compare your journey in music these last 10 years to your journey as a developer or designer and consultant? Have you, how have you kept the balance between those and I guess also the pandemic had like a fun effect there,

Brad: yeah. Yeah. It's my goal in life is to never say "I used to play music". That's and I talk to a lot of people like that. I it breaks my heart because I think that there is this really close coupling, back to what you were talking about, just money and what you do for work. In what you do formally, that question of, oh, what do you do is, what do you do for money? When in fact we are, way more holistic people than that. You likely have a host of talents and enthusiasms and interests and all sorts of things.

And I think that as time goes on, reflecting on the arc of my career, I definitely went in hard on the sort of professional front. At the expense of a lot of these other things that I think are really central to my being. And I want to embrace those things and not push them away because they're an important part of who I am, and they give me enormous joy and satisfaction, even though I'm not intending on pursuing this in any professional realm.

And I hope that's something that whoever's listening to this, just really ask yourself about those other parts of your life that don't necessarily pay your bills, but are important parts of who you are. Things that really give you a lot of joy and happiness and to just really own all of that and don't feel like you have to cut those parts of you off in order to fit into a certain kind of box.

I poke around. I play music every day, it's nothing formal. I don't really have goals.

I say: Hey, this is fun and it's natural and I enjoy doing it, and I'm going to do more of that.

Damian: That's good.

Brad: If it's not fun anymore, then I won't, then I won't do it. And

Damian: for sure.

Brad: And that's just, I. That's really all there isn't there? Yeah. It's just try to do the things that you like doing and make space.

Damian: So we still don't lose the hope of it, like a designer super band and it's just put you and drum someone on bass.

Brad: maybe! I, but what I will say is post covid for sure.

That experience, especially whenever everything was totally shut down for me, going to, to shows, again, it was a very spiritual experience because it was this wholly unique.

And going to these concerts post Covid and getting that experience and realizing that I have the ability and the capability of doing that. I'm like, I should probably find a way to make that happen. And I know that means getting up on stage in some way.

So we'll figure that one out.

Damian: I see a big parallel with conferences as well, because let's say the conferences used to be the place where you go get your knowledge and sit down and whatever, and came Youtube came all of this. You don't really need to, go listen to whoever sitting down at conference if you're doing that, if, because you want other emotions and other experiences and another thing.

Yeah. So it's very similar

I think, in a lot of ways.

Brad: Absolutely. Just all of those hallway conversations, all of those real human connections that you. Can't get. You can. You can approximate it. You can. Yeah. But that's, that really isn't the point. And I hate to say that. It's like you're running

Damian: No, for sure. It's all a big excuse and just a concert can be. You don't go to listen to the song and go back home and be like, I listen to the song. It's more like everything around it.

Brad: I see. I see it as a bit of the tox themselves are really the prompts, right? And they put the things in the air.

Damian: Yeah,

Brad: and then everyone collectively stews over them and, tries things out and tries out ideas on each other and shares their experience and perspective. And so it really is in that sort of integration, collective integration of the conference talks that's where the magic happens in my view.

Damian: Absolutely. Lastly, let's just talk a little bit about your masterclass. About a hundred people are joining you to have a full day of geeking out about design systems. Besides, the content that they know already, what can they expect? What's the format? What are you planning? Tell us.

Brad: Yeah I'm in the process as part of. Reflecting on this last 10 years and also in, in a lot of our kind of client work, we're super in the weeds. We've helped build design systems for nearly 10% of the Fortune 100. So like huge companies as well as many others.

And. What things have grown into, is this pretty sophisticated, so I, I am in a place where I am. We'll say overhauling a lot of the sort of content and really trying to zero in on helping the attendees really take. Whatever, wherever they're at on their design system journey and give like a lot of real visual and actionable kind of next steps and best practices to take them from hopefully good to, to, to great.

And it's really challenging, so I love helping share a lot of the bumps and bruises that we've endured over the years in order to help, prevent other people from having to take those weird left turns and stuff.

So we've taken all the left turns. So other people don't have to.

And one of the reasons why I love doing these, and especially in person, is once again that sort of shared collective human experience where we have a big kind of chat at the beginning to just get a good sense of where everybody's at, what they're trying to get out of the workshop.

It's really fun to help people connect together and again, coffee breaks, you see them off chatting about their own in commiserating over their shared experience.

I have a lot of experience. Helping scores of different designers, developers, and teams make better software together, and it's just it's a ton of fun. So love sharing it. I love talking about it.

Damian: Design system therapy, if you will.

Brad: Yeah, that's what it is. That's what it is.

Damian: Do you want to take that for your next book? You can have it. That's fine.

All right, Brad, thank you so much for joining me and for talking about all this. Looking forward to have you here in Berlin. Enjoy your summer. Go to concerts. Go to festivals, and do all the things you love. And come here and bring all of that energy back to Berlin.

Brad: Yeah. Love it.

Damian: Bye. Bye.

Brad: Bye.

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