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Front of the frontend

Posted in CSS, Development and HTML

Frontend development use to be simple. First it was just HTML, then it was HTML, CSS and some JavaScript; then it exploded.

In its the early days, JavaScript (usually via jQuery) was used for things like link roll-over styling and animation, but CSS rightly stepped up and took these responsibilities, it being the de facto language for styling the web. JavaScript became about actions triggered by a button press, changing the order of items with drag and drop, that kind of thing.

This is JavaScript doing stuff in the browser; frontend development. But the line between frontend and backend (server-side stuff) started to blur when we started to fetched data dynamically from a server for things like live sports feeds. That’s JavaScript running in the browser but interacting with a server on the fly.

Then the frontend world dove head-first into APIs and single page apps, using JavaScript frameworks like backbone.js, AngularJS, and React. At this stage I completely lost interest. But this is where backend developers started to move to the frontend, and more logical-minded frontend developers found their comfort zone.

Me? I continued writing HTML and CSS, and got interested in static site generators and templating languages like Nunjucks. I still considered myself a frontend developer, but describing what I did required some extra explanation:

  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I don’t know any JavaScript frameworks”
  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I’m an HTML and CSS specialist”
  • “I’m a frontend developer, but I’m not really a programmer

My frontend identity crisis is very similar to how I remember explaining the type of designer I am to people before terms like ‘user experience design’ and ‘interaction design’ became industry-recognised:

  • “I’m a designer, but I’m not really all that creative”
  • “I’m a designer, but I focus on how things work, not how pretty they look”

So my ears pricked up when I began to read articles like The Great Divide, see job titles like Design Engineer, hear terms like ‘Front of the frontend’, and see tweets about Design Ops.

I’m glad I kept resolute on my path and wasn’t tempted to shift my career towards the back of the frontend:

  • CSS is getting more and more powerful, interesting, and can have a profound effect on the user
  • HTML is always going to be the output, regardless of any framework, and caring about it helps ensure a good, usable experience for everyone

The web is just over 25 years old, and if I look back at my life so far, that was the age I began to really settle into myself. I feel like after all these years of rapid change and evolution, with more specific definitions of roles like design engineer, the web is starting to come of age.

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More posts

Here are a couple more posts for you to enjoy. If that’s not enough, have a look at the full list.

  1. Images as the first thing in a button or link

    If the text of an interactive element like a button or link is preceded with an accessible image, we’ve probably got an accessibility problem.

  2. Alt text for CSS generated content

    There’s an interesting feature in Safari 17.4 that allows content added with CSS to have ‘alt’ text. I’m not sure how I feel about this.