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Three Design Smells Only Developers Can Sense

Using the font-size hack

Ever seen or done this?

html { font-size: 62.5%; }
body { font-size: 1.6rem; }

It’s the classic font-size hack, where instead of the default 1rem = 16px, the equation is forced to 1rem = 10px allowing for easier math and translation from px to rem font-sizes.

There is some debate and confusion over whether this is bad to do. Technically no: it doesn’t negatively affect the user experience. Fonts can still scale with zoom.

As a deviation from web defaults though, it’s arguably unnecessarily added system complexity that impacts DX over UX, which is not a super strong position to be taking.

But what’s the underlying issue? Well, I think it’s rooted in font sizes traditionally starting in pixels on the design side.

And so, I propose that it’s a Design Smell, a metaphorical extension of Code Smell where code is a symptom of another development decision. In this case, that “other decision” is landing back a few steps in the design phase.

Teaching web designers how preferred web font size definitions work, especially as tools like Figma adopt them, would be a great way to tackle this issue at its root.

What other Design Smells might there be?

Unoptimized media

How media is handed over for development can be fraught with odor. Dev tools and lighthouse tests can easily point out that large non-web-optimized media is present. But beyond that, things like using a jpg or png over an svg just because there’s a gradient background offers the chance to coach back into design-land that CSS is great at gradients and there’s a better solution to improve both performance and quality of that design element.

Responsive gotchas

Another category of design smells exist around responsive design. While there are many specific instances to call out:

All of these come down to not exploring the edge cases of responsive circumstances, especially those that throw in the wrench of real content.

I have to say, that if these make it unscathed into development, you’ll be holding your nose all the way through. Ambiguous responsive design is especially important to tackle before development starts, which is why design and development collaboration is so important.

Follow your nose

I think Design Smell can be a useful term, especially in bridging the developer-designer relationship. As the capabilities of the web, especially CSS, grow, it’s imperative to maintain an open, two-way avenue for knowledge transfer. Just as front-end developers can learn to exercise design skills to fill in gaps and not get tripped up, web designers too will yield better UX design because of knowing how the web works.