A List Apart

Nishant Kothary on the Human Web

The Dominey Effect: For the Love of the Web, Learn Swift

I don’t remember the exact moment I fell in love with the web, but I distinctly remember the website that had a lot to do with it: whatdoiknow.org. It was the personal website of Todd Dominey, a web designer from Georgia (I wrote that from memory without the help of Google).

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By most colloquial measures, whatdoiknow.org wasn’t anything spectacular. But to me, it felt perfect: fixed two-column layout, black text, white background, great typography, lovely little details, and good writing. And, it had this background tile—check it out here, compliments of Wayback Machine (“Give it a second!” to load)—that tapped into some primordial part of the brain that erupts in a dopamine fireworks show at the sight of such things. I’m sure Π is somehow involved.

It was 2001 (maybe 2002?), I was in college, and I was considering transferring out of computer science into interactive media when I found Dominey’s site. I immediately knew I wanted to make sites like that (even if I wasn’t sure why), so I submitted my CODO documentation, and walked across campus to the Computer Graphics department.

The universe pushed back, of course.

“Inadvisable,” advised my academic advisor at the time, because “how can you make money designing things?” It was a different time: B.S.—Before Steve. User experience was in its third trimester, and we’d just started feeling its first kicks. The argument against transferring was effectively the same one faced by liberal arts majors when they tell their parents they are going to major in English and minor in Sociology. The data suggested that I would be far less attractive to employers. But I was drawn in.

I had no choice but to succumb to the first, but certainly not the last, Dominey moment of my professional life.

And thus I was introduced to HTML and CSS. It was love at first sight. But unlike a lot of kids who found their home with standards-based front end web design, I’d just walked into a hyperlinked world of Dominey moments. And over the years, I clicked—maybe “tapped” is the more appropriate word for our generation—and followed many of them.

HTML & CSS naturally led me to the world of graphic design. Photoshop and Illustrator entered my life and elated me. Then I wanted a blog. Moveable Type. This in turn led to CGI scripting, i.e. ASP and PHP. JavaScript entered the party as DHTML. And eventually, Flash—which renewed my interest in programming and mathematics, so that I went back to my old CS department and convinced them to let me finish the degree I’d abandoned while I finished up the other one.

One by one, the domineys were falling.

What’s fascinating about these moments, in hindsight, is they were inextricably linked. And much like the web, even when the links disappeared into the horizon as I moved to the next, they affected my career trajectory for the better. It feels magical that my ability to produce letterpress business cards (a Dominey moment) could have any bearing on my public relations skills for convincing the web community that Internet Explorer had had a heart transplant (a part of one of my past jobs). But there’s nothing really magical about that, is there?

After all, feeling excitement for something new, learning it, getting somewhat good at it, and broadening your horizons can positively affect your career, no matter what you do (h/t to every post written about the benefits of side projects).

Signal vs. signal

All that said, the highs from experiencing these moments were inevitably followed by their characteristic comedowns: a mixture of fear, challenge, prejudice, and even dogma. Take my foray into Flash, for instance.

For a standards-based web guy like me, embracing Flash felt like an either-or proposition as I looked around for mentorship. This phenomenon was a byproduct of the Flash vs. Web debate. You just didn’t come across web standardistas who were equally and openly into Flash—Shaun Inman and Dominey (who created SlideShowPro, a ubiquitous Flash-based slideshow app for a time) were prominent exceptions. Unsurprisingly, what Gruber writes about Apps vs. Web applies almost word for word to Flash vs. Web: “If you expand your view of ‘the web’ from merely that which renders inside the confines of a web browser to instead encompass all network traffic sent over HTTP/S, the explosive growth of native mobile apps is just another stage in the growth of the web. Far from killing it, native apps have made the open web even stronger.”

When you take these sort of necessary but paralyzing debates and couple them with the insecurity you feel in answering the tap of a Dominey moment, it doesn’t take much to talk yourself out of it. And that problem never really goes away.

Even today, having quit my job to go out on my own, the pushback is strong. What has changed though, thanks to a healthy amount of experience, reading, thinking, and counsel, is my ability to negotiate the arguments from others and myself as I embrace my next moment, inspired by the ongoing app revolution and the pleasure I derive from developing in Apple’s new language: Swift.

My ability to steer around the doldrums of doubt wasn’t always there, though. Long ago, and often along the way as well, I needed a little nudge from a friend or mentor to get me going.

So finally, on the topic of apps and Swift: let me give you a quick nudge.

A Swift nudge

If you’re a web programmer (or a budding programmer of any kind, or just someone who wants to get into programming), and looking at an app on your device (Instagram, Pinterest, Paper, and iMovie come to mind for me) made you think, “I want to build something like that,” I have this to say to you: learn Swift today.

Don’t think twice about it.

This must seem like a bizarre recommendation to make to a group of “people who make websites.” But I’ve never quite taken that tagline literally, and I know far too many of you feel the same (whether you’ll admit it in public or not). We are people who make the web, and as luck would have it we are people who particularly understand designing for mobile.

After immersing myself in it for a year, I find Swift to be deeply web in its soul. From its expressive, functional syntax and its interpretive playgrounds to its runtime performance and recent foray into open source, Swift is the web developer’s compiled language (with the mature and convenient safeguards characteristic of the compiled environment).

Everything you need to get you started is here. It’s free. And the community is amazing.

As you may expect, the universe will push back on you embracing this moment. It will manifest in myriad ways—from the age old question of web vs. native to debates about Swift performance, syntax, and Apple’s intentions.

Ignore that pushback. (Or don’t: do your due diligence, and form your own opinion.)

But whatever you do, if you’ve got that thumping feeling, don’t ignore it. And try to not forget that you’re here because long ago you too embraced a Dominey moment.

As far as I can tell, it’s worked out pretty well for all of us.


  • 1. Full disclosure: I do not know nor have I ever met Todd Dominey (but I’d buy him a drink anytime).

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