I’m a terrible designer, but a great critic

I know what I like and that’s how I tricked myself into building my first side project of 2016.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t have a set of tastes when it comes to music, art, sports… just about anything?

“Swipe right” and “pinning” are part of our vocabulary now. Popular apps are tapping into this passion we have for expressing our preferences.

During my workdays I help organizations create digital repositories and the most difficult phase of these projects is helping folks to describe what they need. This shouldn’t be surprising if we consider that it’s often confusing figuring out what we want personally.

If you embrace criticism as a necessary part of creativity, to start making a product for a client, present them with something that you know won’t be considered perfect. We create something tangible to point to and reference in discussion. Perfection is the enemy.

A related bit of wisdom, Cunningham’s Law states:

“the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”

If your goal is to get to the right solution for a creative problem, sharing a quick best effort and looking for feedback can be effective.

It’s a brute-force technique, but it beats analysis paralysis. And when it comes to brute-force operations, we have a great ally in all of those computers that surround us and sit in the cloud. The initial options for guiding our decision making are increasingly computer generated (from economic and ethical standpoints, that may be more preferable than people churning out purposely less than perfect starting points).


So my first side project of 2016 works to scratch an itch that I have:

I’m a terrible web designer but I know what I like.

Bootstrap is a fantastic starting point for creating beautiful and responsive websites. Thousands of websites are built with Bootstrap but if you’re not a decent designer, your site will look like a generic Bootstrap-based clone.

Maybe you know where I’m going with this?

ThemesByMachines presents thousands of computer generated variants of Bootstrap’s core style so that when I need to start a new design, I can review as a critic and say “aha! that’s the one I will start with.” Rather than spending days struggling from scratch.

ThemesByMachines generated Boostrap style

The styles still maintain a Bootstrap-esque style for two main reasons. Some of the default stylistic decisions made in Bootstrap are great best practices that probably shouldn’t be messed with. The other reason being that the computer generated variants can’t be completely random because it would make it much less likely for each one to be a reasonably attractive style. So there are a set of different variables that are randomly generated within a range of possible values.

And like the process of generating Bootstrap style options to critique, the very idea of making ThemesByMachines public as a side project requires a bit of ego management, putting it out there, and hoping that it creates enough value for someone to provide some guiding feedback.

Another ThemesByMachines style, maybe not as nice as the other. No egos were harmed in the creation of the CSS.