Front-end development is not a problem to be solved

HTML and CSS are often seen as a burden.

This is a feeling I’ve noticed from engineers and designers I’ve worked with in the past, and it’s a sentiment that’s a lot more transparent with the broader web community at large. You can hear it in Medium posts and on indie blogs, whether in conversations about CSS, web performance, or design tools.

The sentiment is that front-end development is a problem to be solved: “if we just have the right tools and frameworks, then we might never have to write another line of HTML or CSS ever again!” And oh boy what a dream that would be, right?

Well, no, actually. I certainly don’t think that front-end development is a problem at all.

What's behind this feeling? Well, designers want tools that let them draw pictures and export a batch of CSS and HTML files like Dreamweaver promised back in the day. On the other end, engineers don’t want to sweat accessibility, web performance or focus states among many, many other things. There’s simply too many edge cases, too many devices, and too many browsers to worry about. The work is just too much.

Consequently, I empathize with these feelings as a designer/developer myself, but I can’t help but get a little upset when I read about someone's relationship with Bootstrap or design systems, frameworks or CSS-in-JS solutions — and even design tools like Sketch or Figma. It appears that we treat front-end development as a burden, or something we want to void altogether by abstracting it with layers of tools.

We should see front-end development as a unique skillset that is critical to the success of any project.

I believe that’s why frameworks and tools like Bootstrap are so popular; not necessarily because they’re a collection of helpful components, but a global solution that corrects an inherent issue. And when I begin to see “Bootstrap” in multiple resumés for front-end applications, I immediately assume that we're going to be at odds with our approaches to design and development.

Bootstrap isn’t a skill though — front-end development is.

And this isn’t me just being a curmudgeon... I hope. I genuinely want tools that help us make better decisions, that help us build accessible, faster, and more beautiful websites in a way that pushes the web forward. That said, I believe the communities built up around these tools encourage designing and developing in a way that's ignorant of front-end skills and standards.

What’s the point in learning about vanilla HTML, CSS and JavaScript if they wind up becoming transpiled by other tools and languages?

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Bootstrap, or CSS-in-JS, or CSS Modules, or fancy design tools. But building our careers around the limitations of these tools is a minor tragedy. Front-end development is complex because design is complex. Transpiling our spoken language into HTML and CSS requires vim and nuance, and always will. That’s not going to be resolved by a tool but by diligent work over a long period of time.

I reckon HTML and CSS deserve better than to be processed, compiled, and spat out into the browser, whether that’s through some build process, app export, or gigantic framework library of stuff that we half understand. HTML and CSS are two languages that deserve our care and attention to detail. Writing them is a skill.

I know I’m standing on a metaphorical soapbox here, and perhaps I’m being a tad melodramatic, but front-end development is not a problem to be solved. It’s a cornerstone of the web, and it’s not going away any time soon.

Is it?