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  • September 22, 2011

Patience and Fortitude

A short dozen blocks north of Happy Cog’s New York studio, two famous stone lions sculpted by Edward Clark Potter guard the entrance to The New York Public Library at 42nd Street. The lions were originally named for the library’s private backers, the Astor and Lenox families. But in the 1930s, Decorative Illustration New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed the two lions “Patience” and “Fortitude,” because those were the qualities New Yorkers would need to survive the Great Depression. This was back in the days when elected officials gave a damn about the people, and when they could use a three-syllable word without fear that citizens would brand them as over-educated or French. But I digress.

Patience and Fortitude got the people through the Depression, and they are also the qualities most needed by anyone in the business of persuasion, which is everyone reading this page. If you don’t believe you’re in the business of persuasion—if you think you write code or arrange pixels and the selling magically takes care of itself—then you should get out of this business, because your work will always be compromised, and you will grow to hate the craft you now love and despise yourself and your teammates.

Every one of us is a champion of the end-user and an advocate for the value of what we do. If we are not advocates, we cannot be great coders, great designers, or great exemplars of whichever noun best describes your position in the digital experience ecosystem. The toughest thing about being a champion, as any champ will tell you, is that you don’t just win a belt once and call it a day. You have to keep winning, fighting every punk who comes along to challenge you. What challengers are to boxers, negative, unhelpful ideas are to user experience advocates like us. We have to keep knocking them out. Unlike boxers, we have to do it kindly, and with a smile.

Persuasion never sleeps

I became a better web designer and consultant when I started evangelizing web standards, and I don’t mean that the knowledge of web standards increased my skills and therefore my value, although that is also true. I mean I got better at the art of persuasion and I discovered that persuasion, like rust, never sleeps. Between 1998 and 2001, we were relentless (and patient and fortitudinous) in delivering our message that complete and accurate browser implementations of CSS, HTML, and JavaScript were essential to the health and growth of the web. It’s a message we delivered to one browser engineer and one web developer at a time. Each time we delivered the message to a new pair of ears and eyes, we behaved as if it were the first time. We were like stage actors bringing freshness and discovery to a role they’ve performed a thousand times, only we weren’t acting. Each time we delivered the message to a new person, there was something genuinely new about it. I’m told that successful prostitutes have a similar gift for making the transaction feel special.

After browser makers finally climbed aboard the web standards train, we had to persuade web designers that it was okay to stop using table layouts, quit forking their scripts, and cease designing sites that were “best viewed with” anything other than “a web browser.” This was another Sisyphean task, requiring fresh stores of patience and fortitude. I can’t tell you how many times a developer said to me, “Do you know how much I get paid for knowing the seven ways to code a web page?” Each time I replied, “If you could code it one way, the standard way, you could use that extra money for photography or illustration or professional help with the written content.” And each time I said some variation of those words, it was like I’d just thought of that angle, and was giving my new best friend the inside track.

What goes around

Today I don’t spend much time selling engineers, designers, or clients on the value of semantic markup, progressive enhancement, and the other now-familiar elements of standards-based design. But those polished persuasive skills, and the patience and fortitude they rode in on, get used every day, even if I spend most of my time in meetings just listening and nodding. Eventually it becomes a Jedi thing. The persuasion lives in your eyes. They sparkle when a team member says the right thing.

How do you spell persuasion, and how do you keep it fresh?

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