A byte saved is a follower earned: Web Performance Then And Now

A List Apart wreath

FIFTEEN years ago this month, a plucky ALA staffer wrote “Much Ado About 5K,” an article on a contest created by Stewart Butterfield that challenged web designers and developers to build a complete website using less than five kilobytes of images and code.

As one group of modern web makers embraces mobile-first design and performance budgets, while another (the majority) worships at the altar of bigger, fatter, and slower, the 5K contest reminds us that a byte saved is a follower earned.

More in 15 Years Ago in ALA: Much Ado About 5K.

A List Apart № 420: Add Friction to Interactions, Customize With Care

IN ISSUE № 420 of A List Apart:

Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by Design


Does the internet ever stop you in your tracks? Does it sometimes make you pause and think about what you’re doing? Andrew Grimes calls such moments meta-moments. He walks us through why meta-moments are occasionally necessary and how we might build them into the experiences we design.

Approaching Content Strategy for Personalized Websites


Experience management systems are making it easier than ever to customize content for your visitors—but are you using your newfound personalizing powers for good (or for creepy)? Colin Eagan shows that personalization can be done, thoughtfully, using the same tools you would apply to any content strategy conundrum: by asking why, being deliberate, and putting users first.

A List Apart № 419: Narratives & Conversations

IN ISSUE № 419 of A List Apart:

Do Androids Dream in Free Verse


From ATMs to Siri to the button text in an application user interface, we “talk” to our tech—and our tech talks back. Often this exchange is purely transactional, but newer technologies have renegotiated this relationship. Joscelin Cooper reflects on how we can design successful human-machine conversations that are neither cloying nor overly mechanical. 

Building Nonlinear Narratives for the Web


The web operates in ways that can conflict with our traditional view of what a “story” is. Content is chunked, mixed, and spread across channels, devices, and formats. How do we understand story lines, characters, interactions, and the role of the audience, given this information sprawl? Cue nonlinear narratives—Senongo Akpem guides us past basic “scrolly-telling” to immersive, sometimes surprising experiences.

“Creative” is not a dirty word

THERE’S a meme promulgated by my dear friend Monteiro that they call you creative to take your power away. Rubbish.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with most of what Mike Monteiro has to say about design, which is why I published his two brilliant books.

Except for this one point, on which we will forever disagree.

“Creative” is not a dirty word, and it doesn’t diminish our profession to admit that creativity is part of what goes into great design—along with research, data, conversation, testing, and all the other science-y stuff we trot out to prove that we are worthy business partners, and not flighty pixies shouting “I feel purple today!”

Yes, even today, when business so values design that it is hiring great designers in-house instead of farming out design to consultants every ten years—even today, business folk still look askance at designers, still too often see us as gushing decorators, to be brought in after the real work is done and make things pretty so consumers will swallow.

And it’s the fear of that prejudiced, unfair, uninformed, entirely shallow view of the design profession that may make folks like Mike talk about design the way Hemingway talked about writing. As a thing a man does when he isn’t shooting tigers or brawling. Only not sexist.

But creative is creative. It’s a spark everyone is born with. Every child draws. Every child sings. Every child is creative, and every creative adult keeps an anarchic, joyful child alive inside herself, no matter the cost. And, boy, is there a cost.

Staying creative into adulthood is not all roses. It means you don’t pretend not to like dolls or crayons or singing when other kids your age start making fun of those things. The gift usually comes at the expense of other gifts. Take me. Other kids loved camp. I hated it. Other kids could shoot an arrow straight, without burning their fingers. I got rope burns sending an arrow onto the ground five inches in front of me.

At school, when it was time to choose teams for softball, all the other kids, even the physically handicapped kids, got chosen before I did. My hand to God, a kid with leg braces and coke bottle glasses was picked ahead of me. When I came up to bat, everyone snickered and moved in from the outfield. In eighth grade I got beat up so often they worked it into the curriculum. I was the bane of my ex-Marine chain-smoking gym teacher, and later of cops. I couldn’t even mow the lawn without having an allergy attack. I would not be fourteen again for life everlasting plus Beyoncé money plus Beyoncé.

Am I creative? I couldn’t hit a softball, but I wrote an operetta at age 12, and created a (short, lousy) animated film at fifteen. Okay, my childhood was a nonstop parade of shaming, fear, and social anxiety. But once I turned thirty or so, shit started getting good.

Am I creative? I write and design and work at businesses I invented. I can sit at a piano and improvise music for hours, and while it ain’t Mozart, it also doesn’t suck. Half the web designers I know are also musicians. Half the musicians I know also paint. You don’t have to suck at gym and be a creep, a weirdo to grow up designing or writing or acting or dancing. But it helps.

I don’t call myself creative. That’s pretentious. Maybe that’s what bothers people who hate that word. I’ve worked in creative departments. The label didn’t bother anyone because it was accurate. Not every effort we made was award-worthy, but they all came from a place beyond the purely rational.

Research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs go into everything we do. But research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs never created a memorable campaign, never crafted a logo, never reinvented how designers approach their craft. That spark, that divine spark, that indefinable creating essence of the spirit is what takes all that research and everything else and turns it into the things people love, use, read, watch, and remember.

If there is a God, she is the ultimate creative.

Yes, it takes creativity to get up in the morning and support three kids on two frustrating jobs.

Yes, everyone is creative, as everyone is connected, and everyone is divine. I am he as you are he as you are me etcetera.

Yes, the garbageman finding fresh ways every day to make his job bearable is far more creative than I will ever be.

Yes, yes, yes. You bet.

But that only proves what I’ve been saying. “Creative” is not a dirty word. “Create” is what we do. We turn nothing into something. We bring into existence. We make.

To create is divine.

This post was originally published in The Pastry Box Project.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Medium?

IN 2003, long before he was a creative director at Twitter, Douglas Bowman wrote articles about design, posted case studies about his design projects, and shared his photography on his personal/business site, stopdesign.com.

A year previously, Doug had attained instant fame in standardista circles by recoding Wired.com using CSS for layout. That sounds nonsensical nowadays, but in 2002, folks like me were still struggling to persuade our fellow web designers to use CSS, and not HTML tables, for layout. Leading web designers had begun seeing the light, and there had been a sudden profusion of blogs and personal sites that used CSS for layout, and whose markup strove to be semantic and to validate. But nobody had as yet applied web standards to a large commercial site—giving rise to the charge, among Luddite web designers, that standards-based design was “okay for blogs” but had no business on the “real” web.

Then Doug recoded Wired.com with CSS, Mike Davidson did the same for ESPN.com, and all the old reactionary talking points were suddenly as dead as Generalissimo Franco—and the race was on to build a standards-compliant, open web across all content and application sectors.

IN THE PROCESS of helping to lead this sea change, Douglas Bowman became famous, and anybody who was anybody in web design began passionately reading his blog. And yet.

And yet, when Doug had a really big idea to share with our community, he published it on A List Apart, the magazine “for people who make websites.”

Did he do so because blogging was dead? Because the open web was in trouble? Of course not. He did it because publishing on A List Apart in 2003 allowed Doug to share his innovative design technique with the widest possible audience of his peers.

PUBLISHING in multiple venues is not new. Charles Dickens, the literary colossus of Victorian England, did it. (He also pioneered serial cross-cutting, the serial narrative, and the incorporation of audience feedback into his narrative—techniques that anticipated the suspense film, serial television narratives like Mad Men, and the modification of TV content in response to viewer feedback over the internet. But those are other, possibly more interesting, stories.)

Nobody said the open web was dead when Doug Bowman published “Sliding Doors of CSS” on A List Apart.

Nobody said the blog was dead when RSS readers made it easier to check the latest content from your favorite self-publishing authors without bothering to type their personal sites’ URLs into your browser’s address bar.

Forward thinkers at The New York Times did not complain when Mike Davidson’s Newsvine began republishing New York Times content; the paper brokered the deal. They were afraid to add comments to their articles on their own turf, and saw Newsvine as a perfect place to test how live reader feedback could fit into a New York Times world.

When Cameron Koczon noticed and named the new way we interact with online content (“a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users”), smart writers, publishers, and content producers rejoiced at the idea of their words reaching more people more ways. Sure, it meant rethinking monetization; but content monetization on the web was mostly a broken race to the bottom, anyway, so who mourned the hastening demise of the “web user manually visits your site’s front page daily in hopes of finding new content” model? Not many of us.

By the time Cameron wrote “Orbital Content” in April of 2011, almost all visits to A List Apart and zeldman.com were triggered by tweets and other third-party posts. Folks were bookmarking Google and Twitter, not yourhomepage.com. And that was just fine. If you wrote good content and structured it correctly, people would find it. Instead of navigating a front-page menu hierarchy that was obsolete before you finished installing the templates, folks in search of exactly your content would go directly to that content. And it was good.

So just why are we afraid of Medium? Aside from not soliciting or editing most of its content, and not paying most of its authors, how does it differ from all previous web publications, from Slate to The Verge? Why does publishing content on Medium (in addition to your personal site and other publications) herald, not just the final-final-final death of blogging (“Death of Blogging III: This Time It’s Personal”), but, even more alarmingly, the death of the open web?

You may think I exaggerate, but I’ve heard more than one respected colleague opine that publishing in Medium invalidates everything we independent content producers care about and represent; that it destroys all our good works with but one stroke of the Enter button.

I’ve even had that thought myself.

But isn’t the arrival of a new-model web publication like Medium proof that the web is alive and healthy, and spawning new forms of creativity and success?

And when the publisher of a personal site writes for Medium, is she really giving up on her own site? Couldn’t she be simply hoping to reach new readers?

(If she succeeds, some of those new readers might even visit her site, occasionally.)

Thanks to Bastian Allgeier for inspiring this post.

This piece was also published on Medium.

This article has been translated into Chinese.

Eight Days in April

I’VE BEEN BUSY this week:

And stay tuned for today’s Big Web Show episode, taping live at 2:00 pm Eastern.

Responsive Web Design’s Debut (with video)


IT WAS FIVE years ago today, Ethan Marcotte taught the web to play…nicely with all kinds of devices in all kinds of contexts. And he did it live on stage at An Event Apart Seattle 2010. Watch the video that changed the web forever.

Progressive Enhancement FTW with Aaron Gustafson

IN EPISODE № 130 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”), I interview long-time web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson, author of Adaptive Web Design, on web design then and now; why Flipboard’s 60fps web launch is anti-web and anti-user; design versus art; and the 2nd Edition of Aaron’s book, coming from New Riders this year.

Enjoy Episode № 130 of The Big Web Show.

Show Links

A Bit About Aaron Gustafson
Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement
Responsive Issues Community Group
Easy Designs – Web Design, Development & Consulting
Web Standards Sherpa
Code & Creativity
WebStandardsProject (@wasp) | Twitter
A List Apart: For People Who Make Websites
Genesis – Land Of Confusion [Official Music Video] – YouTube


I’VE BEEN BUSY this month:

And March is only half over.