Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.

As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.



Design Is A Relationship

Mike Monteiro

MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.

It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.

I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.

If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:

  • Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
  • Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.

We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.

Big Web Show 77: @sazzy

IN EPISODE No. 77 of The Big Web Show, I interview returning guest Sarah Parmenter about designing an app for the homeless; the challenges of multi-device design; teaching HTML and CSS to young people; designing a complex reader app; the ideal number of employees for a small design studio; Brooklyn vs. small-town UK; and more.

The Big Web Show features special guests on topics like web publishing, art direction, content strategy, typography, web technology, and more. It’s everything web that matters.

Sarah Parmenter Photo by Pete Karl II.

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

Mike Monteiro’s “Design Is A Job” is finally available to buy or preview.

CO-FOUNDER of Mule Design and raconteur Mike Monteiro wants to help you do your job better. From contracts to selling design, from working with clients to working with each other, his brief book Design Is A Job is packed with knowledge you need to know. This is one of the most in-demand titles we at A Book Apart have yet published, and the long, long wait for its release (and yours) is finally over!

— Enjoy an exclusive Preview of Design Is A Job in Issue No. 348 of A List Apart, for people who make websites.

Buy Design Is A Job directly from the makers at A Book Apart.

Also of interest:

Freelance Nation

IT’S BEEN CALLED the Gig Economy, Freelance Nation, the Rise of the Creative Class, and the e-conomy, with the “e” standing for electronic, entrepreneurial, or perhaps eclectic. Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change. No longer do we work at the same company for 25 years, waiting for the gold watch, expecting the benefits and security that come with full-time employment. We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum- amateur photographers who write on the side.

Today, careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms/coffee shops/coworking spaces. Independent workers abound. We call them freelancers, contractors, sole proprietors, consultants, temps, and the self-employed.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, many of them love it.

via The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time – Sara Horowitz – Business – The Atlantic.

An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

On Creative Direction

IN MY APPRENTICE DAYS, I worked for Marvin Honig, a Hall of Fame copywriter who created indelible commercials for Alka-Seltzer, Cracker Jack, and Volkswagen during the 1960s and 1970s, and who assumed creative leadership of Doyle Dane Bernbach upon legendary founder Bill Bernbach’s death. It was not one of those bloody successions that stain the pages of history and advertising. Bill chose Marvin to carry on in his place.

By the time I met Marvin, he and I were toiling at Campbell-Mithun-Esty. He had been brought in to radically upgrade the financially successful but talent-challenged agency’s creative product. I was there because it was the first job I could get in New York.

Marvin was gentle. He never told you how stale your ideas were or how disappointed he was in you for not working harder. He made you believe you were the future, not only of the place, but of the profession.

Besides his warmth, what I remember most is a piece of advice he gave me: “If you’re not a creative director by the time you’re 40, get out of the business.”

Continue reading But What I Really Want to Do is Direct at Cognition, the blog of Happy Cog.

A List Apart 311: Say No to Clients and Kick Ass

A List Apart Issue No. 311

Something remarkable awaits you in Issue No. 311 of A List Apart for people who make websites. Two wonderfully readable articles tackle the thorny subject of client relationships, providing practices, insights, and tips which, when taken to heart, will help designers, UXers, and (frankly) clients do their jobs better:

One of the toughest parts of the client/designer relationship is that nobody likes to be told “no”—especially not the client who is paying you. But to do your job right, you often have to turn aside requests for what the client wants in favor of what the user really needs. In No One Nos: Learning to Say No to Bad Ideas, Whitney Hess explains when to say no, and how to turn it into a positive experience.

Of course, your ability to speak truth to the client assumes you’ve established a mutually respectful, goal- and team-focused relationship in the first place. And the first place is exactly where to begin establishing just that kind of relationship. In Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings, Kevin M. Hoffman shows how to use the first official meeting to turn a roomful of mutually suspicious turf battlers into an energetic team with shared ownership of the end-product.

Not only are these articles convincing, I know these techniques work, because we use them at Happy Cog.

Also in this issue, ALA illustrator Kevin Cornell outdoes even himself.

Join us, won’t you?

A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices. Explore our articles and topics.

Happy Cog redesigns Zappos.com

Zappos.com, redesigned by Happy Cog.

Free overnight shipping; a liberal return policy; friendly service: it’s no secret that Zappos.com positions the customer as the cornerstone of their brand promise. Yet despite their success, Zappos.com was a website with a problem: their business growth had outpaced the slowly-evolving aesthetic of their website. While the site enabled customers to make their purchases quickly, it didn’t capture and embrace the hallmarks of the Zappos.com culture. Enter Happy Cog. (Read more.)