“Freelance to Agency” Podcast

PRESENTING the full audio recording of “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”, a panel at SXSW Interactive 2009 featuring Roger Black (founder of agencies huge and small), Kristina Halvorson (freelancer turned agency head), and Whitney Hess (agency pro turned freelance), and moderated by yours truly.

The panel was about quitting your job (or coping with a layoff), working as a freelancer, collaborating with others, and what to do if your collaboration starts morphing into an agency. We sought to answer questions like these:

  • What business and personal skills are required to start a freelance business or a small agency? Is freelancing or starting a small agency a good fit for my talents and abilities?
  • Is freelancing or starting a small agency the right work solution for me in a scary and rapidly shrinking economy? Can the downsides of this economy work to my advantage as a freelancer or small agency head?
  • I’ve been downsized/laid off/I’m stuck in a dead-end job working longer hours for less money. Should I look for a new job or take the plunge and go freelance?
  • What can I expect in terms of income and financial security if I switch from a staff job to freelancing? What techniques can I use as a freelancer to protect myself from the inevitable ups and downs?
  • How do I attract clients? How much in-advance work do I need to line up before I can quit my job?
  • How do I manage clients? What client expectations that are normal for in-house or big agency work must I deliver on as a freelancer or the head of a small or virtual agency? Which expectations can I discard? How do I tell my client what to expect?
  • Do I need an office? What are the absolute minimum tools I need to start out as a one-person shop?
  • How big can my freelance business grow before I need to recast it as a small agency?
  • What models are out there for starting an agency besides the conventional Inc. model with all its overhead? Which model would work best for me?
  • Who do I know with whom I could start a small or virtual agency? What should I look for in my partners? What should I beware of?
  • If I’m lucky enough to be growing, how do I protect my creative product and my professional reputation while adding new people and taking on more assignments?
  • How big can my agency grow before it sucks? How I can grow a business that’s dedicated to staying small?

Whitney Hess has written a fine wrap-up of the panel, including a collection of tweets raving about it, some of Mike Rohde’s visual coverage, and links to other people’s posts about the panel.

LISTEN to “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”.

[tags]design, webdesign, podcast, recording, SXSW, SXSWi, SXSWi09, panels, panel, freelance, agency, smallagency, transition, survival, economy[/tags]

Browser compatibility updates

DOM whiz and loyal-opposition/web standards advocate Peter-Paul Koch has been working overtime preparing detailed findings on CSS and DOM compatibility in modern browsers, including:

A Compatibility Master Table provides a snapshot of the status and results of all testing; Mobile Compatibility Tests are also in development.

It’s a great resource from an expert who really cares, and who has the time and expertise to find things out for the rest of us. Thanks, PPK!

Superhot standards-based redesign

Seed Magazine has received a killer redesign courtesy of Mike Pick and Tim Murtaugh.

And, except for the custom Flash-based video players, it’s all web-standards-based. CSS, XHTML, and JavaScript were never so hawt. Click on STUDIO in the nav bar, then explore SALON or SAVED BY SCIENCE to experience the new hotness.

[tags]tim murtaugh, mike pick, seed, seedmagazine[/tags]

41 Shades of Blue

The great Douglas Bowman leaves Google:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

[tags]DouglasBowman, Google, design[/tags]

Web Standards Test: Top 100 Sites

While working on the third edition of Designing With Web Standards, I decided to visit Alexa’s Top 100 US Sites to see how many of the top 100 use valid markup, how many nearly validate (i.e. would validate if not for an error or two), and which DOCTYPEs predominate. Even with a fistful of porn sites in the mix, it was dull work: click a link, load the home page, run a validation bookmarklet, record the result.

I had no expectations. I made no assumptions. I just clicked and tested.

Such tests tell us little

I make no claims about what I found. If all the home pages of the top 100 sites were valid, it would not mean that the pages beneath the home page level were valid, nor would it prove that the sites were authored semantically. (An HTML 4.0 table layout with no semantics can validate; so can a site composed entirely of non-semantic divs with presentational labels.)

Validation is not the be-all of standards-based design; it merely indicates that the markup, whatever its semantic quality may be, complies with the requirements of a particular standard. Conversely, lack of validation does not prove lack of interest in web standards: ads and other third-party content can wreck a once-valid template, as can later third-party development work.

Moreover, nothing causal or predictive can be determined from these results. If 25% of the top 100 sites validated in my test, it would not mean that 25% of all sites on the web validate.

And I got nothing like 25%.

Enough disclaimers. On with the test.

Seven percent validate

On this day, in this test, seven out of 100 “top US” sites validated:

  1. MSN (#7 in Alexa’s list) validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict. Who’d a thunk it? (Validation link)
  2. Craigslist (#10) validates as HTML 4.01 Transitional. I’ll buy that! (Validation link)
  3. WordPress (#22) validates as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. The power of the press, baby! (Validation link)
  4. Time Warner RoadRunner (#39) validates as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. Meep-Meep! (Validation link)
  5. BBC Newsline Ticker (#50) validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict. Cheers, mates! (Validation link)
  6. The US Internal Revenue Service (#58) validates as HTML 4.01 Transitional. Our tax dollars at work! (Validation link)
  7. TinyPic (#73) (“Free Image Hosting”), coded by ZURB, validates as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. (Validation link)

Also-rans (one or two errors)

  1. Wikipedia (#8) almost validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict (two errors).
  2. Apple (#29) almost validates as HTML 4.01 Transitional (two errors).
  3. Linkedin.com (#45) almost validates as HTML 4.01 Transitional (one error).
  4. AWeber Communications (#83) almost validates as XHTML 1.0 Transitional (one error: an onClick element)

Suis generis

The Pirate Bay (#68), “the world’s largest BitTorrent tracker,” goes in and out of validation. When it validates, it’s a beautiful thing, and it belongs on the list. But when it goes out of validation, it can quickly stack up ten errors or more. (Validation Link)

No-shows

Google (#1) does not validate or declare a DOCTYPE.

Yahoo (#2) does not validate or declare a DOCTYPE.

YouTube (#3) does not validate but at least declares that it is HTML 4.01 Transitional. Progress!

A surprising number of sites that do not come close to validating declare a DOCTYPE of XHTML 1.0 Strict. For instance, Twitter (#93) is authored in XHTML 1.0 Strict, although it contains seven errors.

This preference for Strict among non-validating sites suggests that at one point these sites were made over by standards-aware developers; but that any standards improvements made to these sites were lost by subsequent developers. (It doesn’t prove this; it merely suggests.) Another possibility is that some developers use tools that are more standards-aware than they are. (For instance, a developer with little to no knowledge of web standards might use a tool that defaults to the XHTML 1.0 Strict DOCTYPE.)

Some sites that used to validate (such as Blogger.com, previously designed by Douglas Bowman, and Reference.com, previously designed by Happy Cog) no longer do so; maintaining standards or design compliance may not have been important to new owners or new directors.

[tags]validation, webstandards, alexa, test[/tags]

State of the web

Web designers and developers power the global economy, but almost nothing is known about who we are, where we live, how we work, what tools we use.

The A List Apart survey (2007 survey, 2007 detailed findings, 2008 survey) of over 32,000 full-time, part-time, and freelance web designers, developers, and related user experience professionals began answering questions about who works in this field, where we are located, which kinds of businesses and organizations employ us, under which titles we work, what we earn, how satisfied and secure we are, and so on.

Complementing this information, in 2008 Web Directions North conducted a State of the Web 2008 survey of designers, developers, and other web professionals to find out more about our philosophies, technologies, and best practices. The findings include details and analysis of all responses to over 50 questions. You can read all the questions, download the complete (anonymized) set of responses, read detailed analysis, and more.

What percentage of your peers who took the survey use JavaScript for Ajax communication with the server? What percentage don’t use JavaScript at all? How many still test their sites in IE 5.0? The answers to dozens of questions like these await you.

[tags]webdirections, survey, webdesign, webdevelopment[/tags]

Art direction plug-in for WordPress

If you’ve been longing to follow Jason Santa Maria’s lead and bring real art direction to the no-budget, publish-now medium of the personal website, Noel Jackson‘s Art Direction Plug-in is for you. The plug-in lets you style individual entries in your WordPress blog without hacking the publishing tool or expending energy on time-consuming workarounds.

[tags]art direction, design, webdesign, wordpress, plugins, plug-ins, formatting, CSS, per-post, noeljackson, jasonsantamaria[/tags]

ALA No. 277: design, debug, details

In Issue No. 277 of A LIST APART, for people who make websites: Hallvord R. M. Steen and Chris Mills share the lowdown on Advanced Debugging with JavaScript, and Kevin Potts reveals the secrets of successful designers who keep their eye on The Details That Matter.

P.S. You can now follow A List Apart on Twitter.

Comments off.

[tags]alistapart, design, debugging, debugger, chrismills, hallvordsteen, kevinpotts[/tags]

ALA No. 276: Web design education

In Issue No. 276 of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Elevate Web Design at the University Level

by LESLIE JENSEN-INMAN

Web education is out of date and fragmented. There are good people working hard to change this, but because of the structure of higher education, it will take time. As part of a year-long journey to discover where we are in web education and where we need to go, Leslie Jensen-Inman interviewed 32 web design and development leaders. The consensus: technology moves too fast for college and university curricula to keep up. How, then, can educators create a sustainable foundation for the future?

Brighter Horizons for Web Education

by AARRON WALTER

No industry can sustain itself if it doesn’t master the art of cultivating new talent—an art that requires close ties between practitioners and educators. Yet web design education consists mainly of introductory Flash classes and the occasional 90s-style HTML table layout tutorial. How drastic is the web design education gap, and what can be done to close it? Designer, developer, and web design educator Aarron Walter of The Web Standards Project surveys the state of the curricula.

[tags]webdesign, education[/tags]

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor

Launched today (my birthday), Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a $49.99 extension for Adobe Dreamweaver. It includes two major interfaces:

  1. The Web Validator validates your HTML and CSS and verifies the proper use of microformats, including hCard and hCalendar, for single pages or entire websites.
  2. The Web Standards Advisor checks for subtleties of standards compliance in nine different areas—everything from structural use of headings to proper ID, class, and <div> element use. Nonstandard practices are flagged and reported in the Dreamweaver Results panel for quick code correction. A full report with more details and suggested fixes is also generated.

How did it get here?

Over coffee in New Orleans last year, WebAssist’s Joseph Lowery and I chatted about a fantasy product that could improve the markup of even the most experienced front-end coder. The benefits were obvious. After all, better markup means lighter, faster web pages whose content is easier for search engines (and thus people) to find.

The product would look over your shoulder and notice things.

  • If you were using a class when you might be better off using an ID (and vice-versa), the fantasy product would cough gently and tell you.
  • If you skipped a heading level—say, if you had h4s and h6s but no h5 on your site—it would discreetly whisper in your ear.
  • If, on an old site (or sadly, on a new one) you used class names that were visual instead of semantic (i.e. class=”big_yellow_box” instead of class=”additional_info”), it would quietly let you know about it.

To me, this was a fantasy product, because so many of these things seem to require human judgement. I didn’t think programmers could develop algorithms capable of simulating that level of judgement. Joseph Lowery took my doubt as a challenge.

A year of collaborative back-and-forth later, Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a working 1.0 product.

How good is it?

I ran Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor on the four-year-old markup of this site’s current blog layout, and discovered embarrassing mistakes that don’t show up on validators. (I haven’t fixed those mistakes yet, by the way. For fun, or extra credit, see if you can figure out what they are.)

Then I ran the product on several new sites coded by some of the best CSS and markup people in the business, and found a surprising quantity of mistakes there, as well. Nobody’s perfect—not even the best coders.

Some of the errors the product found were mere errors of style, but were still worth correcting, if only to set a good example for those who view source on your sites. Other errors the product revealed could affect how easy it is for people to find a site’s content. Fixing such errors is a business necessity.

Some issues are purely judgement calls: is it okay to sometimes use <b> instead of <strong>? When is it perfectly fine to skip a heading level? To address those subtleties, there is a wiki where such topics are discussed, and “error” messages link to the relevant topics in the wiki, so you can click straight through to the online discussion.

Who is it for?

  • Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor will help beginning and intermediate coders write smarter, more compliant markup that makes site content easier to find.
  • It will help coders at any level (including expert) who use Dreamweaver as a primary web development tool, and who know about web standards but don’t spend all day thinking about them. Now you don’t have to—and you can still create leaner sites that work for more people, and whose content is easier to find.
  • Site owners might run the product on their site, to see how compliant it is and how findable their markup allows their content to be.

But what about many people reading this website, who write their XHTML and CSS by hand, and who rightfully consider themselves standardistas? That’s right. What about you?

You aren’t the primary customer, but you might find the product useful. I’m a hand-coder and always will be. I own Dreamweaver mainly because it comes with Adobe CS3 and CS4. Installing Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a no-brainer, and running it on my work (or that of people working for me) turns up enough surprises to more than justify the time and expense.

Plus, after you use it to clean up your own, small, embarrassing errors of markup, you can run it on your heroes’ websites and revel in their mere mortality.

Disclosing the obvious

Jeffrey Zeldman's Web Standards Advisor

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Web Standards Advisor is a product. It is not a free product. At $49.99, it’s not terribly expensive, but it’s not free.

I have a small financial interest and a gigantic brand interest in it. If it’s a weak product, it reflects badly on me, my agency, my conference, my books, and possibly even the very category of web standards. I therefore have a huge stake in making sure it’s a good product—that it’s easy to use, meets real needs now, and evolves in response to customer feedback and the slow but steady evolution of standards. (XHTML 2? HTML 5? More microformats? Stay tuned.)

[tags]webstandards, advisor, dreamweaver, extension, markup, helper, assistant, webassist, zeldman[/tags]