Love. Listen. Learn.

NOTE: Below is a transcript of my aural contribution to Episode № 185 of The ShopTalk Show (“This Idea Must Die”):

AS A COMMUNITY, we have to stop demonizing those with whom we disagree.

Attacking the intelligence, moral fiber, and grip on sanity of those who hold opinions contrary to ours is nothing new on the internet. It’s as old as newsgroups. A minute after somebody started, a second person signed up just to tell the first person to screw off.

And of course it’s even older than that. Progressive groups that try to bring positive change to their community are always splitting into factions that despise each other. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” and remember the sequence where the zealots are sitting in an ancient square, attacking other zealot groups for being “splitters,” you have a good idea of how far back this goes.

To J. Edgar Hoover, there was no difference between Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky—but, boy, did the Stalinists and Trotskyites disagree with that point of view. Ask two Communists a question and you’ll get three answers and four bullets. And, minus the bullets, the same is true for social-progress-minded web designers and developers. And equally true for reactionaries, who think the system is fair for everyone, since it’s always been good to them.

Until we are free to disagree on the most sensitive of subjects without maligning each other’s integrity, we will not be able to solve the biggest problems we face as a people and an industry.

I’m Jeffrey Zeldman. Thanks for listening.

I encourage you to listen to Episode № 185 of The ShopTalk Show (“This Idea Must Die”).

You’re welcome: cutting the mustard then and now.

EVERY TIME I hear a young web developer cite the BBC’s forward-thinking practice of “cutting the mustard,” by which they mean testing a receiving web device for certain capabilities before serving content, I remember when my team and I at The Web Standards Project invented that very idea. It’s a million web years ago, by which I mean fourteenish human years ago, so nobody remembers but me and some other long toothed grayhairs, plus a few readers of the first edition of Designing With Web Standards. But I like you, so I will tell you the story.

Back then in those dark times, it was common practice for web developers to create four or more versions of the same website—one for each browser then in wide use. It was also a typical (and complementary) practice to send server-side queries to figure out which browser was about to access a site’s content, and then send the person using that browser to the site version that was configured for her browser’s particular quirks, proprietary tags, and standards compliance failings.

The practice was called “browser detection.” Nobody but some accessibility advocates had ever questioned it—and the go-go dot-com era had no time or care for those folks.

But we at The Web Standards Project turned everything on its head. We said browsers should support the same standards instead of competing to invent new tags and scripting languages. We said designers, developers, and content folks should create one site that was accessible to everyone. In a world like that, you wouldn’t need browser detection, because every browser and device that could read HTML would be able to feast on the meat of your site. (And you’d have more meat to share, because you’d spend your time creating content instead of crafting multiple versions of the same site.)

To hasten that world’s arrival, in 2001 we launched a browser upgrade campaign. Those who participated (example participant here) employed our code and content to send their users the message that relatively standards-compliant browsers were available for every platform, and inviting them to try one. Because if more people used relatively standards-compliant browsers, then we could urge more designers and developers to create their sites with standards (instead of quirks). And as more designers and developers did that, they’d bump against still-unsolved standards compliance conundrums, enabling us to persuade browser makers to improve their standards compliance in those specific areas. Bit by bit, stone by stone, this edifice we could, and would, erect.

The code core of the 2001 browser upgrade campaign was the first instance of capability detection in place of browser detection. Here’s how it worked. After creating a valid web page, you’d insert this script in the head of your document or somewhere in your global JavaScript file:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =

We even provided details for various flavors of markup. In HTML 4 or XHTML 1 Transitional documents, it looked like this:

<script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
// -->

In STRICT documents, you’d either use a global .js file, or insert this:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
// -->

You could also just as easily send visitors to an upgrade page on your own site:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =

Non-WaSP members (at the time) J. David Eisenberg, Tantek Çelik, and Jim Heid contributed technical advice and moral support to the effort. WaSP sysadmin Steven Champeon, the inventor of progressive enhancement, made it all work—under protest, bless him. (Steve correctly believed that all web content should always be available to all people and devices; therefore, in principle, he disliked the upgrade campaign, even though its double purpose was to hasten the arrival of truly standards-compliant browsers and to change front-end design and development from a disrespected world of hacks to a sustainable and professional craft. ((See what I did there? I’m still respectfully arguing with Steve in my head.)))

Discovering rudimentary DOM awareness or its absence in this fashion was the first time web developers had tested for capabilities instead of chasing the dragon in a perpetual and futile attempt to test for every possible browser flavor and version number. It was the grandparent, if you will, of today’s “cutting the mustard.” And it is analogous as well to the sensible responsive design practice of setting breakpoints for the content, instead of trying to set appropriate breakpoints for every possible device out there (including all the ones that haven’t been invented yet).

Which reminds us that the whole point of web standards was and is forward compatibility—to create content that will work not only in yesterday’s and today’s browsers and devices, but in all the wonderful devices that have yet to be invented, and for all the people of the world. You’re welcome.

—CHICAGO, Westin Chicago River Hotel, 1 September 2015

Hat tip: John Morrison

A Beautiful Life

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.

The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”

Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.

No Ken Do (Musketeer Barbie Saves the Prince)

I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.

This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.

In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)

In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.

I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.

This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.

You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.

Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?

Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.

For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?

The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.

All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.

But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.

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.

Animate This: Val Head on CSS, Pittsburgh, and The Big Web Show

Val Head

DESIGNER/DEVELOPER Val Head and I discuss her new book A Pocket Guide to CSS Animations (Five Simple Steps, 2013); the Web Design Day conference; working as a hired gun; JavaScript and CSS animation; the great city of Pittsburgh; what it takes to run a workshop; and more. Enjoy Episode № 104 of The Big Web Show on Mule Radio.

There’s Always More

Big Web Show № 98: Designer Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman

I CHAT with internet radio pioneer, design author, and brand maven Debbie Millman about broadcasting, writing, teaching, publishing, learning to be happy in your own skin, and the importance of early failure to long-term success and happiness. Enjoy Debbie Millman on The Big Web Show.

(Want more Debbie? Check Observer Media–Debbie’s legendary audio interviews with the likes of Jessica Walsh, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Maria Popova, Stefan Sagmeister, Dave Eggers, Jen Bekman, Gary Hustwit, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Erik Spierkermann, Jessica Hische, and many more.)

And now for something completely different

IN THESE PAGES I have written on many subjects, but I never expected my ass to be one of them. The untimely passing last year of Hillman Curtis changed that.

Hillman was a friend, an inspiration, an artist admired by many designers and filmmakers. Over a brief but luminous career, he invented himself first as a songwriter in a touring post-punk band, then as an art director and eventually the design director of Macromedia (and Flash evangelist Numero Uno), next as the founder of a boutique design studio and the author of design books that have sold over 150 thousand copies—a staggering achievement in an industry where cracking 10,000 copies sold makes you a rock star.

He was a generous mentor and pal to the digital design community, perpetually sharing his insights and enthusiasm, and encouraging others to do and be everything they could be. If you needed studio space, he would find you a desk. If you were low on funds, he would help you land a suitable gig. Hillman and I worked on a couple of projects together when I first founded Happy Cog. The jobs went well and the work was good. He was a supportive and honorable design director.

Hillman’s final public creative incarnation was as a filmmaker. He is probably best known for his “Artist Series” about designers including Milton Glaser and Paula Scher, and artists David Byrne and Brian Eno.

Even his personal life was inspiring. He had two children and a wife, and the love in that beautiful family could be seen a mile away.

Colon cancer took Hillman from us on April 18, 2012. He was only 51.

I don’t know if Hillman’s cancer could have been prevented with a simple screening, but I know a colonoscopy is recommended for most men and women when they reach a certain age, and I know I love my daughter very much.

And so, this morning, for her sake and per my doctor’s recommendation, I set aside feelings of embarrassment and fears of discomfort and had the test.

It’s really not bad. There’s no pain, it takes only a few minutes, and you’re unconscious.

This post may cross a taste line for some readers; sorry about that. I’m also sorry this page won’t help you write better HTML or sharpen your collaborative skills. But I love you and would like you to stick around.

Big Web Show 81: SwissMiss

IN EPISODE No. 81 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) I interview Tina Roth Eisenberg, creator of swissmiss and tattly, founder of Creative Mornings, and cofounder of teuxdeux. We discuss discovering your path as a designer; why the motto “let it go or fix it” can help you create great product ideas; how to be a good boss; and how kids can have a profoundly positive influence on your career.

Listen to Episode 81 of The Big Web Show.

More Tina

To Leiden, To Leiden

THEY’RE SLEEPING in New York. They’re sleeping all over the world. Even here in Leiden, The Netherlands, they’re still mumbling and drooling in their beds. But not me. I’m awake and packing for my return home to NYC after three glorious days here in this ancient university town, where I was privileged to speak at the first Inspire conference. And all you got were these lousy photos.

Related: Design Problem