Responsive times two: essential new books from Ethan Marcotte & Karen McGrane

Responsive Design times two! New books from the geniuses, Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane.

IT WAS the early 2000s. The smoke from 9/11 was still poisoning my New York.

Karen McGrane was a brilliant young consultant who had built the IA practice at Razorfish while still in her early 20s, and was collaborating with my (now ex-)wife on some large, exciting projects for The New York Public Library. Ethan Marcotte was a Dreadlocks-hat-sporting kid I’d met in Cambridge through Dan Cederholm, with whom he sometimes collaborated on tricky, standards-based site designs. The first edition of my Designing With Web Standards was in the can. I figured that, like my previous book, it would sell about 10,000 copies and then vanish along with all the other forgotten web design books.

Nothing happened as I expected it to. The only thing I got right besides web standards was the desire to some day work with Karen, Ethan, and Dan—three dreams that, in different ways, eventually all came true. But nothing, not even the incredible experience of working with these luminaries, could have prepared me for the effect Ethan and Karen and Dan would have on our industry. Even less could I have guessed back then the announcement it’s my pleasure to make today:

Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Karen McGrane’s Going Responsive are now available in our A Book Apart store.

It was thrilling to bring you Ethan and Karen’s first industry-changing A Book Apart books. Being allowed to bring you a second set of absolutely essential works on responsive design from these two great minds is a gift no publisher deserves, and for which I am truly grateful.

Building on the concepts in his groundbreaking Responsive Web Design, Ethan now guides you through developing and using design patterns so you can let your responsive layout reach more devices (and people) than ever before.

Karen McGrane effortlessly defined the principles of Content Strategy for Mobile. She’s helped dozens of teams effectively navigate responsive projects, from making the case to successful launch. Now, she pulls it all together to help you go responsive—wherever you are in the process.

Ebooks are available immediately and paperbacks ship next week. Buy Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Going Responsive together and save 15%! (Learn more.)

Zen & The Art of iTunes Failure 

REBUILDING iTunes library from scratch over two days got app working again. Fine use of lazy weekend.

Had to sacrifice all custom playlists dating back to 2002, including An Event Apart playlists and delivery room mix from Ava’s birth.

Playlists still exist on old iPod but can’t be copied from it back to iTunes. (All software I’ve tried freezes & fails.)

Playlists still exist as code snippets inside .itl file in old iTunes folder, but numerous trials prove iTunes can’t launch from that folder any more. Thus I can’t temporarily launch from old folder, export playlists, switch back to safe new folder, and import them, thereby saving them.

And iTunes can’t import old .itl files. I Googled. I tried anyway.

13 years of custom playlists. From before, during, and after my marriage. Including one my daughter called “princess music” and danced to when she was three. Gone.

But, really, so what? Over time we lose everything. This loss is nothing. Attachment is futile. Always move forward, until you stop moving.

The Law is an Ass: Digital Law & Web Design with Heather Burns

Heather BurnsDIGITAL LAW specialist Heather Burns is my guest on today’s Big Web Show. Heather is a “recovering web designer,” the author of The Web Designer’s Guide to the Consumer Rights Directive, and the founder of a monthly ebulletin with digital law and policy news you need to know.

She explains: “While I am not a lawyer, the legislators who create digital laws are not internet users, much less designers or developers. Therein lies the problem. I view my work on digital law and policy as an attempt to build a bridge between the two parties.”

Heather and I discuss laws governing transactions on the web, including the birth of the EU cookie law (all 27 versions of it); the slow pace of government versus the lightning speed of change on the web; and why web design and development a seat at the legislative table.

Enjoy Big Web Show № 137: The Law is an Ass—Digital Law & Web Design with Heather Burns.

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

Web Performance Today

WEB DESIGNERS have cared about web performance since the profession’s earliest days. When I started, we saved user bandwidth by employing GIF images that had the fewest possible colors—with no dithering, when possible, and by using actual web text instead of pictures of web text. (Kids, ask your parents about life before CSS enabled, type designers created formats for, browsers finally supported, and Typekit quickly popularized web fonts.)

Later, we learned to optimize JPEGs and blur their backgrounds: the blurrier large swathes of a JPEG image can be, the lower the bandwidth requirements for the image. We found the optimally performant size for repeating background tiles (32 x 32 and 64 x 64 were pretty good) and abandoned experiments like single-pixel-wide backgrounds, which seemed like a good idea but slowed browsers, servers, and computers to a crawl.

We developed other tricks, too. Like, when we discovered that GIF images optimized better if they possessed repeating patterns of diagonal lines, we worked diagonal background images into a design trend. It was the trend that preceded drop shadows, the wicked worn look, and skeuomorpic facades, which were themselves a retro recurrence of one of the earliest styles of commercial web design; that trend, which was always on the heavy side, performance-wise, eventually gave way to a far more performant grid-driven minimalism, which hearkened back to classic 1940s Swiss graphic design, but which our industry (sometimes with little knowledge of design history) called “flat design” and justified as being “born digital” despite its true origins going back to pixels, protractors, and a love of Greek mathematics.

All of this nostalgia is prelude to making the obvious comment that web design today is far more complex than it was in those golden years of experimentation; and because it is so much more complex, front-end performance is also far more complicated. You didn’t need an engineering degree to run DeBabelizer and remove needless elements from your markup, but, boy, does front-end design today feel more and more like serious coding.

All of which is to say, if you’re a front-end designer/developer, you should probably read and bookmark Nate Berkopec’s “Ludicrously Fast Page Loads – A Guide for Full-Stack Devs.” While you’re at it, save it to Pocket, and as a PDF you can read on your tablet.

I cannot verify every detail Nate provides, but it is all in line with recommendations I’ve heard over and over at top conferences, and read in articles and books by such performance mavens as Jake Archibald, Lara Hogan, Scott Jehl, and Yesenia Perez-Cruz.

You should also pick up these great books on performance:

(It’s not why I wrote this post, but if you order Scott’s book today, you can save 10% when you enter discount code ABAHARVEST at checkout.)

Even the most complex site should work in any device that reads HTML. It should work if stylesheets fail to load or the device doesn’t recognize CSS. It should work if JavaScript fails to load or the device doesn’t recognize JavaScript. The principles of standards-based design will never change, no matter how complex our web becomes. And as it becomes more complex (and, arguably, much richer), it behooves us to squeeze every byte of performance we can.

Websites can never be too rich or too thin.

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

Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”

Also published in Medium.

My website is 20 years old today.

MY WEBSITE is 20 years old today. I’m dictating these remarks into a tiny handheld device, not to prove a point, but because, with gorgeously ironic timing, my wired internet connection has gone out. It’s the kind of wired connection, offering the kind of speed, ‘most everyone reading this takes for granted today—a far cry from the 14.4 modem with which I built and tested the first version of this site, shipping it (if you could call it that) on May 31, 1995.

I’m no longer dictating. I’m pecking with my index finger. On the traditional computer keyboard, I’m a super-fast touch typist. I mastered touch typing in high school. I was the only boy in that class. All the other boys took car repair. They laughed at me for being in a class full of girls, which was weird and stupid of them on at least five levels. Maybe they wanted to work in an auto body shop. I wanted to be a writer and an artist. Learning to type as quickly as I could think was a needed skill and part of my long self-directed apprenticeship.

My first typewriter cost me $75. I can’t tell you how many hours it took me to earn that money, or how proud I was of that object. I wrote my first books on it. They will never be published but that’s all right. Another part of the apprenticeship.

After touch typing at the speed of thought for decades, I found it tough learning to write all over again, one finger letter at a time, in my first iPhone, but I’m fluent today. My right index finger is sending you these words now, and probably developing early onset arthritis as a result, but I am also fairly fluent with with my left thumb when situations compel me to work one-handed. The reduced speed of this data entry ritual no longer impedes my flow. 

And since WordPress is an app on my phone, and my AT&T 4E connection never fails me, even when the cable modem internet connection is out,  today I can update my site leagues faster than when I was chained to a desk and wires and HTML and Fetch and static files—20 years ago, before some of you were born. 

I wanted to launch a redesign on this 20th anniversary—in the old days I redesigned this site four or five times a year, whenever I had a new idea or learned a new skill—but with a ten year old daughter and four businesses to at least pretend to run (businesses that only exist because I started this website 20 years ago today and because my partners started theirs), a redesign by 31 May 2015 wasn’t possible. 

So I’ll settle for the perfectly timed, gratitude-inducing, reflection-prompting failure of my cable modem on this of all days. That’s my redesign for the day: a workflow redesign. 

Boy, is my finger tired. Too tired to type the names of all the amazing and wonderful people I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. (Just because a personal site is personal doesn’t mean it could have happened without the help and support and love of all you good people.)

When I started this site I wrote in the royal “we” and cultivated an ironic distance from my material and my gentle readers, but today this is just me with all my warts and shame and tenderness—and you. Not gentle readers. People. Friends. 

I launched this site twenty years ago (a year before the Wayback Machine, at least two years before Google) and it was one of the only places you could read and learn about web design. I launched at a tilde address (kids, ask your parents), and did not think to register until 1996, because nobody had ever done anything that crazy. 

On the day I launched my pseudonymous domain I already had thousands of readers, had somehow coaxed over a million visitors to stop by, and had the Hit Counter to prove it. (If you remember the 1970s, you weren’t there, but if you remember the early web, you were.) Today, because I want people to see these words, I’ll repost them on Medium. Because folks don’t bookmark and return to personal sites as they once did. And they don’t follow their favorite personal sites via RSS, as they once did. Today it’s about big networks. 

It’s a Sunday. My ten year old is playing on her iPad and the two cats are facing in opposite directions, listening intently to fluctuations in the air conditioning hum. 

I’ve had two love relationships since launching this site. Lost both, but that’s okay. I started this site as a goateed chain smoker in early sobriety (7 June 1993) and continue it as a bearded, yoga practicing, single dad. Ouch. Even I hate how that sounds. (But I love how it feels.) 

I started this site with animated gifs and splash pages while living in a cheap rent stabilized apartment. PageSpinner was my jam. I was in love with HTML and certain that the whole world was about to learn it, ushering in a new era of DIY media, free expression, peace and democracy and human rights worldwide. That part didn’t work out so well, although the kids prefer YouTube to TV, so that’s something. 

My internet failure—I mean the one where an internet connection is supposed to be delivered to my apartment via cable—gets me off the hook for having to create a visual tour of “important” moments from this website over the past 20 years. No desktop, no visual thinking. That’s okay too. Maybe I’ll be able to do it for for this site’s 25th anniversary. That’s the important one, anyway. 

Hand pecked into a small screen for your pleasure. New York, NY, 31 May 2015. The present day content producer etc.

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,

A year previously, Doug had attained instant fame in standardista circles by recoding 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 with CSS, Mike Davidson did the same for, 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 were triggered by tweets and other third-party posts. Folks were bookmarking Google and Twitter, not 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.

Blue Beanie Day is Coming!

A sea of blue hats

ALL IT TAKES is a toque and a dream.

Join your fellow web designers and developers around the world on Saturday, 30 November 2013, as we march in virtual solidarity in support of web standards.

The countdown to this worldwide celebration begins today, with the opening of the Blue Beanie Day 2013 photo pool on good old Read more at the new official home of Blue Beanie Day online,