Category Archives: The Profession

Achieving Empathy for Institutions with Anil Dash

Anil Dash

IN BIG WEB SHOW № 115 on Mule Radio, I talk with Anil Dash, a hugely influential entrepreneur, blogger, and web geek living in NYC.

Things we discuss include:

How government, media, and tech shape the world, and how we can influence them in turn. Our first meeting at SXSW in 2002. How selling CMS systems teaches you the dysfunction at media companies and organizations. Working for the music industry at the dawn of Napster. RFP-EZ. The early days of blogging.

Designing websites for the government—the procurement problem. If we’re pouring all this time into social media, what do we want to get out of it? How big institutions work and how to have an impact on them. Living in “Joe’s Apartment.”

Why, until recently, federal agencies that wanted a blog couldn’t use WordPress or Tumblr and how the State Dept got on Tumblr. Achieving empathy for institutions. Being more thoughtful about what I share and who I amplify on social media. The launch of Thinkup, and a special offer exclusively for Big Web Show listeners.

Enjoy Big Web Show № 115.


Sponsored by An Event Apart, the design conference for people who make websites. Save $100 off any 2- or 3-day AEA event with discount code AEABWS.


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.)


The Lords of Vendorbation

Vendorbation
ven·dor·ba·tion
/ˈvendər-ˈbā-shən/

noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.

Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.

Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.

Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.

Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).

Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.

Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?

Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.

Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”


Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.

For Your Listening Pleasure

THE BIG WEB SHOW is back, baby! In spite of hurricanes, blackouts, and the vagaries of international travel, my 5by5 audio podcast about “everything web that matters” has returned to weekly broadcasting. Here are the latest episodes for your edification and listening pleasure:

Episode 76: Jen Robbins

Creator of four classic web design books (in 13 editions) Jennifer Robbins and I chat about her upcoming Artifact Conference for multi-device design; why sites are now systems, not pages; how style guides can function as a system design description tool; getting digital UX design into its natural habitat (hint: not a comp) sooner than later; what’s new in web design and the 4th Edition of her O’Reilly classic Learning Web Design; and loads more.

Jennifer Robbins has two decades of web design experience, having designed the first commercial website, O’Reilly’s Global Network Navigator (GNN), in 1993. She’s the author of O’Reilly’s Web Design in a Nutshell, and has taught web design at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI.

Episode 75: Evan Williams

Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, discusses what it’s like to be an internet entrepreneur, from the origin of product ideas to the art of the pivot. Ev is a notoriously private guy; it is wonderful to hear him open up and share his hard-won web wisdom in this episode.

Evan Williams is an American entrepreneur who has co-founded several internet companies, including Pyra Labs (creators of Blogger) and Twitter, where he was previously CEO. His new thing is Medium. Ev was born and raised on a farm in central Nebraska. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons. He likes long walks, tofu, and bourbon. Ev has blogged for over a decade at evhead.com; you can follow him on Twitter at @ev.

Episode 74: Chris Coyier

In Episode No. 74 of The Big Web Show, I interview Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks, CodePen, and ShopTalk about the path from employee to media maven, upcoming secret features for CodePen, coping with Retina images, finding sponsors, the success of his Kickstarter campaign, tee shirts for manly men, Twitter dramas about baseline grids, and more.

Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) founded and writes at CSS-Tricks, co-hosts a podcast at ShopTalk, and co-founded and is a designer at CodePen, a sort of Dribble for coders.

Episode 73: Sara Wachter-Boettcher

I chat with content strategist and author of Content Everywhere Sara Wachter-Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie) about how practitioners can organize and structure content to maximize its value, longevity, and future-friendliness.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist and writer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she drinks strong coffee and sometimes blogs. She is editor in chief at A List Apart magazine, and her book, Content Everywhere, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the very near future. You can find Sara on Twitter trying not to say all the snarky things she thinks.

Episode 72: Derek Powazek

For the return of The Big Web Show, I speak with web pioneer Derek Powazek (@fraying), Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them.

Derek Powazek has worked the web since 1995 at pioneering sites like HotWired, Blogger, and Technorati. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places (New Riders, 2001) and the cofounder of JPG, the photography magazine that’s made by its community. He has also been Chief of Design for HP’s MagCloud, advisor to a handful of startup companies, and creator of Fray, the quarterly book of true stories and original art. Derek is now Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, and a house full of plants named Fred.

My mind and welcome to it

IN MY DREAM I was designing sublime new publishing and social platforms, incandescent with features no one had ever thought of, but everybody wanted.

One of my platforms generated pages that were like a strangely compelling cross between sophisticated magazine layouts and De Stijl paintings. Only, unlike De Stijl, with its kindergarten primary colors, my platform synthesized subtle color patterns that reminded you of sky and water. Anyone – a plumber, a fishmonger – could use the tool to immediately create pages that made love to your eyes. In the hands of a designer, the output was even richer. Nothing on the web had ever touched it.

Then the dream changed, and I was no longer the creator. I was a sap who’d been off sniffing my own armpits while the internet grew up without me. A woman I know was using the platform to create magazines about herself. These weren’t just web magazines, they were paper. And they weren’t just paper. In the middle of one of her magazines was a beautiful carpet sample. The platform had designed the carpet and woven it into the binding of the printed magazine. I marveled at her output and wished I had invented the platform that allowed her to do these things. Not only was I no longer the creator, I seemed to be the last sap on earth to even hear about all these dazzling new platforms.

Then I was wandering down an endless boardwalk, ocean on my right, a parade of dreary seaside apartment buildings on my left. Each building had its own fabulous content magazine. (“Here’s what’s happening at 2171 Oceanfront Walk.”) The magazines appeared on invisible kiosks which revealed themselves as you passed in front of each building. The content, created by landlords and realtors, was so indifferent as to be unreadable. But this did not matter a bit, because the pages so dazzled in their unholy beauty that you could not look away. Every fool in the world had a meaningless publication which nobody read, but which everyone oohed and ahed at as they passed. And I — I had nothing to do with any of it. I was merely a spectator, a chump on a tiresome promenade.


For Tim and Max. You are the future.

Build Books With CSS3; Design a Responsive Résumé

“WE ARE ALL PUBLISHERS,” claims Issue No. 353 of A List Apart for people who make websites. Design books with CSS3; craft a responsive web résumé.

Building Books with CSS3

by NELLIE MCKESSON

While historically, it’s been difficult at best to create print-quality PDF books from markup alone, CSS3 now brings us the Paged Media Module, which targets print book formatting. “Paged” media exists as finite pages, like books and magazines, rather than as long scrolling stretches of text, like most websites. With a single CSS stylesheet, publishers can take XHTML source content and turn it into a laid-out, print-ready PDF. You can take your XHTML source, bypass desktop page layout software like Adobe InDesign, and package it as an ePub file. It’s a lightweight and adaptable workflow, which gets you beautiful books faster. Nellie McKesson, eBook Operations Manager at O’Reilly Media, explains how to build books with CSS3.

A Case for Responsive Résumés

by ANDREW HOFFMAN

Grizzled job hunting veterans know too well that a sharp résumé and near-flawless interview may still leave you short of your dream job. Competition is fierce and never wanes. Finding new ways to distinguish yourself in today’s unforgiving economy is vital to a designer/developer’s survival. Happily, web standards whiz and mobile web developer Andrew Hoffman has come up with a dandy differentiator that is just perfect for A List Apart readers. Learn how to author a clean résumé in HTML5/CSS3 that scales well to different viewport sizes, is easy to update and maintain, and will never grow obsolete.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart.

Readlists: behind the scenes

FROM THE HOME PAGE of today’s newly announced, totally disruptive, completely free product powered by Readability: “What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.”

For some time now, people who miss the point have seen Readability as an app that competes in the read-it-later space. That’s like viewing Andy Warhol as a failed advertising art director. Readability is a platform that radically rethinks how we consume, and who pays for, web content. It monetizes content for authors and its technology is available to all via the API. It scares designers, angers some advertisers. Its transformative potential is huge. Readlists are the latest free product to manifest some of that potential.

With Readlist, anyone can create ebooks out of existing web content. It’s easy. Sign in with your Readability account or sign up for one, and start making books of your favorite web articles.

There are still some bugs being worked out, but hey.

I was honored to beta test the product and create one of the first Readlists, along with Erin Kissane, Anil Dash, Aaron Lammer, David Sleight, and Chris Dary.

Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of Readability and cofounded The Deck advertising network with Jim Coudal and Jason Fried. Readability removes clutter (including ads) from the reading experience; The Deck sells ads. Conflict of interest? Here’s another: I design content websites so as to make Readability unnecessary (because I design for readers); yet I strongly support Readability as a platform and above all as a web idea that is at least 15 years overdue. Either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction. As a designer, I’m not afraid of that. Rather, it inspires me.

Enjoy Readlists.

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.


The Unbearable Lightness of HTML5 – or, the priority of constituencies versus the great dictator

LET’S DIG A BIT DEEPER into the latest conflict between web developers who are passionate about the future of HTML, and the WHATWG. (See Mat Marquis in Tuesday’s A List Apart, Responsive Images and Web Standards at the Turning Point, for context, and Jeremy Keith, Secret Src in Wednesday’s adactio.com, for additional clarification.)

The WHATWG was created to serve browser makers, while its product, HTML5, was designed to serve users first, designers (authors) next, browser makers (implementors) last according to the priority of constituencies, which is one of its founding design principles.

There is a tension between this principle of HTML5 (to serve users above designers above browser makers) and the reality of who is the master: namely, browser makers – especially Google, which pays Hixie, the editor of HTML5, his salary. That’s not a knock on Hixie (or Google), it’s just the reality.

One way the tension between principle and reality plays out is in not uncommon incidents like the one we’re reacting to now. According to the priority of constituencies, designer/developer feedback should be welcomed, if not outright solicited. In principle, if there is conflict between what designer/developers advise and what browser makers advise, priority should be given to the advice of designer/developers. After all, their needs matter more according to the priority of constituencies — and designer/developers are closer to the end-user (whose needs matter most) than are browser makers.

Solicitiation of and respect for the ideas of people who actually make websites for a living is what would happen if the HTML5-making activity had been organized according to its own priority of constituencies principle; but that kind of organization (committee organization) echoes the structure of the W3C, and the WHATWG arose largely because browser makers had grown unhappy with some aspects of working within the W3C. In reality, there is one “decider” — the editor of HTML5, Ian Hickson. His decisions are final, he is under no obligation to explain his rationales, and he need not prioritize developer recommendations above a browser maker’s — nor above a sandwich maker’s, if it comes to that. By design, Hixie is a free agent according to the structure he himself created, and his browser maker end-users (masters?) like it that way.

They like it that way because stuff gets done. In a way, browser makers are not unlike web developers, eager to implement a list of requirements. We designer/developers don’t like waiting around while an indecisive client endlessly ponders project requirements, right? Well, neither do browser makers. Just like us, they have people on payroll, ready to implement what the client requires. They can’t afford to sit around twiddling their digits any more than we can. In 2007, the entire world economy nearly collapsed. It is still recovering. Don’t expect any surviving business to emulate a country club soon.

So, has this latest friction brought us to a tipping point? Will anything change?

In theory, if we are frustrated with Mr Hickson’s arbitrary dictates or feel that they are wrong, we can take our ideas and our grievances to the W3C, who work on HTML5 in parallel with the WHATWG. We should probably try that, although I tend to think things will continue to work as they do now. The only other way things could change is if Hixie wakes up one morning and decides benevolent dictator is no longer a role he wishes to play. If I were in charge of the future of the web’s markup language, with not just final cut but every cut, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to rethink my role or give some of my power away. But perhaps I underestimate myself. And perhaps Hixie will consider the experiment.

My Glamorous Life: The Power Compels You

I DREAMED that my friend Jason Santa Maria took a job at a popular new startup that had exploded onto the world scene seemingly overnight. A fascinating visual interface was largely responsible for the popularity of the company’s new social software product. It was like a Hypercard stack that came toward you. A post full of exciting social significance just for you would appear in a self-contained deck with rounded corners. The next post would pop up on top of the first. The next, on top of that one. And so on. In my dream, people found this back-to-front pop-up effect thrilling for some reason.

Having imagined the interface, I next dreamed that I went to visit the startup. There were so many cubicles, so many shiny people running around, holding morning standups and singing a strange company song, that I could not locate my friend Jason’s desk. Someone grabbed me and told me the founder wanted to see me.


THE FOUNDER was an ordinary looking white guy in his late twenties. I was surprised that he wore beige chinos with a permapress crease. With all the TV and newspaper hubub around his product, I guess I’d expected a more stylish and charismatic presence.

The founder told me he was concerned because his mother, apparently a cofounder or at least an officer of the company, was of the belief that I had contempt for their product and disliked her personally. I assured him that I liked the product. Further, I had never met his mother, never read or heard a word about her, and felt only goodwill toward her, as I bear toward all people in the abstract. I don’t hate people I don’t know.

“It would be cool if you told mom that yourself,” he said. And suddenly two assistants were whisking me off to speak to her directly.


THE AUDITORIUM-SIZED waiting room outside the founder’s mother’s office was filled with at least a thousand people who had come to talk to her before me. They seemed to have been waiting for hours. There was an air of boredom and rapidly thinning patience, mixed with excitement and the kind of carnival atmosphere that surrounds things that blow up suddenly in the press. It felt like the jury selection room for a celebrity murder case. Only much, much bigger.

The two assistants escorted me to the very front of the auditorium, to an empty row of seats abutting the door to the founder’s mother’s private office. “Special treatment,” I thought. I was thrilled to be cutting to the front of the line, apparently as a result of the founder’s directive to his assistants. The front row chairs were reversed, facing back to the rest of the auditorium, so I was put in the somewhat uneasy position of staring out at the mass of people who had been waiting to see the founder’s mother since long before I arrived.

After a while, Ian Jacobs of the W3C was brought to the front of the room and seated near me.

We waited as other people were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence.


AFTER FIVE or six hours of drowsy waiting, I realized that the room was set up to mirror the software’s interface: people from the very back of the auditorium were first in line, and were shown into the founder’s mother’s presence first. Gradually, the hall of applicants emptied from the back to the front. Those of us in the very front of the line were actually the last people of all who would be admitted to the holy presence. It was a smart marketing touch that apparently permeated the company: everything real people did in the building in some way echoed the characteristics of the software interface — from the end of the line coming first, to the way the rounded conference tables echoed the shapes of individual news posts in the software’s back-to-front news deck.

What a smart company, I thought. And what a good joke on me, as I continued to sit there forever, waiting to see someone I’d never met, who held a baseless grudge against me, which it would one day be my task to talk her out of.