Herewith, a scene from last night’s interview with legendary web & book designer (and Dean of The Cooper Union School of Art) Mike Essl, who shared his portfolio, career highlights, early web design history, and more. Fun!
If you get a chance to meet, work with, or learn from Mike, take it. He’s brilliant, hilarious, warmly human, and one of the most creative people you’ll ever have the good fortune to know.
Our static tools and linear workflows aren’t the right fit for the flexible, diverse reality of today’s Web. Making prototyping a central element of your workflows will radically change how you approach problem solution and save you a lot of headaches – and money. But most importantly, you will be creating the right products and features in a way that resonates with the true nature of the Web. A discourse on processes, flexibility, the Web as a material, and how we build things.
I don’t miss Flash but I sure miss this level of creativity and experimentation on the web. As today’s “The Web We’ve Lost” exercise for designers, please take a look back at Matt Owens’s historic Volume One project—outstanding design work Matt created in Flash during the 1990s and early 2000s, now memorialized in screenshots. Enjoy:
Like 90s hip-hop, The Web We Lost™ retains a near-mystical hold on the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to be part of it. Luke Dorny’s recent, lovingly hand-carved redesign of his personal site encompasses several generations of that pioneering creative web. As such, it will repay your curiosity.
Check Luke’s article page for textural, typographic, and interactive hat tips to great old sites from the likes of k10k, Cameron Moll, Jason Santa Maria, and more.
And don’t stop there; each section of the updated lukedorny.com offers its own little bonus delights. Like the floating titles (on first load) and touchable, complex thumbnail highlights on the “observer” (AKA home) page.
And by home page, I don’t mean the home page that loads when you first hit the site: that’s a narrow, fixed-width design that’s both a tribute and a goof.
No, I mean the home page that replaces that narrow initial home page once the cookies kick in. Want to see the initial, fixed-width home page again? I’m not sure that you can. Weird detail. Cool detail. Who thinks of such things? Some of us used to.
And don’t miss the subtle thrills of the silken pull threads (complete with shadows) and winking logo pull tab in the site’s footer. I could play with that all day.
Now, no site exactly needs those loving details. But danged if they don’t encourage you to spend time on the site and actually peruse its content.
There was a time when we thought about things like that. We knew people had a big choice in which websites they chose to visit. (Because people did have a big choice back in them days before social media consolidation.) And we worked to be worthy of their time and attention.
Days of future past
We can still strive to be worthy by sweating details and staying alive to the creative possibilities of the page. Not on every project, of course. But certainly on our personal sites. And we don’t have to limit our creative love and attention only to our personal sites. We pushed ourselves, back then; we can do it again.
In our products, we can remember to add delight as we subtract friction.
And just as an unexpected bouquet can brighten the day for someone we love, in the sites we design for partners, we can be on the lookout for opportunities to pleasantly surprise with unexpected, little, loving details.
Crafted with care doesn’t have to mean bespoke. But it’s remarkable what can happen when, in the early planning stage of a new project, we act as if we’re going to have to create each page from scratch.
In calling Luke Dorny’s site to your attention, I must disclaim a few things:
I haven’t run accessibility tests on lukedorny.com or even tried to navigate it with images off, or via the keyboard.
Using pixel fonts for body copy, headlines, labels, and so on—while entirely appropriate to the period Luke’s celebrating and conceptually necessary for the design to work as it should—isn’t the most readable choice and may cause difficulty for some readers.
I haven’t tested the site in every browser and on every known device. I haven’t checked its optimization. For all I know, the site may pass such tests with flying colors, but I tend to think all this beauty comes at a price in terms of assets and bandwidth.
Nevertheless, I do commend this fine website to your loving attention. Maybe spend time on it instead of Twitter next time you take a break?
I’ll be back soon with more examples of sites trying harder.
Inspired by Dori Smith’s recent Facebook post about old-school blogging and the possibility of a “20th Anniversary of Blogging” unconference/relaxacon, I thought it might be fun to poke through the old blog a bit with you, gentle reader. My blog began in 1995, but, for now, you can only page through the entries as far back as August, 1997, as I seem to have neglected to build “previous” page links before that, and may also have overwritten my earliest entries (not realizing, at the time, that you and I might ever want to look back at any of this).
Below, I begin the retrospective in 2004 and work backwards to 1997. (After 2004, I stopped hand-coding each entry and began using WordPress, resulting in this sort of thing. Also after 2004, I stopped redesigning the site every few months, partly, but not exclusively, because I got busier designing other people’s sites. I also stopped redesigning the site every few months because I had become more strategic about design—more interested in design as problem solving, less as making pretty pages. Say, remember when we designed “pages”? But I digress.)
Here, for your pleasure, are some pages from the past:
Silence and Noise?—?“Now that some of us have helped bring standards into the mainstream, wouldn’t it be best to keep them there?”?—?12 August 2004 (the iconic green design) http://www.zeldman.com/daily/0804b.shtml
Typical blog entries?—?on web performance and “the new Samaritans” (designers who recode other people’s sites to be standards-compliant)?—?28 July 2004 (the iconic green design) http://www.zeldman.com/daily/0704e.shtml
A liquid page will resize to fit whatever size browser window (within reason) that the user has available. … the real goal in building a website is to provide the user with a seamless interface to information. The site should not intrude on the user’s thought processes, but should gently guide them to their desired destination. If a site doesn’t look right because it doesn’t fit the user’s browser window, then the design has become intrusive to the user.?—?Glenn Davis, quoted in 15 Minutes, sometime in 1997.
TWO DECADES before Responsive Web Design, we dipped our toes in Liquid Layout?—?a similar but necessarily less refined concept. Glenn Davis of Project Cool fame coined the phrase in 1995 or 1996. (Glenn also came up with“Ice” to describe fixed-width layouts, and “Jello” for layouts that combined some fixed with some flexible elements.)
Liquid Layout was mainly what John Allsopp had in mind when he wrote A Dao of Web Design for A List Apart (quite possibly the most influential article we ever published). The most famous paragraph in that famous article explains…
The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility. But first, we must “accept the ebb and flow of things.”
Everything new is old
Modern designers look back at Allsopp’s article and think John must have been a time traveler who had seen the future of responsive design and mobile devices. In fact, though, John was simply a highly skilled (and extremely articulate) mainstream developer. As such, he was familiar with Liquid Design and frequently used it in his work, along with other ideas mentioned in “Dao,” such as not forcing users to see a particular type size or typeface. To a good developer in those days, what mattered was making something that worked for everyone. (That should still be what good developers care most about, right?)
Liquid design was part of a “works for everyone” approach to web design, but it had limitations. For one thing, breakpoints hadn’t been invented. CSS layout was in its infancy, used by almost no one, except in experimental work. The ability to separate content and behavior from presentation was nonexistent, unless you limited “presentation” to setting type in a single column, letting the user override the type setting, and letting the column reshape itself to fit any viewport.
With so few controls available, Liquid design tended to become unusable in certain settings, and was almost always ugly.
Liquid design was Responsive design’s rough draft
Liquid design was immediately popular with developers when they were given permission to just make stuff?—?i.e. when they weren’t constrained by overly rigid Photoshop layouts. Designers almost never used Liquid design because the layouts moved so quickly into ugliness and unusability?—?too wide to read, or too narrow, or with overlapping columns in early CSS layouts. Designers also disdained Liquid layouts because most of us see our job as imposing brilliant order on ugly chaos, and fixed proportions always seemed to be part of that order.
Fig 1. The Web Standards Project: a liquid layout as seen on a wide computer screen. Designed by Andy Clarke in the early 2000s.
Fig 2. The Web Standards Project: a liquid layout as seen on a narrow computer screen. On the narrow screen, type overlaps and the page becomes unusable.
Ugly on one side. Unusable on the other. It took a special breed of designer to forge ahead with Liquid Layout anyway.
Were it were not for the iPhone and the phones and tablets that rose quickly in its wake, the W3C would likely not have invented breakpoints. And without breakpoints, there could be no Responsive Web Design. And without Responsive Web Design, created by a visually gifted designer and with tools to satisfy his peers, the idea that drove Liquid design back in the 1990s would not, at long last, have caught on.
It’s easy to view our current design thinking as more evolved than what we practiced in the past. And in some ways, it is. But if you read between the lines, it’s fair to say that our thinking was always advanced. It’s only now that our tools are beginning to catch up.
“You don’t get to decide which platform or device your customers use to access your content: they do.”—Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile
“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”—Louis C.K.
“Discomfort with others’ burdens has no place in good design.”—Mica McPheeters
“Historically, teams simply have not been trained to imagine their users as different from themselves—not really, not in any sort of deep and empathetic way.”—Sara Wachter-Boettcher
“USER CUSTOMIZATION” on the web hearkens back to the deluded old days of portals, when companies imagined you’d start your daily “net browsing” session by “logging on” to their website’s homepage. Customization was among the chief (largely imaginary) inducements for you to return to their “start” page and not others.
The thought was that changing the fonts and color scheme would make their page feel more like your home. After all, Windows 3.1 users seemed to enjoy switching their home computers to “Black Leather Jacket” or other personalized settings—if only as an escape from the computer environment at work, where their bosses enforced a rigid conformist look and feel, and dictated which software and fonts were allowed on your workstation. Surely, the thinking went, pioneering web explorers would demand custom accommodations as plush as those found in the best-selling operating system.
MySpace … and beyond!
This fetish for pointless customization—customization for its own sake—persisted through the MySpace era, where it actually made sense as an early mass offering of page owner personal branding. Its descendants are the WordPress, Tumblr, and Squarespace themes that create a professional appearance for the websites of individuals and small businesses. This is a positive (and inevitable) evolution, and a perfect denouement for the impulse that began life as “user customization.”
But, except on a few quirky personal sites like Jeremy Keith’s adactio.com, where sidebar customization widgets live on as a winking look back to the early days of personal content on the web, user customization for its own sake has long been out of favor—because experience, referrer logs, and testing have long shown that visitors don’t bother with it.
Perhaps that’s because people don’t really visit websites any more. They drop in quickly on a page found by search or referred by social media, scan quickly and incompletely, and leave, mostly never to return.
When you use Google, Bing, or Duck Duck Go to find out what a knocking sound in your radiator or a pang in your gulliver might mean, you scan for the information you sought, find it (if you’re lucky), and leave. The notion that most sites could get you to come back by offering you the ability to change fonts or colors is self-evidently absurd. Why bother?
Readability and font customization
Ah, but there’s another kind of user customization that I’m hoping and betting will make a comeback: a subtle, inclusive sort of customization that doesn’t exist for its own sake, but rather to serve.
Our glowing, high-density screens are great for watching Westworld, but a bit too bright and backlit for prolonged reading compared to the paper they’re intended to replace. But screens have one advantage over printed books (besides storage and portability): namely, they offer accessibility features a printed book never could.
I once received an architecture book written by an important scholar, but I was never able to read it, because the layout was terrible: the type was too small, the leading too tight, and (most of all) the measure far too wide to be readable. If an ebook version had been available, I’d have purchased it; but this was before the mass market availability of ebooks, and the tome is now out of print. I own it, but I shall never be able to read it.
It wouldn’t be a problem with an ebook, because all ebooks offer readers the ability to alter the contrast and the basic theme (white text on black, black text on white, dark text on a light background); all ebooks offer the ability to adjust font size; and most include the ability to change fonts. Why do Kindle and iBooks offer this flexibility? Because it helps readers who might otherwise not be able to read the text comfortably—or at all. This isn’t customization for its own sake. It’s customization for the sake of inclusion.
The grey lady and user customization
Now notice who else provides some of this same inclusive customization function: the mighty New York Times.
People in our industry tend to repeat things they’ve heard as if they are eternal verities—when the real truth is that each digital experience is different, each person who engages with it is different, and each device used to access each experience brings its own strengths and limitations.
A font size widget may smell like the pointless old-fashioned “user customization” to be found on half the unvisited sites in the Wayback Machine, but it is the very opposite of such stuff. Even mighty responsive design benefits from offering a choice of font sizes—because there are just too many complications between too many screen sizes and device features and too many pairs of eyes to ensure that even the best designer can provide a readable experience for everyone without adding a simple text size widget.
Most of the sites we’ve designed in the past few years have not had a text size widget, but I believe this was due to our privileged assumptions and biases, and not to the reality of the needs of those we serve. Going forward on client projects at studio.zeldman, and in my publications like A List Apart, I hope to correct this—and I hope you will think about it, too.
BOY, was this show overdue. For the first time ever on The Big Web Show, I chat with my friend, front-end developer extraordinaire Brad Frost, author of the spanking new book, Atomic Design.
We have fun. We go way over time. We kept talking after the show stopped. There was just so much to discuss—including Pattern Lab and style guides, being there for the iPad launch, working with big brands, how to say no and make the client happy you said it, avoiding antipatterns, mobile versus “the real web” (or the way we saw things in 2009), dressing for success, contributing to open source projects, building a community, the early days of Brad’s career, and that new book of his.
AT FIRST GLANCE, November 2016 has bigger fish to fry than a small, cult holiday celebrated by web developers and designers.
Each day since November 8, 2016 has brought new, and, to some of us, unimaginable challenges to the surface. Half of America is angry and terrified. The other half is angry and celebrating. At a time like now, of what possible use is an annual holiday celebrated mainly on social media by a tiny posse of standards- and accessibility-oriented web developers and designers?
From Blue Beanies to Black Hats
Many web developers have “moved on” from a progressive-enhancement-focused practice that designs web content and web experiences in such a way as to ensure that they are available to all people, regardless of personal ability or the browser or device they use.
Indeed, with more and more new developers entering the profession each day, it’s safe to say that many have never even heard of progressive enhancement and accessible, standards-based design.
The trouble with this top-down approach is threefold:
Firstly, many new developers will build powerful portfolios by mastering tools whose functioning and implications they may not fully understand. Their work may be inaccessible to people and devices, and they may not know it—or know how to go under the hood and fix it. (It may also be slow and bloated, and they may not know how to fix that either.) The impressive portfolios of these builders of inaccessible sites will get them hired and promoted to positions of power, where they train other developers to use frameworks to build impressive but inaccessible sites.
Only developers who understand and value accessibility, and can write their own code, will bother learning the equally exciting, equally edgy, equally new standards (like CSS Grid Layout) that enable us to design lean, accessible, forward-compatible, future-friendly web experiences. Fewer and fewer will do so.
Thirdly, and as a result of the first and second points, more and more web experiences every day are being created that are simply not accessible to people with disabilities (or with the “wrong” phone or browser or device), and this will increase as standards-focused professionals retire or are phased out of the work force, superseded by frameworkistas.
#a11y is Code for “Love Your Neighbor”
This third point is important because people with disabilities are already under attack, by example of the U.S. president-elect, and as part of of a recent rise in hate crimes perpetrated by a small but vocal fringe. This fringe group of haters has always been with us, but now they are out of the shadows. They are organized and motivated, and to an unmeasured degree, they helped Donald Trump win the White House. Now that he’s there, people of good will ardently hope that he will condemn the worst bigots among his supporters, and fulfill his executive duties on behalf of all the people. I’m not saying I expect him to do this today. I’m saying I hope he does—and meantime it behooves us to find ways to do more than just hope. Ways to make change.
MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…
approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.
Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.
On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:
When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”
And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.
The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.
The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.
The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.
On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.
Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:
Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.
Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:
Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …
The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.
The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.
The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
This new presentation examines the seemingly ever-deepening complexity of designing for our medium today—a complexity that has driven some longtime web designers I know to declare that web design has become “too hard,” or that “the fun has gone out of it”—and asks what our traditions of designing with web standards can teach us about crafting web experiences for a multi-device, mobile-first world.
Given that my original (unpublished) title for Designing With Web Standards was going to be Forward Compatibility—and given that Forward Compatibility is not so different in concept from today’s phrase, Future-Friendly—I’m guessing that structured, semantically marked-up content, progressive enhancement, and the separation of style from structure and behavior still have a huge role to play in today’s day-to-day web design work.
Oh, dear, I hope that wasn’t a spoiler.
I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in greater detail at An Event Apart. Now celebrating our tenth year of bringing great ideas to our community, and creating a space where the smartest folks in web design and development can meet, mingle, bond, network, and learn together. Follow @aneventapart for show announcements, links to useful web resources, and free giveaways on the 10th of every month in 2016. (This month’s giveaway, ten beautiful fleece comforters monogrammed with the A Decade Apart logo, went to ten lucky winners on February 10th. Keep watching the skies.)
RACHEL ANDREW—longtime web developer and web standards champion, co-founder of the Perch CMS, and author of Get Ready For CSS Grid Layout—is my guest on today’s Big Web Show. We discuss working with CSS Grid Layout, how Grid enables designers to “do something different” with web layout, why designers need to start experimenting with Grid Layout now, how front-end design has morphed into an engineering discipline, learning HTML and CSS versus learning frameworks, and the magic of David Bowie, RIP.
IN “CONTENT Display Patterns” (which all front-end folk should read), Dan Mall points to a truth not unlike the one Ethan Marcotte shared last month on 24 ways. It is a truth as old as standards-based design: Construct your markup to properly support your content (not your design).
Modular/atomic design doesn’t change this truth, it just reinforces its wisdom. Flexbox and grid layout don’t change this truth, they just make it easier to do it better. HTML5 doesn’t change this truth, it just reminds us that the separation of structure from style came into existence for a reason. A reason that hasn’t changed. A reason that cannot change, because it is the core truth of the web, and is inextricably bound up with the promise of this medium.
Separating structure from style and behavior was the web standards movement’s prime revelation, and each generation of web designers discovers it anew. This separation is what makes our content as backward-compatible as it is forward-compatible (or “future-friendly,” if you prefer). It’s the key to re-use. The key to accessibility. The key to the new kinds of CMS systems we’re just beginning to dream up. It’s what makes our content as accessible to an ancient device as it will be to an unimagined future one.
Every time a leader in our field discovers, as if for the first time, the genius of this separation between style, presentation, and behavior, she is validating the brilliance of web forbears like Tim Berners-Lee, Håkon Wium Lie, and Bert Bos.
Every time a Dan or an Ethan (or a Sara or a Lea) writes a beautiful and insightful article like the two cited above, they are telling new web designers, and reminding experienced ones, that this separation of powers matters.
And they are plunging a stake into the increasingly slippery ground beneath us.
Why is it slippery? Because too many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.
As Maimonides, were he alive today, would tell us: he who excludes a single user destroys a universe. Web standards now and forever.