The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment

THE FIRST THING I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. The year was 1995, and I was tinkering at my first website. The medium was raw and ugly, like a forceps baby; yet even in its blind, howling state, it made me a writer, a designer, and a publisher — ambitions which had eluded me during more than a decade of underachieving desert wanderings.

I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

I also got that the power was not for me alone: it was conferred in equal measure on everyone with whom I worked, although not everyone would have the time or desire to use the power fully.

The luckiest makers

Empowerment and desire. It takes extraordinary commitment, luck, and talent to become a maker in, say, music or film, because the production and distribution costs and risks in these fields almost always demand rich outside investors and tightly controlling corporate structures. (Film has held up better than music under these conditions.)

Music and film fill my life, and, from afar, I love many artists involved in these enterprises. But they are mostly closed to you and me, where the web is wide open, and always has been. We all know gifted, hard working musicians who deserve wide acclaim but do not receive it, even after decades of toil. The web is far kinder to makers.

To care is to share

Not only does the web make publishers of those willing to put in the work, it also makes most of us free sharers of our hard-won trade, craft, and business secrets. The minute we grab hold of a new angle on design, interaction, code, or content, we share it with a friend — or with friends we haven’t met yet. This sharing started in news groups and message boards, and flowered on what came to be called blogs, but it can also slip the bounds of its containing medium, empowering makers to create books, meet-ups, magazines, conferences, products, you name it. It is tough to break into traditional book publishing the normal way but comparatively easy to do it from the web, provided you have put in the early work of community building.

The beauty is that the community building doesn’t feel like work; it feels like goofing off with your friends (because, mostly, it is). You don’t have to turn your readers into customers. Indeed, if you feel like you’re turning your readers into customers, you’re doing it wrong.

If you see a chance, take it

The corollary to all this empowerment is that it’s up to each of us to do something positive with it. I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting bow-wow.com. The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that webmonkey.com wasn’t enough about design and highfive.com was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

I apologize if I sometimes seem snippy with whiners. My goal is never to make anyone feel bad, especially not anyone in this community. My message to my peers since the days of “Ask Dr Web” has always been: “you can do this! Go do it.” That is still what I say to you all.

it takes a train

When asked why there’s so much pain
Jesus and Buddha will tell me the same:
“Shit happens, and people change.”

Why Standards Fail

Back in 2000, CSS co-creator Bert Bos set out to explain the W3C’s design principles—“to make explicit what the developers in the various W3C working groups mean when they invoke words like efficiency, maintainability, accessibility, extensibility, learnability, simplicity, [and] longevity….”

Eventually published in 2003, the essay, although ostensibly concerned with explaining W3C working group principles to the uninitiated, actually articulates the key principle that separates great design from the muck we normally wade through. It also serves as a warning to Bert’s fellow W3C wizards not to seek the dark magic of abstract purity at the expense of the common good. Tragically for these wizards, and for we who use their technologies, it is a warning some developers of W3C specifications continue to overlook.

Design is for people

In his introduction, Bert summarizes the humanistic value that is supposed to be at the core of every web standard:

Contrary to appearances, the W3C specifications are for the most part not designed for computers, but for people. … Most of the formats are in fact compromises between human-readability and computer efficiency….

But why do we want people to read them at all? Because all our specs are incomplete. Because people, usually other people than the original developers, have to add to them….

For the same reason we try to keep the specifications of reasonable size. They must describe a useful chunk of technology, but not one that is too large for an individual to understand.

Over the succeeding 25 web pages (the article is chunked out in pamphlet-sized pages, each devoted to a single principle such as “maintainability” and “robustness”) Bert clearly, plainly, and humbly articulates a series of rather profound ideas that are key to the web’s growth and that might apply equally admirably to realms of human endeavor beyond the web.

For instance, in the page entitled “Use What Is There,” Bert says:

The Web now runs on HTML, HTTP and URLs, none of which existed before the ’90s. But it isn’t just because of the quality of these new formats and protocols that the Web took off. In fact, the original HTTP was a worse protocol than, e.g., Gopher or FTP in its capabilities….

And that fact shows nicely what made the Web possible at all: it didn’t try to replace things that already worked, it only added new modules, that fit in the existing infrastructure. …

And nowadays (the year 2000), it may look like everything is XML and HTTP, but that impression is only because the “old” stuff is so well integrated that you forget about it: there is no replacement for e-mail or Usenet, for JPEG or MPEG, and many other essential parts of the Web.

He then warns:

There is, unfortunately, a tendency in every standards organization, W3C not excluded, to replace everything that was created by others with things developed in-house. It is the not-invented-here syndrome, a feeling that things that were not developed “for the Web” are somehow inferior. And that “we” can do better than “them.” But even if that is true, maybe the improvement still isn’t worth spending a working group’s resources on.

Shrinkage and seduction

In his gentle way, Bert seems to be speaking directly to his W3C peers, who may not always share his and Håkon‘s humanism. For, despite what designers new to CSS, struggling for the first time with concepts like “float” and the box model may think, Bert and Håkon designed the web’s layout language to be easy to learn, teach, implement, maintain, and (eventually) extend. They also designed CSS not to overwhelm the newcomer with advanced power at the cost of profound complexity. (“CSS stops short of even more powerful features that programmers use in their programming languages: macros, variables, symbolic constants, conditionals, expressions over variables, etc. That is because these things give power-users a lot of rope, but less experienced users will unwittingly hang themselves; or, more likely, be so scared that they won’t even touch CSS. It’s a balance.”)

This striving to be understood and used by the inexperienced is the underlying principle of all good design, from the iPhone to the Eames chair. It’s what Jared Spool would call usability and you and I may consider the heart of design. When anything new is created, be it a website, a service, or a web markup language, there is a gap between what the creator knows (which is everything about how it’s supposed to work), and what you and I know (which is nothing). The goal of design is to shrink this ignorance gap while seducing us into leaping across it.

What were once vices are now habits

You can see this principle at work in CSS, whose simplicity allowed us to learn it. Although we now rail against the limitations of CSS 1 and even CSS 2.1, what we are really complaining about is the slow pace of CSS 3 and the greater slowness with which browser makers (some more than others) adopt bits of it.

Note that at one time we would have railed against browser makers who implemented parts of a specification that was still under development; now we admire them. Note, too, that it has taken well over a decade for developers to understand and browsers to support basic CSS, and it is only from the perspective of the experienced customer who craves more that advanced web designers now cry out for immediate CSS 3 adoption and chafe against the “restrictions” of current CSS as universally supported in all browsers, including IE8.

If CSS had initially offered the power, depth, and complexity that CSS 3 promises, we would still be designing with tables or Flash. Even assuming a browser had existed that could demonstrate the power of CSS 3, the complexity of the specification would have daunted everyone but Eric Meyer, had CSS 1 not come out of the gate first.

The future of the future of standards

It was the practical simplicity of CSS that enabled browser engineers to implement it and tempted designers to use (and then evangelize) it. In contrast, it was the seeming complexity and detachment from practical workaday concerns that doomed XHTML 2, while XHTML 1.0 remains a valid spec that will likely still be working when you and I have retired (assuming retirement will be possible in our lifetime—but that’s another story).

And yet, compared to some W3C specs in progress, XHTML 2 was a model of accessible, practical, down-to-earth usability.

To the extent that W3C specifications remain modular, practical, and accessible to the non-PhD in computer science, they will be adopted by browser makers and the marketplace. The farther they depart from the principles Bert articulated, the sooner they will peter out into nothingness, and the likelier we are to face a crisis in which web standards once again detach from the direction in which the web is actually moving, and the medium is given over to incompatible, proprietary technologies.

I urge everyone to read “What is a Good Standard?“, and I thank my friend Tantek for pointing it out to me.

[tags]W3C, design, principles, bertbos, maintainability, accessibility, extensibility, learnability, simplicity, specs, standards, css, markup, code, languages, web, webdesign, webstandards, webdevelopment, essays[/tags]

.net interview

There was a point in the 90s when I felt like a sucker for doing HTML and CSS.”

The .net Zeldman interview is available for your downloading pleasure (4.2 MB PDF). For more of the best in web design and development, visit netmag.co.uk.

Update, 27 May 2009

An HTML version of the interview has now been posted on .net’s website.

[tags]webdesign, webdevelopment, magazine, interview, .net, netmag, interview, interviews, zeldman, jeffreyzeldman[/tags]

A List Apart is changing

A List Apart, for people who make websites, is slowly changing course.

For most of its decade of publication, ALA has been the leading journal of standards-based web design. Initially a lonely voice in the desert, we taught CSS layout before browsers correctly supported it, and helped The WaSP persuade browser makers to do the right thing. Once browsers’ standards support was up to snuff, we educated and excited designers and developers about standards-based design, preaching accessibility, teaching semantic markup, and helping you strategize how to sell this new way of designing websites to your clients, coworkers, and boss.

Most famously, over the years, writers for ALA have presented the design community with one amazing and powerfully useful new CSS technique after another. Initially radically new techniques that are now part of the vocabulary of all web designers include Paul Sowden’s “Alternative Styles,” Mark Newhouse’s list-based navigation, Eric Meyer’s intro to print styles, Douglas Bowman’s “Sliding Doors,” Dave Shea’s “CSS Sprites,” Dan Cederholm’s “Faux Columns,” Patrick Griffiths and Dan Webb’s “Suckerfish Dropdowns,” Drew McLellan’s “Flash Satay,” and so on and so on. There are literally too many great ones to name here. (Newcomers to standards-based design, check Erin Lynch’s “The ALA Primer Part Two: Resources For Beginners“.)

Web standards are in our DNA and will always be a core part of our editorial focus. Standards fans, never fear. We will not abandon our post. But since late 2005, we have consciously begun steering ALA back to its earliest roots as a magazine for all people who make websites—writers, architects, strategists, researchers, and yes, even marketers and clients as well as designers and developers. This means that, along with issues that focus on new methods and subtleties of markup and layout, we will also publish issues that discuss practical and sometimes theoretical aspects of user experience design, from the implications of ubiquitous computing to keeping communities civil.

The trick is to bring our huge group of highly passionate readers along for the ride. My wife likens it to piloting the Queen Mary. (Q. How do you make the Queen Mary turn left? A. Very, very slowly.)

The slow, deliberate, gradual introduction of articles on business and theory has not pleased all of ALA’s readers, some of whom may unrealistically wish that every issue would present them with the equivalent of a new “Sliding Doors.” It is possible, of course, to publish one CSS (or JavaScript or Jquery) article after another, and to do so on an almost daily basis. We could do that. Certainly we get enough submissions. The trouble is that most articles of this kind are either edge cases of limited utility, or derivatives that do not break significant new ground. (Either that, or they are flawed in our estimation, e.g. relying on dozens of non-semantic divs to create a moderately pleasing, minor visual effect.)

We review hundreds of articles and publish dozens. Some web magazines seem to have those proportions reversed, and some readers don’t seem to mind, and that’s fine. But any content you see in ALA has been vetted and deeply massaged by the toughest editorial team in the business. And when you see a new “design tech” article in our pages, you can be sure it has passed muster with our hard-ass technical editors.

Moreover, the fields of meaningful new CSS tricks have mostly yielded their fuels. We’ve done that. We’ve done it together with you. While a few new lodes of value undoubtedly remain to be tapped, we as a community, and as individuals who wish to grow as designers, need to absorb new knowledge. ALA will continue to be a place where you can do that.

When we began focusing on web standards in 1998, we were told we were wasting readers’ time on impractical crap of little value to working designers and developers. But we kept on anyway, and the things we learned and taught are now mainstream and workaday. While we apologize to readers who are again being made irritable by our insistence on occasionally presenting material that does not fall directly within their comfort zone, we hope that this experiment will prove to be of value in the end.

[tags]alistapart, webdesign, magazine, editorial, content, focus, change, publishing, standards, webstandards, css, design, layout, userexperience[/tags]

Stick out your tongue

While employed at a famous New York advertising agency twenty years ago, a partner and I created a TV commercial touting an over-the-counter medicine client’s revolutionary new cold and flu remedy for young children.

Only when the shooting and shouting was over did we learn that the product did not, in fact, exist.

The commercial whose every creative detail we’d had to fight for was never going to run.

The client—the marketing side of a product development group—had a budget of $60,000 to spend. So they spent it, even though the R&D side of the product development group had not been able to deliver the product.

It was not a liquid medicine that needed to be measured. It was not a pill that needed to be chewed or swallowed. It was a pill that dissolved instantly on the tongue. Or would have been, if the engineers had been able to create it.

During weeks of presentation, the client rejected campaigns that would have caught the attention of the nation’s parents. The client bought a safe campaign that called less attention to itself, then set about systematically softening its edges. My partner and I wanted to cast like Fellini or Woody Allen. We brought in amazing children of various backgrounds, their faces rich in character. But the client picked cute blonde girls instead.

And so on. Every decision, however small, required approval. Everything was a fight. A ladies-and-gentlemanly fight. A fight that sounded like polite, mutually respectful discussion. A fight with invisible knives.

We won some and we lost some. For all the back-and-forth with the client, the resulting commercial wasn’t bad at all. The first few times anyone—even the guy delivering sandwiches—saw it, they laughed. Afterwards, they smiled. It could have been okay. It could have gotten my partner and me out of that agency and to a better one.

After the shoot was completed, the client told our account executive that the product did not exist and the commercial was never going to run.

The client had known this going in. So why didn’t they let us win more creative battles? Because they wanted something soft and safe to show the boss who had the power of life and death over their budget.

Why did the boss give them $60,000 to produce a commercial for a product that didn’t exist? Because that’s how corporations work. If they didn’t spend advertising dollars in 1988, they wouldn’t get ad dollars in 1989, when (in theory) they would finally have a product to advertise.

Governments, at least the ones I know of, work the same way. Since last night, the city of New York has been paving 34th Street in places it doesn’t need to be paved. Why do they do this? To justify the budget. In a better world, money set aside to pave streets that don’t need paving would be reassigned to something the city actually needs—like affordable housing, or medical care for poor or homeless people. But cities are corporations—that Mike Bloomberg is New York’s mayor merely confirms this—and few corporations are agile enough to rethink budgetary distributions on the basis of changing needs.

Last week, in an airport, on one of the inescapable widescreen TVs set to CNN (and always set to the wrong resolution) I saw a commercial for a revolutionary children’s medicine product that melts instantly on the tongue.

I guess they finally made it.

[tags]advertising, design, artdirection, writing, copywriting, TV, production, commercials, adverts, wisdom, work, experience, budgets, business, waste, government, medicine, OTC, overthecounter, newyork, nyc[/tags]

Dear anonymous

Dear “New Yorker:”

It is snowing again in New York City. I’ll wait while you verify.

Presently the precipitation is recorded as 0.11 inches. But if you venture out, you may notice snow piles that are several inches high. How can we account for this discrepancy between the recorded height of snowfall and the actual height of some snow piles?

People shovel.

In this city, custodians and superintendents salted and shoveled sidewalks before 7:00 AM.

When people shovel, they push the snow into curbside banks that reach inches or even feet higher than the recorded snowfall level.

To see this, walk outside and look. The fresh air may do you good.

Sometimes after a snowfall, the temperature drops. Then those high banks of snow stick around.

Sometimes it warms just enough to rain into those frozen banks of snow. Then you get cold wetness that can reach into a toddler’s shoes (if she’s not wearing boots). And banks of old snow at the edges of curbs that, combined with freezing rain, can wet a small, bootless child halfway to the knees.

If you spent less time fact-checking other people’s blog posts and more time living, you would know these things about snow, and children, and weather reports.

And even if “halfway up to A—’s knees” were off by an inch or more, a person who is alive would say to themselves, “A father, worried about his child’s exposure to weather, sees conditions as somewhat worse than they are.”

A person who understands people might seek further evidence of hyperbole, and would find it: “My kid looked like she had been swimming in the East River.”

A parent, or a non-parent alive enough to imagine the anxieties of parenting, would recognize that this an exaggeration, intended to convey (and through the catharsis or writing, alleviate) parental guilt and anxiety.

Trying to prove strangers liars is no substitute for lived experience. You missed the point of what I shared, and attacked the reality of my story on petty (and false) grounds.

Let me tell you how your anonymous attack made me feel:

Blessed.

Blessed to have a meaningful life.

Blessed not to have to fill my hours poking around, looking for inaccuracies in other people’s websites, hoping to embarrass strangers.

Whoever you are, I hope your life grows richer than it is today.

Lord of the Rains

Relentless winter rain was turning last night’s snow to slush as I with my head cold and A— with her wooly hat left the lobby of our apartment building, headed for the nearby crosstown bus.

From home to preschool is a mile uphill, and we always walk it. But today was no day for pedestrianism. Even the dog could barely be persuaded to lift his leg.

And taking the bus was a form of bribery. A— did not want to go to school today, but she loves to ride the bus.

“We’ll ride the bus to school!” we proposed, and this enticement sufficed to get the girl dressed and downstairs—where we spied the bus, half a block away, accepting passengers and about to leave.

We ran through the slush, holding hands, my office bag bouncing off my left shoulder, the diaper bag bouncing off my right, the stroller sliding ahead of us, guided by my free hand.

You must fold a stroller before boarding a New York City bus. At the bus doors, I had trouble folding. The stroller would not collapse. The driver and the wet passengers inside stared down at me like bison on a nature show, blinking impassively while contemplating my destruction.

A woman in front of me took A—’s hand, to help the little girl onto the bus while her father wrestled with a child carrying appliance.

I saw myself stuck in the slush. I saw the bus doors closing. I saw a strange lady taking my daughter away.

I grabbed A—’s hand, pulled her away from the stranger.

“I’m sorry, thank you, I appreciate it, but my daughter has to stay with me,” I said. At which point, blessedly, the stroller collapsed. I scooped daughter, stroller, diaper bag and office bag into my arms, ascended the bus steps, and placed my Metro card into the card reader.

The bus driver looked at me and said something incomprehensible. The bus beeped; the card reader blinked red and ejected my card.

I reinserted the card, smiling, already soaked, my daughter and possessions balanced against my chest. Again the red, the beeping, the ejection.

This time I understood what the bus driver was saying.

“Your card’s empty.”

“Oh,” I said, the whole bus watching me and my daughter, every face wondering what refugee camp we had escaped from, and whether the bus driver would show mercy and let us ride on this most miserable of cold wet rainy days.

The bus driver blinked at me.

“Um,” I said.

“Pay or get off” the bus driver said.

Buses accept Metrocards and coins only. You need $2 in coins. I don’t carry $2 in coins.

“Can I give you two dollars in bills?” I said.

“No,” the bus driver said.

So the girl and I plunged back into the slush and began the mile uphill walk in the rain.

“Why can’t we ride the bus?” my three-year-old asked through trembling lips.

Her whole world was now about the bus ride she’d been promised, and the promise I was inexplicably breaking.

“I’ll let you walk,” I said, since walking, instead of riding in the stroller, is also a perk.

I took out her Dora the Explorer umbrella, which we bought two weeks ago at a premium price.

It was broken, I discovered. The umbrella offered no protection whatever from the rain. On the plus side, you could still read the Dora the Explorer logo, so the licensee was getting his money’s worth.

Umbrellaless, toddling along, we made it to a major avenue where the deep, melting ice and snow came halfway up to A—’s knees, and women stared at the idiot father letting his beautiful innocent child flounder about in wetness.

“There’s too much ice, now; you’ve got to get in the stroller,” I said.

“No!” she said.

There was nothing else for it. “I’ll give you candy,” I said.

In the Duane Reade on Third Avenue, I let her pick the candy—she selected something pink and disgusting—while I unpacked the stroller to get at a plastic sheet at the bottom. The plastic sheet is supposed to snap over the top of the stroller, protecting children from rain, snow, and oxygen. I could not get it to snap or stay or even cover the stroller. Strike three.

So we walked the rest of the way uphill, uncovered, rain-battered, she with her candy and I with silent curses.

We reached the school and climbed the steps in the usual way—the girl refusing to climb the steps, me carrying her in one hand and the stroller in the other.

We were both soaked through and I realized I was the worst father walking the earth. All the other kids came in wearing rain boots. My kid was wearing pretty little black Maryjanes. The other kids were damp. My kid looked like she had been swimming in the East River.

What saved me was this:

In the library at the top of the stairs, preparing to read a Curious George book before school began, the girl sat by the radiator and said, “Look, Dad. This hot stuff will get me dry.”

[tags]zeldman, myglamorouslife, parenting, nyc, preschool[/tags]