IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.
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.
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.
I FINALLY GOT A COUPLE OF HOURS free, enabling me to do something I’ve been itching to try since I first saw the web on a modern mobile device: redesign this website.
First I cranked up the type size. With glorious web fonts and today’s displays, why not?
Then I ditched the sidebar. Multiple columns are so 1990s.
This site has always been about content first. But the layout was a holdover from the days when inverted L shapes dotted the cyber landscape; when men were men, and all websites bragged two columns, laid out with table cells as the Lord intended.
The previous redesign deliberately hearkened back to the old, old days of this site. It was fun (even if I was the only one who got the joke). But my journey down Retro Lane coincided unfortunately with the first big news in web design since the anchor tag (mobile-first, content-first, responsive, etc). Today’s little design exercise here redresses all that.
This is not a finished work. I may make some things squeeze-y that are now rock-hard. I might lock the viewport and play with padding and things. But the site is now much closer to where I’ve wanted it for the past two years.
Page backward, if you wish, to see how it rolls out so far.
Thanks to Tim Murtaugh, who helped me debug more than one maddening straggler.
I THREW A PARTY on the last night of SXSW Interactive 2012 to celebrate my induction in the Hall of Fame. Photos © Annie Ray, annieray.net. The entire photo gallery is available for your viewing pleasure at http://cog.gd/3m0.
Pardon My Linkage
For more about this year’s SXSW Interactive, my induction in the Hall of Fame, and “Go Forth & Make Awesomeness,” my session with Leslie Jensen-Inman, see:
- Jeffrey Zeldman tribute video – on his induction into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame (Vimeo)
- Austin Chronicle: Where No Man Has Gone Before
- The Interactive Awards Pre-Party and Ceremony Presented by HP (Lanyrd)
- Jeffrey Zeldman to be Inducted to SXSW Hall of Fame at 2012 Interactive Awards (SXSW)
- .net Magazine: Zeldman inducted to the SXSWi Hall of Fame
- An Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman (Cognition)
- Go Forth & Make Awesomeness: Core Values & Action – a session at SXSW Interactive 2012
- COMPLETE AUDIO from “Go Forth & Make Awesomeness”
- The Impossible Year
- SXSW Ceremony
- Of Austin Fame and Marches (Dolls for Friends)
VIDEO: SOME MEMBERS of the web design and development community share thoughts about yours truly on the occasion of my induction into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame.
This video was played on the big screens at SXSW Interactive during the 2012 Awards Show preceding the inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony on March 13, 2012.
Jeffrey was looking for us to do a more tailored, short run of the doll we had initially designed of him-215 to be exact. They were to be given away as gifts at the Hall of Fame after party being held at South by Southwest (right about now is where you can hear our jaws drop to the floor).
Here was the opportunity to put handmade work into the hands of 215 web designers and industry gurus at one of the largest interactive design conferences in the world-South by Southwest. Are we interested? Hells, please! So, after hashing out the details and specifics we set into work on the very complicated and detailed project. Below are just a few of the pictures we took documenting the process…
Jeffrey Zeldman with Mini-Zeldman Doll
Polaroid SLR 680SE / Impossible PX-680 Color Shade
Jeffrey became the first person inducted into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame. Afterwards there was a party with mini-Zeldman dolls.
CAR JUST HIT ME as I was crossing street. Van carrying old people. Driver didn’t see me. Van struck my head. #
I punched door. Driver and passengers stared at me. Time slowed way down. I gestured for driver to pull over.#
Asked woman on street if I was bleeding. She said no. Told van driver to leave. He got out, walked over, insisted on seeing if I was ok. #
Black man, about 60. Told him I was good, merry Christmas. Shook his hand twice, nearly hugged him. Glad to be alive. #
Two hours later:
In ER with friend, getting checked after accident. #
No concussion, no spinal or brain injury, I’m very lucky. #
P.S. Having some back and arm pain today, nothing unexpected according to what the E.R. doc told me. Overwhelming feeling remains gratitude at being alive, although the feeling is more tempered now, not as giddy as it was immediately following the accident.
GET YOUR STANDARDS ON! John Rainsford, working with your humble narrator, has crafted a sweet collection of limited edition products, designed to let you show your love and support for web standards.
What are you waiting for? Shop Web Standards now.
And we thank you.