Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report

9 April 2004 10 am

A List Apart No. 176

In this week’s issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Power to the People: Relative Font Sizes

by Bojan Mihelac

Relative font sizes may make websites more accessible — but they’re not much help unless the person using the site can find a way to actually change text size. Return control to your audience using this simple, drop-in solution.

Web Accessibility and UK Law:
Telling It Like It Is

by Trenton Moss

There’s been widespread speculation about the new legislation being introduced in the UK, which is intended to ensure that websites are accessible to people with disabilities. This article examines how these new laws will affect the way you design in the real world.

7 April 2004 11 am | 4 pm

Areva! Areva!

Saw this commercial nightly while we were in Rome and danced around the hotel room in ecstasy each time it ran. Soon after we returned to the U.S. it began playing on CNN World. Now you can see it wherever you live. Music by Lipps, Inc. Creative direction by Euro RSCG. {By the same directors: Röyksopp, “Remind Me,” which came first but is perhaps less effective because it goes on too long and the song is not as good. Hat tips: at least a dozen readers.}

The Metrics, Reloaded

I responded to the standards-slagging portions of recent posts as I’ve been responding to anti-web-standards comments since 1998, when colleagues I hoped to recruit to the budding Web Standards Project said things like, “You don’t stand a chance,” and, “Do you realize how much money we make from knowing the 17 proprietary ways to code a web page?”

Since the web standards movement began, people have been saying W3C specs were irrelevant, everybody uses Netscape 4 Internet Explorer 4 5 6, the browsers won’t change, the browsers haven’t changed, okay the browsers have changed I stand corrected but do you realize how much money we make from knowing the 17 proprietary ways to code a web page, you people are fools, you people are bullies, you people are Nazis, validation doesn’t matter, there are no benefits, my client won’t let me, nobody cares, users don’t view source, everybody has high-bandwidth connections, everybody has Flash, blind people don’t buy my client’s product, if they didn’t want us using tables for layout they shouldn’t have uh, okay never mind that one, CSS doesn’t work, XHTML doesn’t work, IE handles XHTML the wrong way and therefore there’s no point in using XHTML, there’s no point in using CSS until all browsers support CSS3, there’s no point in using CSS if you have to compensate for potholes in IE’s support, and so on.

It was my special privilege to refute these and similar talking points for years while the rest of you went about your lives. It’s not my job any more. But sometimes I feel moved to speak up in defense of an approach to the production aspect of web design to which I played midwife. Especially when people seem to be setting up a false opposition between standards-based design and measurable site effectiveness on the one hand, and standards-based design and designing for people on the other. Because proper use of web standards helps make sites more accessible, more usable, and more effective.

It helps, but it’s only part of the job. That’s the point Greg and Jason were making, and it’s the part of their comments I overlooked.

I would love to see more articles about site effectiveness, but site effectiveness is a case-by-case thing. There are methodologies that can help you get there, and I’d enjoy reading more about them and publishing good articles on the subject at A List Apart. I’d also love it if there were more shops like 37signals that not only focus on the human side of interactive design but also talk about it in simple, natural language, as 37signals does. (At Happy Cog we focus on people, but my partners and I rarely write about that aspect of our work.) It’s true that to a large extent our field, on both the design and programming fronts, too often focuses on tools — on how instead of why and for whom.

This has been true since 1994, when Laura Lemay published Teach Yourself HTML. In design schools they’re teaching kids to use Flash and Illustrator. In the Computer and Internet sections of the book chain monopolies, you’ll find titles on PHP, Perl, Java, JavaScript, XML, and other technologies, and precious little on design, usability, and content. The non-tool-focused books are out there, but the big chains buy few of them and don’t know where to file them. A Jeff Veen book might be available, if you borrow a ladder and look behind the top shelf to see what’s fallen down back there. A book on experience design? If it’s in stock, it’s likely to have been mis-filed.

I used to write a column on web design for a respected mainstream print publication. Then I was sharing the column with another writer. Then I was sharing it with several writers. Then I wasn’t being asked to write it at all. Nobody ever explained why and I didn’t ask. If you try to take a toy away from my dog, he will play-fight you for it. That’s because he’s a dog. If you take an assignment away from me, hey, I’ve got other work to do.

I do have a theory, though, about why they stopped asking me to write for them. I was the only contributor to the column I’d started who focused on why and who emphasized methods that did not require a particular piece of software. And the magazine is really about software and hardware. Where the web is concerned, what they probably wanted was stuff like “Use Dreamweaver’s Feature X to Create Flyout Menus.” Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just not what I do, and it’s not what I think web design is about.

So, Greg, Jason, I’d like to see thoughtful stuff on a variety of web subjects and not just a deluge on CSS techniques (unless they are really great CSS techniques). But for those who are dismayed by the abundance of tool- and method-focused material in ALA, or the “Blogosphere,” or at web/Internet/design conferences, try to keep in mind that web production is undergoing a profound technological change — a change that is baffling to many designers and developers. Good material on that subject serves an important need. It’s just not the only thing we need. By a long shot.

Signs that the Apocalypse is Nigh

  1. Bob Dylan appears in Victoria’s Secret spot
  2. Noam Chomsky has a blog website
  3. Two days after Madrid, American cable news channels still talking about Janet Jackson’s breast
  4. Discussion forum of ALA article explaining how to use CSS in opt-in HTML emails immediately fills with comments stating that HTML email is evil, even when customers choose it
  5. White House advisors who said “Iraqis will greet us as liberators” still employed


I just put The Wife in a cab on her way to a meeting. I won’t see her for two days — I’m leaving for Washington, D.C., where I’ll speak at Museums & The Web. The light was red. She waved from the cab. I waved back.

I’ve always been a nervous traveler. I feel a fluttering anxiety at separation. As I get older and form deeper bonds, I grow more aware that life is precious, frail, and fleeting.

Carrie and I flew home to New York from a San Francisco web conference on September 10, 2001. The next day was That Day. We were in Los Alamos with Eric Meyer when a blizzard buried New York. On our first night in Seattle last year, a riot broke out all around us. Shots, stampede, sirens. On the last day of our belated honeymoon in Rome this month, Madrid was attacked. Coincidences, all of them, but they remind one how fragile we are.

As I write this, our little dog Emile snores like an aged war veteran, his head on a pillow.

If you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables, you must not give a damn about protein

Of all the kinds of conversation that recur on the web as predictably as hemlines rise and fall, the weirdest and least productive is the establishment of an artificial opposition between areas of expertise.

The assumption – which does not stand up to investigation – is that if you pay attention to one thing, you must be falling down on another. For instance, if you think about the people who use your site, you must be a bad designer. Or if you torture-test the backend, you probably don’t even bother proofreading the text.

Silly, isn’t it? Doesn’t make much sense. It’s like claiming that Peter Jackson didn’t care about the scripts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which he co-wrote) because he hired brilliant costume designers. Or that he didn’t think about the acting because he devoted so much energy to the special effects. The truth is, Jackson and his collaborators thought about all of it.

And on a much less exalted (or at least less entertaining) level, so do most web designers and developers.

Yet here a few weeks ago was Greg Storey:

You can style a site six ways to Sunday but unless it does something to improve the metrics for which the design has been made, well it won’t amount to a pile of nested tables.

Greg’s premise: If you think too hard about your content’s underlying structure or the CSS that powers the layout, you must not give a damn about the site’s effectiveness. How does the one follow the other? Beats me. I love Greg Storey. He’s a smart, talented guy. We’ve hung out some, and we’ve worked together on a project. I’m not sure why he’s setting up this false opposition between markup and metrics. When I first read it, I decided not to comment.

But then Jason Fried of 37signals held forth thusly:

There’s way too much talk about CSS and XHTML and Standards and Accessibility and not enough talk about people.... UI designers are making the same old fundamental “forgetting about the human being on the other side” mistakes — except this time their code looks better.

Now the context of Jason’s remarks is the SXSW Interactive Festival, which he attended this year and I did not. But in reviewing the schedule, I counted two CSS panels and five or six variations on “How to make money with your weblog.” Hardly a deluge of “CSS and XHTML and Standards and Accessibility.”

But even if there was a deluge, how would learning about CSS preclude thinking about the human being who uses your site? Seems to me you need to both. And you need to do more than that — you, or at any rate, your team, need to think about many things to create an effective website.

And it gets harder to build an effective team if the UI designer distrusts the graphic designer, who hates the writer, who can’t stand the lead developer, who looks down his nose at the systems administrator, who’s convinced that the information architect is a useless hack — and don’t even ask what they all think of the client.

True partnership starts with respect. Which becomes harder to establish when professionals bash each other behind artificial either/or arguments.

I know, like, and respect Jason and we’ve worked on a project together. Unless I’m wildly missing his point (or unless his point is restricted to “how I felt about this year’s SXSW panels”), Jason knows better than this. He knows that doing a professional job in one area does not preclude doing a professional job in all of them. Indeed, it is often the opposite.

There are certainly semantic fetishists out there, just as there are people addicted to overdesigned interfaces, and others who think only the words matter — but such people do not represent the industry or the direction in which it is headed. They are mostly juniors, hobbyists, and academics.

According to Amazon, people who bought 37signals’s book, Defensive Design, also bought Designing With Web Standards, Donald Norman’s Emotional Design, Carrie Bickner’s Web Design on a Shoestring, Steve Krugs’s Don’t Make Me Think, and Eric Meyer on CSS. Sounds purty well-balanced to me.

Is web design going in the wrong direction? If it is, silly arguments like these will only drive it there faster. Can’t we all just get along?

A List Apart No. 175

In this week’s issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

The Table Ruler

by Christian Heilmann

Make your site easier to use by giving your visitors a virtual “ruler” to guide and track their progress down long data tables. With a pinch of JavaScript and a dash of the DOM, your table rows will light up as your visitors hover over them.

CSS and Email, Kissing in a Tree

by Mark Wyner

Despite prevailing wisdom to the contrary, you can safely deploy HTML emails styled with good old-fashioned CSS. If you’re not content to roll over and use font tags in your HTML emails, read on.

Highlights from recent Daily Reports

Happy Cog 3.0 redesign
Presenting Happy Cog 3.0, code-named “creme.” We’ve restructured the site to highlight our projects, services, and publications, and to welcome aboard lead information therapist Adam Greenfield of and Moblogging Conference fame. Risotto and liquid non-dairy creamers inspired the color scheme. The feeling is “Distressed Lite.”
Reinventing the Wheel
CSS layout is a pain in the neck. Why we bother.

There is more

More highlights and back orders may be found in our Essentials Department.