Interview – Jeffrey Zeldman of A List Apart

There comes a time in every man’s life when he just wants to wet himself. Sorry, it’s true; it’s like some weird obsessive compulsive thing. More often then not it happens at the weirdest moment. For me, it happened one week ago while talking to my wife and looking at the computer screen at the same time (this is also a habit all men perfect).

The moment I found out "The Zeldman Interview" was up for grabs was the moment that I decided to never wear THAT pair of khakis again.

So, does this Internet God, instigator of such amazing sites as www.zeldman.com and www.alistapart.com, really have anything to say for himself? Was he worth the effort? And will he pay my dry-cleaning bill? Sadly, the answer is yes to only two of these questions (and I’ll leave you to guess which two).

SitePoint: Jeffrey, thanks so much for taking this opportunity to talk with us. The whole world is wondering how they get that gooey stuff inside the Caramilk bars, however in absence of answers to this and other mysteries of the universe, we have a few questions for you.

First off, let’s get some background intel. Who is "Zeldman" and what is your biggest passion — what’s your message?

I’m a Web designer, writer, and consultant. I’ve been producing sites for clients and publishing independent content online since early 1995. Before that, I did other kinds of creative and professional work: composer, producer, journalist, NYC advertising creative, unpublished novelist, would-be screenwriter.

But this medium speaks to me like no other. I found my voice with the Web. So have many other people. So can you. If I have a message, that’s it. A worldwide medium is emerging from its infancy. You can be part of it. Do it.

SitePoint: What’s new in the world of Zeldman? What’s your latest pet project? What’s the newest rumor we can spread about your love life? Give us some juice!

On May 31st, my personal site will celebrate its seventh birthday. That’s 49 dog years, partner.

Last year I wrote a book on Web design for New Riders and I’m slowly toiling on a new book called FORWARD COMPATIBILITY: Designing and Building With Web Standards that I hope to finish before my children reach college. I don’t have any children yet, so that buys me some time.

I’m in love with a remarkable woman and we live in New York City, surrounded by tall buildings and hard-working people. ‘Nuff said.

SitePoint: Your word carries a lot of weight with many designers. Did you ever think you’d get such recognition — and how did you achieve it?

In my early sites I amused myself and hoped that what I was creating (Ad Graveyard, Pardon My Icons) might entertain a few like-minded people. The freedom to create and publish excited me, as it would anyone whose earlier creative efforts in traditional media had been blocked by insufficient budgets, indifferent editors, and record companies uninterested in trying to market music they could not label.

On the Web, I had no investors to please, no producers to argue with, no editors to kill my work. I felt an obligation to share what I was discovering about Web technology and design, so others would be similarly empowered to produce and publish their own creative work.

In 1995 I published an online tutorial, "Ask Dr Web," to share the little I knew about Web design and production. A surprisingly large audience read the tutorial and submitted questions I did my best to answer.

Soon there were too many questions for me to handle, so I co-founded a Web design mailing list with Brian Platz that eventually morphed into an online magazine, A List Apart, which I continue to edit and publish weekly.

Then in late 1997, the 4.0 browsers came out. They were remarkably powerful but technologically incompatible. When Glenn Davis and George Olsen invited me and others to try to do something about that, I jumped at the chance and The Web Standards Project was born.

Through these educational and evangelical projects over the past seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to make a very slight difference in the way the Web is perceived and created. As a side-effect, I’ve built a readership and become somewhat known in the field.

I’m not famous by Tom Cruise standards, or even by Jakob Nielsen standards, and if I’d set out to be, I’m sure I would have failed anyway. I was motivated by love of an emerging and untamed medium, a sense of fellowship with other Web designers, and a desire to protect the Web from interest groups that were inadvertently hurting it.

If you have a passion and put the work in, you can make a difference and may gain some recognition as a side-benefit. If your primary motivation is fame, the Web is probably not the best medium for it.

A List Apart

SitePoint: Ok Jeffrey, let’s get personal. What made you start A List Apart and what kept you at it for so long? What advice do you have for Webmasters who want to run an online magazine or article site? And how do you manage to procure original content each and every week?

As I’ve mentioned, it started as a mailing list, and a rather labor-intensive one, since Brian and I edited hundreds of participant comments and questions and packaged the best of them in a tight little digest that went out to 16,000 subscribers (the list was free and non-commercial, just like the site it eventually gave birth to).

I saw A List Apart as a chance to publish information on Web design, code, and content that was being missed by similar online publications. I also saw it as another vehicle through which I could evangelize Web standards — not by shouting at browser companies, but by providing tutorials on CSS, XHTML and the DOM that working Web builders could understand and use.

Encouraging original content is not a problem. Weeding through all the submissions, finding time to edit and design each issue and to work with the writers when needed — that’s the problem. The site is non-commercial. Every hour I spend on it is an hour I’m not serving a client and thus not supporting my landlord or the IRS.

If the site is successful, it’s because its content is by and for the community it serves … because we’re not selling anything … because we don’t force our writers to conform to a "house style" or even the house bias. I’ve published articles with which I personally disagreed — but they were well written, and the views they reflected deserved to be heard.

Some of our writers are brilliant but "difficult." I don’t mind. I’ll argue with them in email if I have to. "Middle of the road" is death. "Everybody’s best friend" is editorial euthanasia. A List Apart has a human voice: the rich voice of each individual author; the overarching editorial focus; the visual context of a super-minimalist CSS layout that tells you you’re not in Kansas any more.

If you’re running a Web magazine, be real, be human, be yourself. Bland corporate layouts and dully useful content don’t grab anyone, don’t speak personally to anyone.

Don’t worry about the money. In the late 90s, the Web was filled with garbage as many people tried to get rich. If you have something to say, something to publish, just go! If every editorial decision is predicated on dollars, get off the Web, start a print publication, and good luck.

SitePoint: Often, articles on A List Apart can be classed as "controversial". Have you ever made a decision not to publish an article due to this?

I kill articles that serve no purpose: articles that shed no new light or offer no new innovations. I kill articles that contain a good point but bury it in tangents, though I try to save those articles by asking the writer to work with me and with my associate editor, Erin Kissane. I rarely kill a piece simply because its tone is ornery.

I recently said no to an interesting and potentially useful series because its author harbored a weird grudge against the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Valid, potentially helpful criticism of some W3C standard would be one thing. But this guy just seemed to have it in for W3C, for reasons he never explained. His bias got in the way of his message, and I felt it best to let him publish elsewhere, rather than trying to tone him down.

I won’t publish attacks on people. If you dislike Bill Gates or Josh Davis or Jakob Nielsen and feel compelled to say so, do it on your personal site. It’s not suitable for A List Apart (actually I’d advise you not to do it on your personal site, but, hey, it’s your site).

Likewise, I won’t publish free-floating rants against groups or even corporations. If you’re concerned about something a corporation or group is doing and can back up what you have to say, that may be entirely appropriate for our audience — as was the case with Chris Kaminski’s concerns about Microsoft’s "smart tags," which we published in 2001.

But if you simply dislike Microsoft, or Sun, or Macromedia, or Adobe, or IBM, or Apple, or whomever, the Web is free, and you can self-publish your opinions. Just not in my magazine.

Standards

SitePoint: The WaSP project seems to have recently gone into hiding. What’s the inside scoop on that, and, for our readers who don’t know, what is WaSP?

The Web Standards Project (WaSP) is a coalition of designers, developers, and Web users fighting to improve support for common technological standards such as CSS, XHTML, XML, ECMAScript (the standard version of JavaScript) and the W3C Document Object Model.

These technologies, which we labeled "Web standards," are carefully designed to deliver the greatest benefits to the greatest number of Web users, while ensuring the long-term viability of any document published on the Web.

Designing and building with these standards simplifies and lowers the cost of production (very important these days!), while delivering sites that are accessible to more people and more types of Internet devices. Sites developed along these lines will continue to function correctly as traditional desktop browsers evolve, and as new Internet devices come to market.

WaSP Phase I could ask no more, so I temporarily retired the site (though it’s still available at http://archive.webstandards.org/), reinvigorated our original Steering Committee, and recruited additional members whom I tasked with writing and designing the upcoming Phase II site, which should go live real soon.

SitePoint: What progress have you made in the fight for browser standards? Do you feel that browser manufacturers take you and your organization seriously enough to care about what you say? And will there ever be a browser which is completely standards compliant while still being friendly enough to use on a daily basis?

Between 1998 and 2001, the WaSP petitioned browser makers to do a better job of supporting these technologies, and eventually they did so — in part because engineers at many browser companies agreed with us and saw WaSP as an ally in their internal battles with management.

Beginning in 2000, one leading browser after another delivered on the promise of many of the standards we’d promoted. Current market-leading browsers, along with several of their smaller competitors, provide excellent support for HTML 4, XHTML 1, CSS, ECMAScript, and the DOM — or are well on the road to such compliance.

Because of these improvements, the browsers do a much better job of interpreting Web content. They’re also much easier to use. For instance, most current browsers let you resize text, and they correctly handle standard scripting behaviors instead of choking on them.

Thanks to these browsers, designers and developers are finally free to build with XHTML and CSS, and in many cases can separate structure from presentation to maximize portability and accessibility. With care, designers can also use the W3C standard DOM to add sophisticated behavior to their sites.

Though today’s browsers largely support standards, tens of thousands of designers and developers continue to use outdated methods that yoke structure to presentation, in some cases entirely avoiding semantic structures and misusing (X)HTML as a design tool. In Phase II, WaSP will provide educational resources to help our peers learn standards-compliant methods that are in their interest because they’re in the best interests of their audience and clients.

The other ongoing problem we set out to address in Phase II was that the tools used by many Web design professionals did only a fair job of supporting current standards. For instance, you had to jump through hoops to get Macromedia Dreamweaver or Adobe GoLive to generate valid XHTML.

This has changed with Dreamweaver MX and GoLive 6.

Behind the scenes, WaSP’s Dreamweaver Task Force (Phase 1.5?) worked with Macromedia to improve Dreamweaver’s standards and accessibility compliance, though Macromedia’s engineers and management deserve most of the credit.

We were unable to form an appropriate task force to work with Adobe, but they seem to have done just fine without us. We hope to work with both companies going forward, as they continue to fine-tune their products and support emerging standards.

Browsers

SitePoint: With the news that AOL is likely to switch to using Mozilla as the engine for their browser, many people are predicting a re-opening of the "browser wars". Do you worry that this will lead to another round of browser-specific tags and extensions, or is the standards message strong enough now to prevent this from happening?

It totally won’t happen, because Mozilla/Netscape 6 is all about Web standards, and IE6/Win and IE5/Mac support the same standards (and IE5/Win supports many of them). If anything, 30 million-plus new Mozilla users will reinforce the message that it’s unwise to design for any one browser. Instead, use Web standards and design for them all.

You’re a fool if your site won’t work in IE. You’re a fool if it works only in IE. The real challenge is to design for portability and accessibility (which does not mean dull, lowest-common-denominator design).

The things we need to learn are not Netscape-specific, not IE- or Opera-specific. We need to better understand existing and emerging Web standards and design for the medium instead of for specific browsers, leveraging the Web’s true power to reach everyone.

SitePoint: Do you think the Netscape fight-back is a good thing? What are your thoughts on the whole Mozilla project as it heads to 1.0 final after almost 4 years?

I’m glad Mozilla is nearly complete. It’s a great browser with extensive standards support.

We all wish it had been ready sooner, and I’m sure nobody wishes that more than the Mozilla engineers and the marketers at AOL/Netscape. But I’m not going to play armchair project manager. I have no idea how much code was involved in creating a new, standards-compliant browser from scratch.

In following this course — starting over from a clean slate — Netscape lost tremendous market share. Some users and even some developers seem to have written them off as a player. It will be good to see that change, good to see them win new users and restore some much-needed balance to the marketplace.

Opera is also gaining market share, as are smaller, alternative browsers. All of this reinforces the wisdom of designing and building with Web standards.

The Future

SitePoint: Which of the initiatives that are on the horizon do you think will benefit the Web’s future the most?

The eventual disappearance of 4.0 browsers, along with improvements in standards-compliant browsers, will free us to seize the real power of CSS for layout and XHTML for document structure.

This will result in Websites that load fast over dialup connections. Sites that can be ported to Web-enabled cell phones and other wireless devices without requiring alternative versions and costly proprietary publishing systems.

These sites will be easier to maintain, far more accessible, and will last longer (many late 90s sites already fail in some recent browsers). Forward compatibility based on commonly shared technologies. It’s a beautiful thing. It will free us to spend more time on content, design, and usability, less time on debugging and versioning.

SitePoint: Are there any up-and-coming standards you disagree with? Are there any you feel need to be adopted or created?

CSS is a great standard but parts of it have yet to be implemented in ways that are practical for designers; that last 5% of compliance is the toughest. And parts of CSS seem unnecessarily complex and/or obscure.

W3C has been working on that problem. The results may be announced before this interview is published. If not, they’ll be available soon at http://w3.org/.

Some things are still easier to do with traditional (non-structural) HTML table-based layouts than in CSS. Sometimes that’s because the browsers differ on their interpretation of CSS. But other times it’s because CSS2 doesn’t quite do everything you can do with tables, though it surpasses tables in many ways and allows you to do things you absolutely cannot do with traditional HTML-based design techniques.

XHTML is a reformulation of HTML in XML. XHTML 1.0 is brilliant because it can work just like HTML even in older browsers. But that fact alone has not proved compelling to some developers. W3C has begun to modularize XHTML, making it far more powerful and extensible, but these new and upcoming versions aren’t yet browser-friendly.

As browsers advance, we’ll see more sophisticated XHTML in play, and the benefits will become clearer. It’s a good idea to convert to XHTML now, and many forward-thinking designers are doing that. More will scramble to catch up when the language matures and browsers support its advanced capabilities.

SVG is an XML-based vector graphics language with interesting capabilities and potential. But in current browsers, it requires a plug-in. Well, if you’re going to use a plug-in, you may as well use Flash, which currently is far more mature and powerful and is also becoming more accessible.

In combination with other forms of XML, SVG will ultimately do amazing things, and it’s worth learning about now. David Eisenberg has written a fine book to help us do just that.

Usability

SitePoint: What are your thoughts on the new MX line from Macromedia — specifically Flash MX? Will it be the Next Big Thing for the Web in terms of interface and pages?

I’ve seen Jeremy Allaire personally demonstrate Flash MX and I have a copy of the program in my studio. Flash MX is a mature authoring environment and the Flash 6 player solves many problems for designers of animation-driven, heavily interactive sites. Flash MX provides absolute control of look and feel, and the ability to create sophisticated interfaces that work for anyone who has the plug-in.

Certain behaviors of Flash can be emulated via the W3C standard DOM. But the motion will not be as smooth, the visual effects will be less compelling, and older browsers as well as some new browsers will be incapable of rendering the work as they should.

For design-intensive sites and certain business and entertainment sites, Flash MX makes a great deal of sense, especially if you incorporate the accessibility enhancements (though these need to mature, and surely will).

For coders, Flash supports most of ECMAScript and much of XML, and it interfaces smoothly with other design products and backend technologies. The genie is out of the bottle.

I don’t think Flash MX will be the next big thing. I think Flash has been a big thing since the late 1990s and will continue to be.

SitePoint: That said, what are your thoughts on the potential, power and overall usability of flash-only sites? Will the day ever come when this will be a good thing?

We may see an increasing split between document-centric sites primarily driven by Web standards, and animation-oriented sites powered by Flash.

If I’m designing a content site, a community site, a transactional site, or an informational site, I’m probably going to continue to do that in XHTML, CSS, and ECMAScript, with Perl or PHP facilitating the user interactivity.

I’ll use those standards for sites intended to last a long time and for daily or weekly publications intended to evolve over time. I’ll use those standards for sites that encourage reader contributions via forums or commenting.

If I’m designing an entertainment site, particularly if the site has an expected shelf life of two years or less, I’d likely go with Flash MX, because Flash facilitates a kind of sexiness and excitement text-based sites can’t match. It depends, though, on the project and audience, and also on the designer or design firm’s particular expertise.

Many usability complaints have been answered with each new release of Flash. Flash MX supports bookmarking and the back button if the developer is smart enough to take advantage of those features.

Flash has had some usability features added since version 4.0, including the ability to copy and paste text, but it’s up to the developer to implement those features, just as it’s up to the developer of an HTML site to consider and accommodate varying user needs.

SitePoint: Okay, we don’t get the joke. Could you explain the "The Jakob Nielsen Corner" on Zeldman.com?

The Jakob Nielsen Corner is so named because it enhances the site’s utility by allowing visitors to choose a comfortable font size for reading, and to search through seven years of the site’s content. I could have called it the Steve Krug corner — he’s a usability expert I admire — but "the Jakob Nielsen Corner" seemed funnier.

Though it’s whimsically labeled, the corner serves important accessibility and usability functions.

Zeldman On Web Design

SitePoint: Tell us about the routine you follow when you design Websites.

I work with a single client — never committees.

I find out as much as I can about the project: what it’s for, who it serves, why it bothers existing. If the site has a reason to exist, the client is clear on that reason, and the client understands that the site is supposed to serve its audience, I can begin. If the site has no compelling reason to exist, I probably can’t work on it. I just won’t be able to do a good job.

Once I know what the site’s about, I try to find a single unifying idea that will drive it. The design, the text, and even the level of technology, spring directly from that idea.

On good days.

On other days I just screw around in Photoshop, sometimes playing with color, sometimes with grids, sometimes with typefaces.

Sometimes I do the same thing, only in code instead of Photoshop.

That sounds random, but sometimes ignoring the search for a concept is the way you discover the concept. Sometimes when you’re playing with abstract size relationships in a Photoshop comp, your unconscious is solving the site’s conceptual problem.

Sometimes when you work on a personal project, your unconscious begins developing the client’s brand. Then you go out to dinner and the idea leaps full-blown into your mind while you’re selecting a linguini.

I’m not a big fan of formal processes and group thinks (though these work for some people) and I don’t bill by the hour. A higher power solves most design problems; I’m just a channel. I think that’s true for most creative people. We’re lucky little vessels.

On my non-commercial projects, I employ similarly quirky work methods, knowing I’ll probably screw up the first version of the site, but since I’m the owner and client I have the freedom to keep evolving it over time.

SitePoint: What are your personal dos and don’ts for Web design or coding? And can you give is your top 10 tips for designers?

1. Think about the audience first.

2. Minimize bandwidth.

3. Give each site a personal voice and a real point of view. The audience will connect with that.

4. Do what’s actually needed. Don’t do things simply because you can.

5. Be entertaining. Inducing boredom is not a plan for growth.

6. In most cases, use Web standards and test your work at http://validator.w3.org/ .

7. If you think you know all the answers, you’re wrong.

8. If you’re doing what you did last year, you’re dead.

9. Test your site — not just on multiple browsers and platforms, but on people. Your interface is rarely as transparent as you think. But don’t be a slave to test results, either. Trust your instincts. Balance them against test results. Rinse, lather, repeat.

10. Get half the fee up front.

SitePoint: Jeffrey, thanks for your time… and I’d just like to say that I forgive you for that whole ruined pants thing — no harm done.

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