Web stars speak
/ Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman
Jeffrey Zeldman, online pioneer and paramount contributor.
Jeffrey has been designing websites since the Crimean War, and is the author of Taking Your Talent to the WEB which is an excellent introduction on how to tackle the web.
He has just published a new book: Designing with web standards, a must read and desktop companion to understanding the impact and implementation of web standards.
Zeldman is the publisher and creative director of A List Apart, a weekly magazine "For People Who Make Websites"; co-founder and and early leader of The Web Standards Project, a grassroots coalition fighting for standards on the web; co-founder of IndendentsDay, celebrating independent content and design from Toledo to Timbuktu; and founder of Happy Cog, the New York City web agency least likely to go public.
In his free time, Zeldman writes columns for Adobe Web Center, PDN-Pix Magazine, and Creativity. A popular speaker at web conferences, he has twice been mistaken for Theda Bara.
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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?
AOL. But don't tell anyone. Of course, this was back in the 1950s.
/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?
INTERNET: freaky and secret. Anonymous FTP was like going into someone's closet and rifling through their clothes. I felt so dirty. And I liked it. WEB: slow and ugly.
/ You are an *internet pioneer*, what exactly does it mean?
Nothing, except maybe I got there five minutes before someone else.
/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* education. Why?
Yeah, my Dad used to call me a "dilettante" when I was growing up, because I couldn't decide if I was going to be a writer, a musician, or an artist. He said I ought to choose, because a person can only be great at one thing. He was probably right.
/ What was your initial profession?
Dishwasher. I worked my way up.
/ You are a creative head. When did your love for visual art start?
I think they showed me artwork in the crib (very important by the way). I remember freaking out at age two over a Halloween mask. And around age three I was terrified of two Hawaiaan coconuts that were painted to look like human heads. My cousin told me they were severed heads. I believed him. Strong response to visual stimuli.
My Dad was a Sunday painter and he participated in some local amateur artist groups. I was around five or six when I saw these drawings he'd made of naked women. I asked about them and he said it was "drawing from life." He said models came in and the artists drew them. I said, "naked ladies?" He said, yes, but it's art. I was pretty much hooked after that.
/ What do you look for when hiring?
Love. Love of doing what you do. Everything else follows from that. If I were on a growth cycle instead of in a "keep your head down and get through the bad economy" phase right now, I would hire at least a dozen great people I already know by working with them on a non-profit basis (like at A List Apart), or know by collaborating with them on small, non-profit creative projects at their own sites, or know just by looking at their work and exchanging email and/or phone calls. I won't mention names but they know who they are.
Outside that situation - like when I was staffing other people's companies - same thing, I would look for passion in the work they had already done.
/ What makes for a good web site?
A voice, an authorial presence, a sense that you are engaging with a specific mind. This is tough to pull off in larger sites created by bigger groups, but it can be done. A Scorsese film is a Scorsese film in spite of the large crew involved.
Entertainment value. Distinctiveness. Style. Especially style that supports a basic site-wide concept.
For other types of sites - say, for a purely functional site - a clean interface that gets me where I want to go instead of making me guess. I haven't read "Don't Make Me Think" yet, but the title sure speaks to me.
For content sites, an organizing principle that works. And some style of course, in the layout, the branded elements, and the writing. There are content sites full of great stuff I can't find because nobody has settled on an organizing principle.
There are all kinds of organizing principles. ALA for instance could be organized along "type of story." Find all design-related stories. Find all DOM-related stories. Find all web-business-related stories. That would be useful and good.
But I chose to organize along a different principle: "This week's issue." Rather than overwhelm you with nearly 100 articles, I hit you with what we're doing this week. If it interests you, click and read. If not, sniff around the back issues, or come back next week.
It's not necessarily the best way to do things but it works because it flattens the hierarchy, plunges you into immediate content, and theoretically creates the drama of "what will they talk about next week?" Theoretically, theoretically. I don't know if anyone really cares.
/ How did you first get involved in content publishing?
I didn't see what I wanted on the web. Simple as that. In 1995 I saw ugly background patterns. I hated them so I made my own. In 1995 I saw a few good online tutorials on using HTML but no online tutorial on thinking about the web as you built it, so I wrote "Ask Dr Web." And so on.
In 1998, Brian Platz and I were frustrated with most of the web design lists (though there were two or three very good ones) so we started our own. It evolved into a magazine. I love Webmonkey and Builder and all the other great web development resources, but each of them has a specific focus. I have a slightly different focus, so I publish a slightly different magazine.
So that's the reactive version. Don't see what you like? Make it.
The non-reactive version is I was just amusing myself and hoping it might amuse or help someone else. Ad Graveyard? Just an idea I had. I thought it might be fun to create it. That's all.
/ How did you first get involved with web standards?
Glenn Davis asked me to join a group he and George Olsen were putting together to address the issue. I'd spent over a year trying to get CSS to work on sites I was doing commercially, so I was ready for this group. Best thing that ever happened. Thank you, Glenn and George.
/ How do web standards relate to a designer's day-to-day activities?
In the near future, all sites will be built with standards that allow us to serve our content, style, and behavior as separate document streams.
Instead of jamming pages with non-standard HTML and workarounds, we'll write structured HTML or XHTML documents, use Style Sheets to control the way they look, and scripting documents to control the way they behave.
In fact we can do this now if we're willing to stop worrying about backward compatibility, and the WaSP's Browser Upgrades initiative can help developers get started.
In double fact, we've just redesigned A List Apart this way as of Issue 99, which is also full of tips and techniques explaining how you can do the same thing with your sites.
Many designers and developers have said they are doing the same thing or WILL do the same thing. Many others have to wait until their clients okay the idea. And of course some are opposed to the whole idea: they think backward compatibility is the most important thing, and I can understand that, having thought that way myself for years.
Now I think the most important thing is to start building our sites the way they should always have been built, and help hasten the end of the stupid, broken web the Browser Wars gave us.
/ What makes a good team?
Talent, mutual respect, shared vision. Ability to cede leadership in certain areas. Let the person best able to structure the site structure it. Let the person best able to render brand elements do that. Share ideas but respect boundaries. I had a marketing guy tell me to make a border one pixel narrower than it was. I was the creative director, he was the marketing guy. He didn't suggest it, he pretty much demanded it.
Even if he had been "right" visually, the way it was handled made it a source of contention. The way it was handled, he was ignoring my authority in my area and bruising my ego. I'm not an egomaniac but I'm human.
Meanwhile the sales force was quitting and the product was six months late to market. I felt he had bigger things to worry about than my area. It was all quite unproductive.
In theory, web agencies have methodologies, workflows, org charts, specifically to avoid this kind of boundary-crossing.
But that's why they call it theory.
/ Your work has this unique signature. How does one achieve this?
Limitations as a graphic designer. And probably a writing style that I find hard to suppress.
/ Describe what is *inspiration*?
God slips the idea into your brain while you're thinking about something else. Many times you've already given up and walked away when this finally happens.
/ Describe what is a top-notch client?
Her business or service makes sense. She understands its purpose, its benefits, its market. She knows her audience. She is able to tell me all these things and she expects the site to deliver on these things. She does what she can to help. She also understands the web as a medium enough to appreciate what it can and can't do.
She responds to ideas with an open mind. She does not fear her partners or the people above her (if any).
A smooth, clean client-side hierarchy is also vital. If I have to please a committee, the work is doomed. I won't even take those projects. Mainly because when I was young and foolish I *did* take such projects.
I also won't take projects that serve no purpose or are based on something I find unethical. A good client is one not involved in such stuff.
I tend to favor entertainment clients because their products are innately interesting. (Would you rather spend six months building a music site, or a paper towel site?) And because they feel, as I do, that the site should be immediately engaging and entertaining. They know that because they understand their business.
Really that's most of it. Understand your business and help me to understand it. Understand my business enough to support it without trying to control it.
/ How do you protect clients from their own bad taste?
Whenever possible I use their own market research against them. I can't tell this story explicitly, but during the initial talks for a project delivering a sophisticated product to a sophisticated audience, the client's boss had the "great idea" that the whole site could be "moderated" by a cartoon character built in Flash. My client and I had nearly finished agreeing to a much smarter and much more audience-appropriate concept.
I had a great client. He just needed help with his boss.
I went back through the market research, showed the age and education of the anticipated visitor, and basically said, "Hey, next year if we spin off a kids' version, the cartoon character might be a brilliant idea for that.
So basically I patted the guys' head and used his own language (marketing) to persuade him away from a bad idea. I learned this from clients themselves, who used to kill my ideas by telling me how great they would be "next year," or "in phase two," or "down the road.
It doesn't always work. I have resigned accounts.
I've also had clients wreck a site as soon as I handed it to them, by sticking in junk we had agreed not to do (even though they requested it). I'm not unique. It happens to everyone.
I try to take a long time up front really getting to know the client as a person. Like you would in any other relationship. Because that's what this is. You either quit dating or you go on and build trust. Of course, in other relationships, contracts and money aren't usually involved. Though then again, actually...
/ You have been invited to many web related events. Can you tell us why?
I have no idea. Shh! You'll jinx me.
/ Is branding an important issue online?
Yes, on every level. Visually, verbally, functionally.
I use this example all the time, but if IBM's site fails, their branding as a "solutions company" gets a black eye. On the web, branding extends way beyond matching the client's colors and rendering their logo.
Maybe one reason the Web Standards Project has had some success is that we crafted a simple brand image for the site and stuck to it. (We also stuck to a simple message.)
Designers might be more responsive to Jakob Nielsen if his own site were better organized, easier to use, and looked, shall we say, a bit more attractive. If I don't find your site usable because I can't find your articles and don't know where to look, then your identity as a usability guru is hurt in my eyes. So even on a site like useit.com, that proudly "uses no graphics," branding and identity have a role to play. And if they aren't invited to the party, the work suffers, at least with part of the audience it is intended to reach (designers).
/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to ALA?
"These mailing lists suck. We could do better."
"Designers are in one camp, developers in another, and nobody's talking to the content people. We are all building the web together. We should have a magazine that speaks to all of us, instead of dividing us."
Pretty much THAT.
/ Describe what the internet means to you.
Creativity, community, lowering of artificial barriers between people, lowering of barriers to entry for creators and businesses, increased speed of life, new friends around the world.
/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.
Willingness to work.
Willingness to listen, especially to your audience.
Willingness to trust your character and instincts instead of suppressing them through depersonalizing processes.
/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.
Don't worry, be happy: keep playing and experimenting and trying, and you will get results.
/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?
When someone tells me I've inspired them, taught them, or gotten them into this field when they were unhappily languishing elsewhere. People tell me this and it lifts the roof off my skull. I still get a huge feeling of love and joy from this, because it's real.
/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?
Budget, schmudget, I'm going to launch it anyway, so I can't talk about it.
But as an alternative, if money were no object, I would be hiring - or even better, simply partnering - with some really gifted people right now.
/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?
1929 all over again.
/ In your view, explain what is convergence?
An ill-defined buzzword, mainly.
In Britain it means interactive TV. In America, sometimes it means typing answers in your web browser while watching a game show on TV. But there is no real convergence, there's just two media being used simultaneously. Like a radio simulcast of a music show on cable. Is that convergence? Or is it two stations cooperating?
Jazzradio.net started as a radio station and is now an online brand. The site has content - plenty of it - and also lets you hear the music. Is that convergence? I don't know. I think it's the web serving content, like it always does.
Some people say Atom Films and so on are convergence. Maybe. Or maybe they're the web serving digital versions of film. I get what convergence means as a marketing buzzword more than I see how it will work as a change in the web.
Some say websites will be like Hollywood movies as soon as everyone has broadband. That's what they mean by convergence. I don't think "everyone" will have broadband as soon as they hope. And I don't think every website will be a $100 million production (like a Hollywood movie). So I can't see it. I can see some sites being fat-media-intensive, and this has been going on for years now. RoadRunner and other cable modem providers have sites filled with Quicktime movies and such, to demonstrate the benefits of their product. But will every site be like that one day? I don't know. I hope cheapairlinetickets.com doesn't feel the need to run widescreen movies before letting me save $5 on my tickets. Airline movies are so lame.
/ Is the www an international network?
The Internet is a worldwide networking infrastructure that connects all variety of computers together via Internet Protocols. I see the web as a medium that runs on this network. But yes, international availability is one of the beautiful things about it. Though native support for Chinese or Arabic or Hebrew could certainly improve and would definitely make it MORE international.
/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.
Orange, with a two pixel black border. I jest of course.
In the browser it will probably look much like it already does, but with somewhat more design control - and somewhat greater flexibility. The flexibility and the control will duke it out in the back room.
It's not so much what it will look like as HOW and WHERE it will function.
With CSS, XML and the DOM in the desktop browser, and W3C standards for Internet appliances and wireless, it will be smarter, faster, more capable. We'll spend less time on monkey work, and web users will spend even less time thinking about - or being frustrated by - the medium. They'll just use it like they use the phone.
On the desktop, of course, beauty will always matter, but we'll probably find new ways of creating beauty that don't force us to treat websites like Photoshop comps with "live" areas.