Understanding web design

Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the web’s foremost experts and thinkers shines a light on one of the major fallacies surrounding web design: thinking it’s something it’s not.

In Understanding Web Design in the A List Apart magazine he explains what web design isn’t, but many people think it is, and what it is, but many people think it isn’t:

Web design is not book design, it is not poster design, it is not illustration, and the highest achievements of those disciplines are not what web design aims for. Although websites can be delivery systems for games and videos, and although those delivery systems can be lovely to look at, such sites are exemplars of game design and video storytelling, not of web design. So what is web design?

Web design is the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.

That’s it in a nutshell. The “creation of digital environments” that “reflect or adapt” and “change gracefully over time”. No word on whether Flash, Silverlight, AIR or any other technology is The Way Forward, it says what we’re about on the web: facilitating and encouraging human activity.

So please don’t think of web design in the same way as print or graphic design, or software design, or information architecture, or a collection of loosely-coupled technologies. It has elements of all of these things and more. Much more. As the inventor of the web, Saint Berners-Lee, puts forth in his book Weaving the Web:

[His] vision of the Web is something much more than a tool for research or communication; it is a new way of thinking and a means to greater freedom and social growth than ever before possible.

Not just a way to sell books (the footnote on that page is just as enlightening as the rest of the text, take a look) or to “connect” (whatever that means) but something that will have a positive impact on the quality of life for people on this planet. High ideals, granted, but noble ones and – with a lot of collaboration and work – achievable.

Hiring for attitude

It’s been increasingly obvious to me over the last few years that a lot of businesses fail to prosper because they get one major thing wrong: they hire the wrong people. That’s not to say they hire stupid or dishonest people (although of course some do) but that they hire for the wrong reasons.

There are lots of different types of people in the world. Some of them have talents in one area, some of them talents in another. Some of them have qualifications that say they can do something really well, some of them have years of experience proving that can do something really well. Some of them love to learn, and other prefer to be taught.

That last point is the key to hiring people. You see, the people that prefer to get taught won’t go out looking for answers, they’ll expect the answers to come to them. They may well have read the manual but they won’t be able to apply it’s principles in creative ways. They are, to put it bluntly, drones. These are the people you should avoid.

In technology we’re constantly trying to find new things; whether that’s new ways to do old things, or ways to do completely new things. While there are manuals and textbooks that will teach you how to use a particular tool it won’t show you how to make the thing you’re working on. You may know how to handle a chisel, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a Chippendale. That takes craftsmanship – a subject close to my heart.

You should look for the people that have a craftsman’s attitude to work. They love what they do, they are passionate about doing it right. They are the ones that love to learn, who will keep trying to push the limits of their own, and sometimes the technology’s, limits. Where they see something that isn’t as good as it should be, they say something. In short, they have an attitude of excellence and humility.

Excellence: because without it you can’t call yourself a craftsman. If you don’t aim to be excellent in what you do you’re a person that can’t be bothered. A “good enough” outlook isn’t the craftsmans way. Excellence is a mountain that grows as you climb, but every step brings a better view.

Humility: because arrogance is the nemesis of a good worker. Keeping an attitude of humility makes sure your ears are always open to new and wiser instruction. Arrogance is like a plushly decorated prison. You might think you’re living in luxury, but in reality you’ve lost your freedom.

As Seth Godin says:

I really believe that hiring for talent is not nearly as important as hiring for attitude. If you get the right attitude, you can teach the talent.

So talent, especially qualification-heavy arrogant talent, will not make your business stronger. Humility and excellence will.

I’ve seen the future; garlic bread

There’s been some broohaha over the future of HTML. To say the least it’s been going on a while and has caused no small amount of disagreement in the web world. However a concensus seems to be on the horizon that HTML5 is the way forward, thanks mainly to the WHATWG.

I’ve taken a few moments to go through the specification for HTML5 and picked out some of the new structural features I’m most looking forward to using.

Pre-defined class names

I pretty much use all these class names every day, and I think that the vast majority of standards-aware developers do, too. What this amounts to is almost a kind of page-wide microformat, adding another layer of semantics to the page. Bring it on.

The nav elements (and the header and footer elements)

While I think this is a good idea I’ve got something in the back of my mind telling me that this is just over the line of too much semantics. Why I’d think that I’m not sure, probably years of writing <div id="nav">. It would make creating media-specific layouts much simpler, though.

The dialog element

This has pretty limited use, but I guess that in the future online dialogues will make up more and more of the content fo websites. That’s if people wake up to the power of user contribution. Being able to easily gather all these dialogues from across the web could provide the data needed to generate a web-wide conversation map. That’s just another way of seeing the connections that bind us all together.

The meter elements

I smell a whole new set of native graphing techniques in browsers. And here’s a prohecy for you, Apple’s Safari browser will do it first and make it look cool (closely followed by Opera).

The mighty canvas

It’s here already, thanks to support in a couple of the more forward-thinking browsers (even if it is buggy and limited) so there are high hopes for this little beauty. Again, it opens the way to all manner of graphical goodness.

The datagrid

There’s not much I can say about this as my brain has melted. If it’s implemented as thoroughly as the specs say it should be then this could revolutionise a lot of web application development by itself.

Anyway, take a look at the specs yourself. This looks like the future, and it looks good.

Off-road web technologies…

The internet is often described as an information superhighway. And on any highway there are vehicles, lots of different types of vehicles. I started to think about this over the last few days and realised that the two (server-side development) technologies I spend most of my time using these days represent two wildly different ‘vehicles’. And because I’m not averse to writing ill-thought out ramblings about the web, here are my thoughts.

ASP.net is a SUV

ASP.net is Microsoft latest attempt to take a lead role in web development. It’s a newer, shinier and much more powerful version of the old Classic ASP which I spent too many years using (and still do, regularly). It’s big and clever, does all manner of things for you, comes with a huge array of complex features, and is very picky what it runs on. The latest version of IIS for Windows only, please. (And yes, I know about Mono. Just bear with me.)

In short, ASP.net is a lot like this:

Sports utility vehicle

Yes, the Sports Utility Vehicle. Big, shiny, covered in chrome and brushed titanium. An interior made of plush leather with rare wood facias, and lots of slick gadgets. They say it will take you off-road anywhere, but let’s face it: these things are only owned by rich people living in posh suburbia. The dreaded Chelsea tractor factor, as some people have said.

They guzzle fuel, pollute the landscape, and if something goes wrong it goes really wrong and needs an expensive trip to the specialist garage to mend. No hacking away with a spanner and roll of gaffa tape on these, no way. But they have their good points. They are incredibly sophisticated, so don’t worry about reversing into a lamp-post because before you hit it a polite computerised voice will say “You’re just about to hit a lamp-post. Are you sure you want to do that?” and then offer you a latte.

They are comfortable; really really comfortable. You get so used to being inside one that when you have to drive in a Lesser Automobile you feel dirty. In fact they are so clean and nice to be in that you forget there’s an engine with messy things like oil and fuel squirting around in little tubes. Unscrew a little cap to check the oil? Not me, I just say “E-mail me a current oil level reading, car” and it does it.

And, let’s face it, everybody is jealous. They see me driving one of these and they know I’ve Made It. I must be some celebrity, or a director of a large company, because those sorts of people are the sorts of people to have these kinds of cars. I see them stare at the car from behind my tinted windows, as I press a touch-sensitive button to turn the air-con down just a fraction. And when I get home, I just twitch my left nostril a bit and the wrought-iron gates leading to my 400-yard drive swing open, and my digital TV automatically turns itself on to Footballers Wives. Bliss.

PHP is a Land Rover

PHP, on the other hand, is an old technology. Originally put together by just one bloke, and is now one of the foremost technologies in use on the web. From the page linked above:

Today, PHP is being used by hundreds of thousands of developers (estimated), and several million sites report as having it installed, which accounts for over 20% of the domains on the Internet.

Its open source roots, huge collective of developers, and ‘hackable’ nature have meant it is often the first server-side technology beginners have been able to get into without a steep learning curve.

In essence, PHP is quite like this:

Land Rover, the original and best

The classic British Land Rover. Originally built to be as simple to fix as possible, it has been a stalwart of not just the British Army, but many armies around the world, for over 50 years. It’s basic, uncomplicated, rugged and tough – exactly what you need for driving across difficult terrain. It’s so modular that what you can’t fix or find spares for you could probably make yourself. In fact I have a friend who makes spares for his Land Rovers in his garage using nothing but some simple tools.

So there you are, parts of your engine strewn across the desert floor after a particularly amorous rhino mistook you for a mate. It could have been worse – you have a set of spanners, a roll of gaffa tape and a flask of tea. Two hours later you’re back on your merry way, stroking your goatee in satisfaction and thinking of your collection of model steal engines waiting for you back in good old Blighty. What-ho.

Landys are classics, up there with Spitfires and red telephone boxes, pints of bitter and fish ‘n’ chips. They are reliable, and even when it does break you don’t need Jim to Fix It for you). But they aren’t comfortable or plush or stylish. They aren’t the sort of thing you turn up in to take a young lady to a restaurant. But they are just the thing to pull a posh SUV out of a muddy field with.

People also stare when you drive a Landy. Most people wonder why you don’t buy a ‘decent’ car, but those in the know understand. It’s not about the bells and whistles, the leather and chrome. It’s about an intimacy with the vehicle – knowing the nooks and crannies, knowing not just what everything does, but how and why. Landy’s hardly impress anyone, and turning up to a high-powered sales meeting in one will make people think you’re losing the plot. But put one up a mountain or in a desert and you’ll see why the heard of a free beast must run wild.

Increasing user interaction with websites…

I recently gave a presentation entitled “Increasing user interaction with websites”. Because I’m all into savig the earth, recycling and being a Jolly Nice Chap, here it is.

I did it in the quite wonderful S5 system by the esteemed Eric Meyer which I will no doubt be using again very soon, and works best in full-screen mode. Try pressing F11 on your keyboard, you might like it.