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Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman on the State of Web Design

Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman on the State of Web Design Image

The last of the interviews we did at An Event Apart in Seattle was with Jeffrey Zeldman, the cofounder of the event.

Jeffrey has been a prominent figure in the web design world since its earliest days. He was one of the first web designers, bloggers, and teachers, and he has written since 1995 at Zeldman.com. He was a cofounder of the online magazine A List Apart and, more recently, the conference An Event Apart and publisher A Book Apart.

Jeffrey cofounded the Web Standards Project, which he led during its formative years. He also wrote one of the first books on web standards, Designing with Web Standards, now in its third edition.

Jeffrey founded the wonderfully named design studio Happy Cog in 1999. He’s on the faculty of the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and co-hosts the podcast The Big Web Show. It makes my crazy life seem so simple…

In the following interview, we discussed how all this started, and what the hot issues are in web design today. (Note: my apologies for the terrible focus—getting used to a new camera and trying to be interviewer and cameraman at the same time defeated me.)

Interview Transcript

Michael: This is Michael Slater with Webvanta at An Event Apart in Seattle. I’m glad to be here with Jeffrey Zeldman, who is the producer of this event.

Jeffrey: Hi Michael.

Michael: This is such a high quality event you put together, that you have been doing for a few years now.

Jeffrey: Eric Meyer and I have been doing this event since Christmas of 2005, and we started it as two men with a shoe box. We really started kind of amateurishly. We knew there was a community for it but we were not producing it on a massive scale like this. Well, not that it’s massive now, it’s really intimate. We try to keep it intimate. But yeah, 5 years.

Michael: You do it in five cities or so?

Jeffrey: Six cities this year, all three-day events. There’s a two-day conference with an optional third day. Tomorrow, it will be on mobile. In Washington DC, it will be on accessibility. In other cities, it will be on CSS3 and HTML5. We have Kristina Halvorson on content strategy in Atlanta. We are putting on two special sessions with Andy Clark on Hardboiled Web Design later this year.

Michael: And you created a whole franchise around the “Apart” brand I see. You have An Event Apart, A List Apart, and now A Book Apart, and A Feed Apart.

Jeffrey: It’s all true. Originally, A List Apart, the magazine, started as a mailing list. At the time, early 90’s, there were a lot of good mailing lists of people who were interested in web design and interaction design, but there were lots of trolls. There was lots of spam. There were lots of flame wars. So a guy and I decided to create a mailing list where everyone would submit the mail and we would edit and curate it and put it out as a digest once a day. The name stuck and we turned it into a web magazine. And the “apart” name continued to stick. I think my friend Brian Alvey suggested to Eric Meyer that we name our conference An Event Apart, and it makes sense. Same people, same audience.

Michael: So your day job, if we can call it that, is at Happy Cog, is that right?

Jeffrey: Right. I founded Happy Cog in 1999. It’s a web and interaction agency. At first it was just me in my underwear. It’s big in terms of reach but it’s still boutique size. We have a small office in San Francisco. A medium-small office in Philadelphia. And a very small office in New York. Small, but all really great people. We design sites for companies like Zappos. And it’s a lot of fun.

Michael: What do you think the big challenges are that web designers are facing today? There were a lot of things discussed here about taking advantage of HTML5 and CSS3. Now there’s opportunity to do animation, and mobile. We work with a lot of freelance designers and small design shops, and they are really struggling with all the technologies that they have to cope with.

Jeffrey: Exactly! From about 2004 to about 2009 or 2010 we had this lull were everyone was whining and complaining because nothing was happening. Nothing seemed to be happening. We didn’t seem to be getting near CSS3. We didn’t really like the direction we were going with XHTML2. It didn’t seem like web standards were getting anywhere. And now we are in the opposite situation were so much explosive stuff is happening and going on.

Mobile is huge. The iPhone, iPad, and Android are huge. On the one hand, they are standards-facing, because they all support HTML5 and CSS3, so you can create great mobile experiences using web standards. You can create apps using web standards. On the other hand, there is also the temptation to go a proprietary route. In a strange way, although the browsers are much more standards compliant, it seems like we are redoing the browser war. Only now, it’s not the browser wars, it’s platform wars.

Magazine publishers are rushing to do stuff in a proprietary iPad-only format. Then redo it for Android. Of course, they could do it for everything at once if they wish to. It’s a really interesting time. My friends Roger Black and Filipe Fortes have started Treesaver, which is an open source JavaScript framework for basically creating magazine formats automatically using web standards. They work in iPad, iPhone, and Android and everywhere. Same as the web standards idea. Don’t make the same thing five different ways. If you have extra money, spend it on content. Spend it on photography. Spend it on better design.

Michael: Do you think the lure of apps is largely misguided then?

Jeffrey: No. There’s amazing things apps can do too. I think in some cases an app needs to be an app. I’m not saying that. I think content publishing can use web standards instead of rushing to make an app out of something that doesn’t need to be an app. Like making a closed proprietary format for a book instead of using EPUB. It seem like a misguided impulse, though I do understand it. Publishers are terrified and want to make money, and users do want to have a thing that they can own in some way. I think we are in a very transitional state, and it’s very interesting right now.

We are addressing the challenges of that and content strategy that we have been putting off dealing with 15 years. For 15 years we have gotten better and better at designing websites and web apps, and really smart about all kinds of stuff, but we still can’t really get the content. We can never get it on time. We don’t know who is responsible for getting it to us, or fixing it, or deciding where it goes, or maintaining it. So I think content strategy isn’t really a revolution, it’s been around the whole time we have been doing this stuff. But I think the charge lead by Kristina Halvorson and joined by others (such as Jeffery MacIntyre and Erin Kissane, who wrote a book for us on content strategy) is an exciting, big challenge right now.

Another important issue is responsive design, and whether it’s adequate, being posited as saying you don’t need a mobile site because you can just do responsive design. Really, no one is saying that, but there are lots of arguments around it.

Basically, everything is exciting. Everything is moving really quickly. Everything is controversial. Whether HTML5 is just HTML again. Typography, the excitement of web fonts, and the challenge of web fonts and devices. Like Jason Santa Maria said in his talk, we have gotten really good at, we have really gotten great at, using Georgia and Verdana and making beautiful things with that. Now we have a thousand fonts again, are we going to be tasteful and good? It’s a challenge; there’s a lot of people in our field who learned design doing interactive design on the web. They are really good designers now but they didn’t study graphic design. They didn’t study font pairings and things like that.

Michael: In that sense, people who grew up with print and are moving onto the web are in a better position, but in a way they struggle more with all the technology.

Jeffrey: In a way they are, yes. And they are the ones who maybe still think that a proprietary animation format is the way to go, or that a proprietary platform is the way to go.

I was one of the judges of the Interactive Awards for the Art Directors club this year. There was fantastic work submitted but most it was really fantastic film someone had embedded on their website. Several times I went up and said, I feel I can’t deny the quality of this brilliant film. The concept that the ad agency had was great. Clearly people responded to it and it went viral. Yet, I feel awkward giving this an award, and saying this is the best interaction design on the web, when most of the apps that I think are phenomenal were not even submitted for an award. Most of the content sites that I think are really important, that people turn to every day, that are changing the way content is distributed, that are really meaningful, are not even being submitted to award shows like that.

I think ad agencies have brilliant people in them, doing really interesting work, but I think they are resisting this change. Some publishers are on board and ahead, but a lot are resisting this change. And I think the people at An Event Apart are really interesting. Many of them work in-house, but they are not the “I have a secure job and I don’t have to learn anything” crowd, not at all. These people may have a secure job but they want to be the best at it they can be. They want to evangelize better design, better content, better user experience, better code, and they come here to learn that stuff and take it back to their colleagues.

Michael: Great, thank you. I will let you get back to your conference and thank you so much for your time.

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