Friday December 10, 2004

Sweet Fancy Moses! I've Become A Web Standards Elitist?

It was such a smooth transition, unlike the rambunctious sneak attack I might have expected. Little did I know, when I dove into the web standards pool, that I would become a nitpicking fault-finder.

January 2004: I begin my year like any other, wishing I had a million dollars. Resigning to the fact that I will indeed have to hold down a job for the rest of my life, I head off to work. Once there, I continue designing and developing whatever project I had going on at the time, every once in a while taking a deserved break to hit up my favorite design portals for inspiration.

Fast forward to August 2004: I begin my day like any other, wishing I had a million dollars. Resigning to the fact that I will indeed have to hold down a job for the rest of my life, I head off to work. Once there, I continue designing and developing whatever project I had going on at the time, every once in a while taking a deserved break to hit up my favorite web standards blogs/sites for additional nuggets of CSS/XHTML wisdom. If and when I returned to my old design portal haunts to check out new pretty web work, I found myself hitting the ol’ Apple+Shift+D combo, unlocking the underbelly- exposing power of the Firefox Web Developer extention’s “Disable Styles” option. Oh, the horror! Tables, tables everywhere! Triple-nested tables! Inline styles! Bloated markup! Insanely complex Javascript rollovers! No declaring of a DOCTYPE! Noooooooooo!

My foray into the expanding world of standards compliant design had taught me many things. Wonderful, simplifying, filesize-reducing, easily-updateable, accessible things. But it had also left me with a sudden and surprising distaste for techniques that I myself had been employing mere months in the past. Before really making an effort to understand all the hype surrounding web standards, I sometimes passed off prominent standards advocates as boring, technical-minded, non-visual, nitpicking standards elitists. Gasp! Could I be be turning into the thing I had once judged so harshly?

You betcha.

Ignorance is definitely not bliss. We may be tempted to think it is, but it is not. Knowledge is bliss. While CSS support is admittedly patchy, I am consoled in the fact that almost no bug is insurmountable, forward-compatability is ensured, and everyone—regardless of how they access the internet—is invited to the party.

I don’t think I could ever go back to table-based design unless it was truly the only way out. Every time I see a mangled mess of nested tables, I think of the hell it must be on screenreaders and alternate media devices, not to mention the wasted transfer of useless, structure-enforcing kilobytes.

I’ve toned it down a bit lately. I do still analyze my work and the work of others, and make no apologies for finding shortcomings in them. I marvel at the complex means some people (myself included) have used to reach a simple, elegant end. But I no longer Apple+Shift+D every website I visit. I acquiesce to the notion that sometimes tables may be needed for page structure. With the mechanics of web standards under my belt, I can once again refocus on design. It’s a happy place. And, if anything, the study of web standards has made me a better designer. This year, I have learned that good design starts with a good foundation. I don’t have web standards to exclusively thank for that knowledge, but it does deserve a portion.

Here’s to a more organized, more beautiful, more accessible, better-designed future. Elitists unite!


Jon Hicks » 4634 days ago #

Every-time someone ‘takes up’ web standards, it becomes less elitist. The progress is happening, and its becoming more mainstream bit by bit.

There are definitely those out there that are “boring, technical-minded, non-visual, nitpicking standards elitists”, but fortunately not all!

Addison Hall » 4634 days ago #

Great article, Jared. I’m right there with you—I finally started catching on this year and I haven’t looked back. However, my nose is still in the books most of the time because there is still much to be learned!

Jeff Smith » 4634 days ago #

I’m with you all the way on this Jared. I dove into the world of CSS/XHTML probably a little more than a year ago. Of course there are still times when I’m sitting here working on a layout thinking “I’d love to just slice this up in ImageReady and stick with the table based layout that it spits out…”, but then I give my head a shake and realize that will just cause more problems down the road. Not to mention the fact that I’d probably just end up tearing it apart and coding it properly later on anyway.

As Jon said, web standards are starting to become a lot more mainstream. I applied to a web design job today and one of the requirements for candidates was to be familiar with web standards and accessibility…I think I might have found the job for me…

Kristopher » 4633 days ago #

Interesting read, Jared. It’s true that we as web developers are picky people, and like to spot what could have been done better. But this is what makes us strive to do better with our own work right? It does for me :).

Catch in stylegala.

Jeremy » 4633 days ago #

Ahhh yes Jared. Every time I sit to frame out a design, I do so with the understanding that the purpose of a Web site is to disseminate information. A Web site communicates visually and textually. I believe great design not only has a great “foundation” which I assume to be valid xhtml, but a semantic/logical document structure. As an exercise, I sometimes markup all of the xhtml for a page to get a feel for the information hierarchy. This process really does open some creative doors for me. From there, I begin to place items in tags as necessary to style it correctly via CSS.

Fernando Dunn II » 4633 days ago #

I’ve only dabbled into web design casually, but I know what you mean. Once you start understanding standards, you start to act like a car buff, looking straight under the hood.

I found myself doing this just minutes ago. It doesn’t matter how complex the site is. I see. I view source. I gasp. Then I start to visualize what type of standards-based, semantical approach can be taken.

Jeremy, starting with the XHTML first is a great idea. Building from a clean slate lets you keep the code lean, keep the document logical, and, as you said, allows some creative juices to flow. Suprisingly.

It’s kind of like having a junky desk. Once you take the time to clean it, you understand how much you like it cleaned. And you want to make sure you never have to go through the process again.

Abel Rios » 4633 days ago #

Wow, great post! I guess you could say I’m in the same boat. I discovered Web Standards a little more than a year now, and have embraced it completely. I have not looked back, and now my code is becoming more fluid, and easily readable. It makes for great practice, as well as beautifies the web. Here’s to a hopeful compliant future! :)

Jared » 4631 days ago #

Great comments, everyone!

I read something amazing in the comments of another website’s article a few days ago (of course, now I can’t find it again). The comment was something akin to the following:

“Hey, I know of a way you can get [such and such design element] to appear the way you want it to. It’s called tables, and people have been using them for years. Go to almost any award-winning website and you’ll see tables used for layout. With tables, [such and such design element] will look the same in every browser. That should tell you something.”

It does tell me something. It tells me that there are still people out there who don’t understand the nature of webpages or the elements that form them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Even though, at present, I could probably crank out a image slice-based site in half the time as a CSS-based site, I know that such an approach can only lead to more work in the future. I understand now that building a webpage is more than forcing visual elements to conform to my design; it is also building a meaningful understructure that visual design can sit upon.

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