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Designing with Web Standards

1530 words on

I’ve been fiddling with web ‘design’ since approimately 1994. And it has been ‘learning by doing’ all the way through. Things were easy at the beginning when nobody ridiculed your <blink> tags and all sites looked equally dull. Then version 4 browsers and sites with many tables came. And only at the beginning of this millennium sanity sort-of returned with style sheets and standard wars. Of course soon after discovering that you discovered that 90% of the people were using a web browser which wouldn’t display things properly and in a way the ‘art’ of the whole process became to see which design tweaks you could make work in all browsers alike.

That’s quite a messy area to work in. Simply because you have web standards on the one hand and you have web browsers on the other hand. Sometimes the standards aren’t entirely clear in what they specify. And usually browsers don’t exactly stick to them. It would be great to have a complete list with examples explaining how they should work and showing how they actually do work in various browsers. To be perfect, workarounds would be listed with the failures in browsers’ compliance. Web design would be simple from technical point of view.

Such a list doesn’t exist and the richness of even relatively simple-minded systems like HTML and CSS along with the huge number of browsers makes it vain to hope for it. Rather, you’ll have to depend on your own experience, a number of web sites with the standard hints and workarounds and the odd Google search when you see no way out. That does work but it also seems a bit less systematic than I’d hope for.

And while I have given up on finding that ‘perfect’ list, I started thinking it wouldn’t hurt to actually look at existing books on web design to see how professional writers people writing books on web design approach this set of problems. It turns out they simply don’t. They mostly limit themselves to describing the basics of HTML and CSS in a more or less systematic way. And never in a way that’s more helpful than what you find at sites like Self HTML or even W3 Schools. In part this may be because you can interactively test as well as copy and paste things from these sites, but my impression often was that it’s also a matter of people writing books on web design have no friggin’ clue about more than the most obvious basics and are bad writers. Compared to some books even the W3C specs for HTML and CSS start looking well-written and helpful. At least those - if only by definition - can’t be wrong.

Book Cover Jeffrey Zeldman is historically one of the most vocal standards zealots who successfully tried to concile the business and technical side of using web standards. He knows the game and he wrote a well known book about it - Designing with Web Standards (without the the capital letters, to be precise), which I managed to look at as well, the ‘new’, second edition of which I looked at as well. It was refreshing in that it’s a book whose author seems to know what he’s writing about. But it’s very confusing as well. At least to me.

My problem with the book is that it seems to do everything at once and nothing properly. It spans the whole range from evangelising web standards to the clueless through to technical examples of browser hacks with the nitty gritty HTML given right there. (Actually XHTML because Mr Zeldman seems to be an XHTML zealot, even though that difference seems to distract from his main point rather than helping it.) While it’s laudable to attempt spanning such a wide range of topics, a book of less than 400 pages cannot do that satisfactorily, particularly in the chatty style it is written in. As a consequence many topics aren’t covered fully or are just mentioned. Even worse, many of the more advanced topics are merely mentioned in a single sentence and ‘covered’ by giving a link - printed in a monospaced typeface - in the text.

I keep wondering who is the target group of the book. As it only sketches the issue which you need to know about to actually do web design, it seems to be made mainly for the pointy haired bosses who need to ‘know’ about a topic and put the book back on their shelf after skimming the first few chapters. And that would be a waste.

I didn’t like the general style of the book either. It seems quite unfocused and arbitrary. I’ll list a few more oddities I noticed:

Drawing claimed to reflect what margins and paddings do in the box model

And those are just the things which really irked me while reading the book. It’s full of superfluous chattiness. And in many places it feels quite condescending in the way it treats the reader like a stupid little kid who needs to be guided. Instead of saying that was wrong for these reasons, it’s better to do it this way, it goes on and on telling stories about how people or we have always done things in this or that way and how in this flashy new world it’s much better to do it in another way. Particularly because Mr Zeldman himself or some of his friends have done it in that way in their latest redesign. If I cared about their latest redesign I’m sure I’d find a blog post to read about it and possibly learn what they did there. But in a book on web design I’d expect more neutral facts and less chattiness.

The sad thing is that the general quality of HTML books is so low that Designing with Web Standards isn’t as bad in comparison as the carefully selected quotes above may make it look.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

March 2, 2008, 16:13

Tagged as book, css, html, jeffrey zeldman, web design.


Comment by Roland: User icon

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “output” has been a verb since the 14th century.

March 2, 2008, 21:06

Comment by Dave2: User icon

And, while you’re correcting things…

“Sidebar” is actually used correctly. Before it was a term applied to a side-section of a web site, it was a legal term for an “aside” (side conversation) that lawyers have with the judge independent of the jury. When lawyer shows (like “L.A. Law”) started becoming popular in the US, their terminology started working their way into general conversation. So a “sidebar” simply means a conversation that’s relevant to, but aside from, the main conversation.

That being said, I enjoyed the first edition of Zeldman’s book. :-)

March 3, 2008, 1:27

Comment by LKM: User icon

I own the first edition of the book. If you actually want to create web sites, the book is utterly useless. It’s more a book about standards advocacy than about actual standards-based design, despite of the book’s title. If you want a good book on CSS, buy Meyer’s Programmer’s Reference.

March 3, 2008, 11:50

Comment by Michael: User icon

You might want to give Cascading Style Sheet - Designing For The Web by Lie & Bos a try. It’s straight forward and concise. It might be more to your taste.

March 3, 2008, 20:04

Comment by ssp: User icon

Looks like I’m learning more about the history of English language in the comments for this post than I learned about CSS in the book. Keep that stuff coming!

Will anybody use those expression in real life, though?

Thanks for the additional book tips. I’ll try to check them out in the library. But I really don’t need yet another guide to CSS basics. I was hoping for something that focuses on the tricky practical problems with examples and everything. Where ‘tricky practical problems’ will mostly be ‘unexpected’ behaviour by various versions of IE, along with – if possible – explanations of why things are displayed wrongly and how to deal with that; with an overview about which properties are broken to which extent in which browser version; and all that reasonably up-to-date (including IE7, Zeldman missed the opportunity to publish his book after the IE7 release for some reason.)

March 3, 2008, 22:57

Comment by Kevin Dixon: User icon

I got started in 2000 with these two Visual Quickstart guides (Peachpit Press). 1. HTML for the World Wide Web - Elizabeth Castro. 2. Javascript for the World Wide Web - Tom Negrino and Dori Smith. I can honestly say that they grabbed my attention and fueled my interest in the subjects. I still occasionally refer to these beginners books and recommend them to any beginner.

Once the basics are learned then cross browser compatibility suddenly becomes extremely important. Being self taught, from books and Googling and forums, I might be lacking in some of the important basics. However my website is created by me, for me and is just a collection of links that interest me. So no formal training, just a keen interest. I have never seen Zeldman’s book and will take your advice on that Sven. Avoid it. Although if I ever see it on a bookshelf I will take a quick look. Getting web pages to look the same in all browsers is difficult, but a good step towards that goal is to decide on a strategy and stick to it consistently. Validate pages using a reliable validation program. You might opt for HTML 4 Strict, Loose or Transitional. Or XHTML. HTML 5 is on the way (2012). Then you get to know the failings and pitfalls of your strategy after a year or two and can develop ‘workarounds’. This is not advice to you Sven, as I know you are already an accomplished web designer. It is my advice to beginners who might be reading this. Yes we could all do without these incompatibility issues. Fact is they exist. The extra work required is worth the effort though, because of the satisfaction you get from a job well done. Kevin Dixon

November 20, 2009, 23:17

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