Jeffrey Zeldman founded and has published A List Apart “for people who make websites”, a leading journal of web design thought, since 1998; co-founded the multi-city web design conference An Event Apart with Eric Meyer; and founded and is chairman of Happy Cog™, a digital design studio with offices in New York and Philadelphia.
Jeffrey has written two books, notably the foundational web standards text, Designing With Web Standards, currently in a 3rd Edition coauthored with Ethan Marcotte. It has been translated into 15 languages, including (for the last edition) Italian, Chinese, Hungarian, Polish and Portuguese. The book, together with The Web Standards Project which Jeffrey co-founded in 1998, is widely credited with bringing standards to web design and development.
Jeffrey co-founded and publishes A Book Apart (“brief books for people who make websites”), and was the first designer inducted in the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame. He tweets prolifically at @zeldman and has blogged and shared web design concepts and advocated user- and content-focused design techniques at Jeffrey Zeldman Presents since 1995. Jeffrey is a faculty member on the MFA, Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts, New York, and the founder and host of weekly internet radio program The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”), which has twice been named Podcast of the Year by .net Magazine.
“Creative” is not a dirty word
THERE’S a meme promulgated by my dear friend Monteiro that they call you creative to take your power away. Rubbish.
Except for this one point, on which we will forever disagree.
“Creative” is not a dirty word, and it doesn’t diminish our profession to admit that creativity is part of what goes into great design—along with research, data, conversation, testing, and all the other science-y stuff we trot out to prove that we are worthy business partners, and not flighty pixies shouting “I feel purple today!”
Yes, even today, when business so values design that it is hiring great designers in-house instead of farming out design to consultants every ten years—even today, business folk still look askance at designers, still too often see us as gushing decorators, to be brought in after the real work is done and make things pretty so consumers will swallow.
And it’s the fear of that prejudiced, unfair, uninformed, entirely shallow view of the design profession that may make folks like Mike talk about design the way Hemingway talked about writing. As a thing a man does when he isn’t shooting tigers or brawling. Only not sexist.
But creative is creative. It’s a spark everyone is born with. Every child draws. Every child sings. Every child is creative, and every creative adult keeps an anarchic, joyful child alive inside herself, no matter the cost. And, boy, is there a cost.
Staying creative into adulthood is not all roses. It means you don’t pretend not to like dolls or crayons or singing when other kids your age start making fun of those things. The gift usually comes at the expense of other gifts. Take me. Other kids loved camp. I hated it. Other kids could shoot an arrow straight, without burning their fingers. I got rope burns sending an arrow onto the ground five inches in front of me.
At school, when it was time to choose teams for softball, all the other kids, even the physically handicapped kids, got chosen before I did. My hand to God, a kid with leg braces and coke bottle glasses was picked ahead of me. When I came up to bat, everyone snickered and moved in from the outfield. In eighth grade I got beat up so often they worked it into the curriculum. I was the bane of my ex-Marine chain-smoking gym teacher, and later of cops. I couldn’t even mow the lawn without having an allergy attack. I would not be fourteen again for life everlasting plus Beyoncé money plus Beyoncé.
Am I creative? I couldn’t hit a softball, but I wrote an operetta at age 12, and created a (short, lousy) animated film at fifteen. Okay, my childhood was a nonstop parade of shaming, fear, and social anxiety. But once I turned thirty or so, shit started getting good.
Am I creative? I write and design and work at businesses I invented. I can sit at a piano and improvise music for hours, and while it ain’t Mozart, it also doesn’t suck. Half the web designers I know are also musicians. Half the musicians I know also paint. You don’t have to suck at gym and be a creep, a weirdo to grow up designing or writing or acting or dancing. But it helps.
I don’t call myself creative. That’s pretentious. Maybe that’s what bothers people who hate that word. I’ve worked in creative departments. The label didn’t bother anyone because it was accurate. Not every effort we made was award-worthy, but they all came from a place beyond the purely rational.
Research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs go into everything we do. But research and logic and testing and iteration and process and whiteboards and meetings and briefs never created a memorable campaign, never crafted a logo, never reinvented how designers approach their craft. That spark, that divine spark, that indefinable creating essence of the spirit is what takes all that research and everything else and turns it into the things people love, use, read, watch, and remember.
If there is a God, she is the ultimate creative.
Yes, it takes creativity to get up in the morning and support three kids on two frustrating jobs.
Yes, everyone is creative, as everyone is connected, and everyone is divine. I am he as you are he as you are me etcetera.
Yes, the garbageman finding fresh ways every day to make his job bearable is far more creative than I will ever be.
Yes, yes, yes. You bet.
But that only proves what I’ve been saying. “Creative” is not a dirty word. “Create” is what we do. We turn nothing into something. We bring into existence. We make.
To create is divine.
Zen and the Art of Wearable Markup
Most of all, it got me wondering about future-friendliness, an approach to multi-device design that I’ve always supported despite having little to no idea what it means.
Native apps for iOS and Android devices seem to have been with us forever. So much so, that we may forget that when Steve Jobs debuted the iPhone in 2007, its “internet device” capabilities were deliberately limited to the browsing of websites via an included Safari browser. Nobody, not even Steve, saw apps coming.
Even three years later, in his “Thoughts on Flash,” Steve seemed more interested in the “open” and “full” web than in proprietary platforms, despite by then being king of 250,000 apps designed specifically for the iOS platform.
The open web came first; apps came later. With Apple wearables, the reverse may be true. (Note that existing wearables already support the web. Matt Griffin avers that “these watch-sized screens are a totally reasonable way to access web content. And it’s equally reasonable for us to present our content in readable ways on these screens.” By the way, why do we only ask deep industry questions when Apple enters a product segment?)
Progressive enhancement, the foundation of standards-based design, by its very nature, is appearance-, screen-, and device-agnostic. My old friends Steve Champeon of The Web Standards Project and Nick Finck coined the phrase in a SXSW presentation where they turned graceful degradation (itself based on the principle that browsers should be tolerant in what they accept) on its head and presented a new way of working: one based on the separation of powers over appearance, structure, and behavior that standards-based design provides.
If you’re a little rusty about just what progressive enhancement is and how it works, Understanding Progressive Enhancement by Aaron Gustafson will get you sorted. (And Aaron’s classic book, Adaptive Web Design, will fill you in on all the details. Every web developer and designer should own it.)
At its core, all PE means is that we think first about the content and the people who want to access it—not the browser, not the device, not the technology. That we create experiences that will be accessible to any device that reads HTML. And then layer in progressively enhanced experiences for users of progressively capable technology. It’s how a site created in 2015 can deliver content and experiences to a Palm Pilot, a feature phone, a game console, or, dare we dream, a wearable.
Will that content and experience run perfectly on a game console? Depends on the console, and you probably have to test. You may even have to adjust your code to avoid the kind of holes in standards support we once had to worry about in desktop browsers. Will the experience run on a watch? Repeat the previous two sentences. We’ve been through this before. It’s the history of web design. It’s the history of the web.
Which brings me back to the Future-Friendly manifesto, which some designer/developer friends and colleagues I admire drafted a few years ago in hopes of heading off developer panic over rapidly multiplying devices.
They anticipated John Gruber’s tweet and a billion others just like it:
Proprietary solutions will dominate at first. Innovation necessarily precedes standardization. Technologists will scramble to these solutions before realizing (yet again) that a standardized platform is needed to maintain sanity. The standards process will be painfully slow. We will struggle with (and eventually agree upon) appropriate standards. During this period, the web will fall even further behind proprietary solutions.
And they addressed the multiplicity and unknowability of future devices with three Zen koans in place of a technological platform:
- Acknowledge and embrace unpredictability.
- Think and behave in a future-friendly way.
- Help others do the same.
Number two is my favorite, because it sounds like they’re saying “the best way to be future-friendly is to be future-friendly,” which is the part where I always scream at the nearest cosigner of the Future-Friendly Manifesto (assuming they haven’t already run across the street when they saw me coming). But what they actually mean is a series of approaches that are brilliant, and that, to my mind, still boil down to the essentials of web standards, which haven’t changed in more than a decade:
- Use structured markup.
- Progressively enhance the experience, focusing on capabilities rather than devices.
- Test that shit.