Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first designers, bloggers, and independent publishers on the web, and one of the first web design teachers. In 1998, he co-founded—and from 1999 to 2002 he directed—The Web Standards Project, a grassroots coalition that helped bring standards to our browsers.
He publishes A List Apart “for people who make websites;” has written two books (notably the foundational web standards text, Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition); co-founded the web design conference An Event Apart; and founded and is executive creative director of Happy Cog™, an agency of web design and user experience specialists.
Question: How will open source affect design?
Zeldman: What’s happening now... When we started designing websites we always invented the wheel over and over again. For long time nobody had figured out Information Architecture so we all just made stuff up. We made up we… you know, we said, this one is going to have seventeen buttons and we’ll name them after the zodiac, I mean, it was you know wild and Willie thing and then Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld wrote Information Architect for the World Wide Web and people started to figuring it out. Jared Spool and Jacob Nielsen started talking about usability and people start figuring that out and Steve Krug wrote about it beautifully and people started going, “Oh, it’s common sense applied to design. Oh okay. I get it.” What’s… and so that was sort of the first face of the web. That what, if you could… all these faces it’s all kind of our official but the first face of the web was going from pirates doing underground stuff making it up, nobody really having any idea, how any that work that was so much fun. And then figuring it out how usability information, architecture, designs on the web, what are standard screen sizes all that stuff. So, we went through that phase. What we are going through now with open source and with, open source library especially is that, I’ll talk about my least favorite thing first. So, CSS is the design language of the web, and it is not as easy to use as it ought to be and it can be confusing especially if you are new to it. So, certain people who created CSS libraries which they give away, where they say well, if you want a three column layout then do this. It’s not tutorial telling you how a make a three column layout. That sort of the first phase, I wrote some of those but… and lots of people wrote those. This is the second phase where instead of writing editorial people are basically giving you a bunch of code and saying here is how this score works. If you need to do a four column layout or here’s the grid. Here’s the ten part grid that’s 960 pixels wide and it will fit very nicely at 10x24 by 768 and if you wanted, you know if you want these proportions then use this little snip of this code and if you want these proportions use this little snip. That’s useful. It’s my least favorite because there is no one size fits all for design and I think way that I can help you if you don’t know CSS, make a CSS layout. Ultimately it doesn’t really educate everyone and it doesn’t allow designers to think outside the box. It’s basically we’re making a box instead of thinking outside the box, we’re making a box. But mostly these days it’s not. Mostly you can use expression engine or Drupal. Basically tools that are kind of like Wordpress and you know or a blogger kind of like blogging tools but on steroids. You can use those things and there’s a whole community of people out there. And we have a site right now that is currently running in a custom or on contents or at magazines. It’s running on a beautifully created custom content management systems. It was written in Ruby on Rails by Dan Benjamin, it’s awesome. He is a brilliant developer and he created it very quickly but he is also very busy. And when we really need to modify something, we can’t always get his attention. And he is the only person in the world who knows how to come in and modify. So, we’re transitioning technique to expression engine. And you know that’s not a no-brainer process that requires real developer power. But once you’ve done that, once you’ve…it’s kind of like transitioning to web standards. If you move from old fashion mark up to web standard there is sort of pain. The first time you do that because you got all this crap, you know what to do and it is like how do I scrape the content and I’ve all this crap that was use to surround it. But ones you’ve done it you never had to do it again, ones you done it your markup can stay the same forever even though your layout my changes radically. What is the same with these tools, ones you move from a, what moving from static to million dollars CMS the pain was all that learning and all that money and a licensing agreements and miserable stuff. Now, we have really powerful comparatively easy to understand, open source content management systems sort of proprietary seems like expression proprietary but it has a very simple licensing agreement basically you pay like a hundred dollars a year and that is it. So we’re really in a time now where a lot of stuff has been invented, we know how a lot of stuff works, we know community means on the web, we know what magazine, publishing is on the web. We’re still trying to figure out our direction on the web but we know we figure out a lot of stuff out and people who will in the past might of you know just kept their expertise to themselves are now sharing it very generously in these little frameworks and open source applications and other people way add on, you know writing, you know mark, who works for created extensions for expression engine like. All the client wants to do is expression engine doesn’t do out of the box. Here is the thing I invented; I’ll give it to the community to use. So, that’s where we are with that.