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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[…]

The internet, like every other industry, needs clear standards for excellence. Here Zeldman chronicles his latest attempt to establish these benchmarks.

Question: What are web standards and why are they important?

Zeldman:    Every industry has standards. For example the Motion Picture, camera, there are 2 or 3 film format with a number of brackets and number of speed, a shooting speed that is standard. If we didn’t have that then some motion pictures will playback too slowly and people would talk very slowly and it will be bizarre. Our industries started with in the absence of those standards. We had the HTML but it wasn’t really supported correctly in any browser and browser makers initially led the exciting adoption of the webs. So, if Netscape out of the feature, every web developer learned it and when we all use it and it wasn’t a standard but that’s okay and then Microsoft to compete out of the future and it wasn’t supported in Netscape’s browsers. So, what ended up happening was that in order to make even just a simple content website, you end up having to make 3 or 4 different versions of every page and this is back in the 90s’ when websites we’re doing very much, they were pretty much static pieces of content with maybe a form where you could get more, you know sign up to a mail list and yet you are making all these different versions and if you’ve had even a very simple jobs script for insists to validate the form. You had to write it four different ways for IE3, IE4 and Netscape 3, Netscape 4 so, some colleagues and I in 1998 started the web standards project to basically asked browser makers to comply with a very small group of standards that would work across all the licensing and they eventually did and could they all browsers support them pretty well.  As for what standards are and why there are important… In addition to not spending 25% of your time and 25% of your budget making all these different versions of the site and that is money you can either save if you don’t have a lot of money or money you could put in to better writers, proof readers, editors, film makers, better design, better you know original illustration it’s money you could spend in better ways and just making more versions. The most findable content is content that is, that is designed with web standards and structured that way and when we started the web standards project, we didn’t know that because when we started it nobody use Google. Google didn’t really exist. Google existed as sort of a project by 2 graduate students. And people use to find web content either by reading your print ad and going oh, look there is a web address and typing it in right and dutifully and doing your homepage or they went to Yahoo which had higher article index, right?  Of all the content on the web and they go I’m looking for porn, how I would find porn and then they would type social and cultural that must be it and then they sort of drove all the way down to the porn whereas with Google they would just type porn or whatever they were looking for and find it.  But Google didn’t exist at that time, so we didn’t know that we were creating a means of designing websites that would have, that will make content very easy to find but that is a great benefit of it and when I talked to business people about this, if I say, if I talked about semantics, their eyes glaze over but if I talked about your content will be found on Google they get it and they like that.

Question: Which websites use web standards most effectively?Zeldman:    Most of the... Most blogs that I know about are now designed with web standards. Some very large commercial sites are designed with web standards. ESPN was an early adopter of web standards,, is an early adopter of web standards. Seed magazine just kind of redesigned by Tim Burton, Mike Pick, uses it… it’s beautiful and you look at it and think you are looking at flash content because of the way things move around and all but that’s all web standards. There is a flashes used for the custom video player but everything else is HTML, CSS and JavaScript and then I… when my friends and I were pushing for web standards in the 90s’. People laugh at us because if your designers don’t want to use flash, if your designer, why don’t you just make an image of the text if you’re, you know and we really felt like losers. We felt you know and we would say well, when we use you know, someone will do, a site one way and they say looks the same in every browser and I’d say well, mine doesn’t look exactly the same in an old browser but that’s okay, it’s still works. People thought I was bad designer and they make fun of me and my friends will felt the same way but we won, it was kind of amazing. Just, I don’t know how but now most of the web 2.0 sites that you hear about use web standards.  So, web standards have really won and they really captured the whole of most of the interesting web content, you know the personal sites, the blogs, the social networking ads, the web 2.0 sites. And you know even if you look at… I just did a test, just a simple validation test of the top 100 Alexis top 100 US sites to see how many validated and seven validated and two almost did. These are sites like and you know but if you look under the surfaces and see what they are doing, they’re all using CSS for layout, they’re all using semantic markup. Sometimes the CMS breaks that validations, sometimes they don’t bother. They all everybody sort of on, everybody who knows what they’re doing in web development and web design is now pretty much on board this train even though not everyone is purest and not everyone shares exactly the same understanding.

Question: How do you focus your thinking about web standards?Zeldman:    Is web standards an Ethos?  It is, although for someone who’s looked at us leading the movement, I’m very undoctrinaire. I really… I got involved out of practical concerns.  I basically didn’t want to learn, I didn’t want to learn more than four kinds of JavaScript eight kind of JavaScript they just seemed crazy. I really thought, I wanted to spend more time on design and writing and you know contents strategy, usability stuff like that. So, to me this was always practical and I think if I hadn’t and my colleagues, most of colleagues in the web standard project hadn’t had sort of practical mind set, I don’t think it would have taken off. I think if we said you should do this because you should do it and if you don’t do it you’re bad person. That’s religion. You know and there are definitely people in web standards who are religious there. There are people who says if your site doesn’t validate then it’s not standards, then it’s not standards compliant or it wasn’t design with web standards if you, you know if you make efforts to be accessible but you don’t need every requirement of this particular standard or this particular specifications then you’re not really doing it right. I tried not to do that. I always think, I mean design like everything in life is about understanding what the problems are, solving those problems and there is always trade-offs, you know. When we design a site, we have to standard who the users are and we have to design with the most, the lead users and maybe three other kinds in mind and then maybe someone who is in edge case who decides to work for them but it isn’t optimal for them.  That is just the trade-off or you use the means that you are disposal to size type. You want a size type in such a way that is readable and looks good for most people, but people can still come in and change the size if they want to because it is the web. There are different ways of doing that and there is no perfect way.  If I use a relative font size so people using Internet Explorer can make it bigger or smaller then someone who’s set their default to 11 points is going to find that my websites is type is too small and I’ll say…. I failed to understand how it is supposed professional, you can make such small type but if I do it using pixels then people in Internet Explorer can’t resize it at least you know, and so it’s always trade off and it is always... I think, I do think it’s an Ethos.  I think it’s a point of view and you should and most people who worked with web standard eventually internalize them, in their design practice.  But nothing is to be on and a good user experiences you know, good content well presented. That’s to be on and all that is real Ethos and these are just tools and techniques.