What can we talk about now?

Has everything that can be said about web-standards and CSS already been said?

When Keith pleaded last week,

Over the last few years we in the Web community have been talking about all sorts of issues; standards, CSS, usability, IA, UX and more. One topic that I�ve felt, at least in terms of the Web, has been left out a bit, is design. ... I think it�s time to get more design back into the mix.

it made me sit back and wonder if 'we' in the web-standards 'community' have anything left to say about standards.

Let's take a step back

It's been a short, but busy few years since deploying standards for day-to-day, commercial web ventures became practical. In that time we have witnessed a quiet revolution. Sure, there are still a great many web sites that do not take standards as the basis of their development and many more designers and developers still working with non-standards methodologies. But many major players have shown faith in standards and designers who have not yet adopted standards know that changes are afoot. It surely cannot be long before a standards based relaunch ceases to be news.

The same is true of accessibility. Of course there are still too many inaccessible sites, but recent publicity of accessibility has made designers and developers at least aware of the issues and solutions to accessibility matters have definately matured. It is good to see forums such as Accessify Forum busy with accessibility questions. I hope that soon, accessibility will not be an 'issue', but an everyday part of web development.

The Zen factor

It is hard to believe that CSS Zen Garden has been around for little over a year. In that time designers have come forward with a broad selection of designs that consistently prove that CSS layouts do not necessarily mean weak or unimaginative design. Many designers I know still refer to the Garden in meetings with clients who maybe need a little convincing that standards are appropriate for their redesign/new site. Today, the Garden continues to showcase new talent and remains a valuable resource.

Jeffrey's (first) baby and its siblings

It's been a bit quiet over recent months, but A List Apart archives still provide a powerful resource for designers and developers. I still refer back to articles and discussions on everything from Drew's Flash Satay to Eric's Going to Print: Print Styles.

ALA contributors have undoubtably made implementing mainstream designs with CSS possible. Without Sliding Doors of CSS Tabs, CSS Sprites and Faux Columns, many sites would simply not have been possible.

I hope that ALA's recent sojourn is a temporary one, but we have not been short of new inspiration while it has been away. Stalwarts continue to fly the flag and relative newcomers and rising stars offer insights into practical CSS implementation.

In many ways, these personal sites have become as an important source of knowledge as printed books. But I cannot help wondering if all there is to say about standards has already been said. I wonder whether innovation has reached a peak and where there is to go from here.

Can there be a new way to style list navigation? Can there be a better image replacement technique within the current CSS framework? How many other ways can there be to use defintion lists? Have we discovered every Internet Explorer bug (and a way of fixing them)? Without new challenges, can there be new innovation?

The sparkling CSS Vault has been joined by CSS Beauty, Style Gala and others. Every month additions to the Vault prove that standards based design can be beautiful, and more and more, comments are reduced to I like that, good job or Too many divs/spans/breaks etc.... This is in no way a critisism (really Scrivs), just an observation that there is often little else to say.

What can we talk about now?

I know that my knowledge can never be complete. I like to think that I will continue to learn the tools of my trade, but today there are few challenges that others have not faced, solved and published solutions to. I often simply fire up Google, type 'IE Mac (substitute your bug here) bug' and up comes a solution to experiment with.

There are some real gems being written all the time, and some topics remain hot, but being a practical sort of guy, I am less interested in musing over why serving XHTML as HTML is bad (I find some of these topics a little 'geeky' (there I said it).) than I was about Elastic design, sIFR or even Jon Hicks' design cast-offs.

Which leads me back to my original question. Has everything that can be said about web-standards already been said? Have we come to the end of the road? And if so, what can we talk about now?

Me... I'm going to talk about ... (Ed: Now that is going too far Malarkey!) ;)

(Update: Thanks to Drew for posting this on WaSP Buzz yesterday.)


  1. #1 On November 8, 2004 11:16 PM David Horn said:

    Err ... well, as someone who is only just starting to dabble with the dark arts of standards and CSS based layout (actually I've been doing it for about a year now, but if I say 'dabble' it makes me feel better about my stunted progress), it would be immensely helpful if people found something else to talk about for a minute or two - so that I can play 'catch up'.

    There are so many really excellent resources out there - this site included - it'll take an age to read everything.

    So, whilst I catch up, it would be great if you could all find something else to talk about. Thanks.

  2. #2 On November 8, 2004 11:24 PM Colly said:

    Andy, you're the John Motson of web standards. A fair commentary on the current state of affairs. A year ago I'd have been blogging away about all sorts of CSS goodness, but now that most innovation (within the current framework) has been...er, innovated, it leaves us free to write about the other forgotten aspects - such as design (read Keith), and intricacies of graphics (see Moll), and that big fantastic thing called life, which when you pull yourself away from the screen, is indeed a joy to behold...and write about.

    On a personal note, I no longer feel I have to write about CSS, or invent some stunning new technique to stay readable. That is definitely liberating...

  3. #3 On November 8, 2004 11:49 PM Justin French said:

    I think the conversation has to move towards case studies, redesigns, success stories, and the daunting, mind-numbing task of updating 100 zillion web pages. Whilst the top half of the design community has embraced standards, there's still the bottom half, the hobbyists, the hacks and most importantly the clients who still need a truckload of education.

    Until clients can be educated to make informed decisions about who they choose to work with and why, we've got plenty left to do.

    I'd personally love to see more traffic on the interface mailing list I started a while back, with a lot more conversation on interface design, intuition, semiotics and the other less tangible parts of our job.

  4. #4 On November 9, 2004 12:20 AM Drew McLellan said:

    As I said over on my WaSP post, I think there's a lot of work still to be done amongst web pros. The fact that the main avenues of development have been explored actually make it a whole lot easier for people to learn how to use standards. It's always easier to develop skills in a stable technology, than when the goal posts keep moving.

    The goal posts have been moving a lot over the last few years - it can only be positive that it's all settling down.

  5. #5 On November 9, 2004 12:29 AM Anura said:

    Personally, there is still a lot for me to learn - I could turn this blog-reading business into a full time job!

    I partially agree with Keith's plea for design to come back into the mix. I say 'partially' because, like many others, I've suffered at the hands of graphic designers over the years (but seriously, some of best friends are graphic designers!).

    At the WE04 conference (I'm boasting now), we were treated to some great presentations by Dave Shea which showed just how easy it is to develop great designs, built around total standards compliance.

    So I think it is time to bring this full circle, and say that the focus should move back design - not just swanky graphics, or transferring print-based designs by the 'graphic-designer-who-thinks-s/he-knows-HTML' - designs created for the web, for the way people interact and use the web.

    I think there are enough examples out there now to prove that standard-based sites can be anything you want. I suppose what I'm getting at is that there is a need for a new breed - a designer who knows the web. They are out there, and growing too!

  6. #6 On November 9, 2004 12:32 AM Jason Santa Maria said:

    Whu? When did design ever leave the mix?

  7. #7 On November 9, 2004 08:25 AM Martin Reurings said:

    How about: howto?

    I'm quite comfortable in my skills at html/ccs/javascripting. I'm no designer, alas, but hand me any design and I'm confident I can build it in a standards-compliant way. But ehm, what about those that just started out? Google is a nice tool, but you need to know how to ask, for instance check out the first link on this query:

    Of which lesson 6 reads: Tables are your friend. And then goes of into a nice primer on howto make table designs.

    I think that those of us that somehow found out about standards years ago, there's nothing much left untouched but the way of getting the message, and the skills, across.

  8. #8 On November 9, 2004 08:41 AM Phil Sherry said:

    "I hope that soon, accessibility will not be an 'issue', but an everyday part of web development."

    I'm of the opinion that it's not an "issue" to most designers, because most of us aren't visually impaired. My brother is almost blind, so it's something I've had to deal with on a personal level, rather than because everyone says I should design a certain way, these days. Maybe a lot of people just don't "get it," and that's why more people haven't jumped ship?

    "Have we discovered every Internet Explorer bug (and a way of fixing them)?"

    I, for one, very much doubt this. I've been plagued with IE/Win headaches for weeks now - fix a bug in 5.0, create a new one in 5.5... argh! As long as Microsoft are releasing browsers, I think there will always be bugs to fix.

  9. #9 On November 9, 2004 08:49 AM mearso said:

    I've only dipped my toe in the CSS water, and rather like an Icelandic plunge pool, found it warm and pleasant with a few pioneers calling 'come on in the waters fine".

    Interesting design questions are posed by the separation of content and form. It makes graphic designers think harder about structure and move away from the purely visual. Hopefully there will be a new impetus from people to grapple with some of these things.

  10. #10 On November 9, 2004 09:33 AM Robin Massart said:

    Whilst not entirely related to web standards, perhaps it is time to start discussing reliability of content and methods to keep it that way. Too frequently I come across information that is outdated, irrelevant and, most importantly, no links to references backing up its claims.

    Perhaps more importantly still, though, is the development of fully standards compliant and accessible content management systems. Too many sites are generated by CMS's which do not create valid code. You can't expect everybody writing for the web to be a CSS expert, but for a CMS, this should be the minimum requirement.

  11. #11 On November 9, 2004 10:52 AM Phil Baines said:

    Following on from what Robin Massart said, I think the next big step is to make the developers of 'web applications' see the importance of web standards. This has started with MS claiming that the next version of asp.net and visual studio will be more standards compliant, but until the actual developers realise that they DO have to think about the HTML code that their backend system spits out, until that time we will be plagued by programming frameworks that don't reach the standards, and web applications that are even worse.

    That dude over at aspnetresources.com is getting off on the right foot, we need to get more 'programmer' minds involved now!

  12. #12 On November 9, 2004 11:05 AM dik said:

    for me personally I find a huge black hole where theoretical discussions of the design and communication elements of sites should be.

    Sure you can always find out why so-and-so used a certain technique to overcome a particular flaw, or how to achieve a stylised look - but nothing on why that technique was a good choice in light of the (communicatitve) problem it was trying to solve.

    (IMO) The community seems guilty of focussing particullaly on the nuts & bots of 'how' sites are built, when I think it would be prudent to step back and ask 'why'.

  13. #13 On November 9, 2004 12:45 PM Will Chatham said:

    The conversation needs to be turned towards stopping the flow of misinformed web design methods before anyone else learns how to do things the wrong way. This means buying out all of those non-standards-based html books at Barnes & Noble to replace them with good ones. It means teaching the correct methods of creating a page layout at local community colleges. It means getting a WaSP taks force for Frontpage (like they did for Dreamweaver). It means having "Make XHTML Compliant" selected by default when creating a new document in Dreamweaver.

    We have to turn the faucet off to prevent anyone else from learning the wrong way, then we need to go back and fix those that already made it into the sink.

  14. #14 On November 9, 2004 02:44 PM Jeremy said:

    The topic has been somewhat beaten to death among the standards community - much like in academia, the discussion has evolved into a debate on the finer points. While that debate does have its place, I don't think it necessarily serves to expand adoption of web standard practices. And while I think that there are a number of excellent books on web standards out there, they're all marketed as "web standards" books, rather than simply as "web design" or "web development" books. Until developing with web standards is presented simply as "the way to develop," that there's still a great deal of evangelizing to be done.

    That being said, all work and no play makes jack a dull boy - so I for one am looking for a broadening of the discusion again...

  15. #15 On November 9, 2004 02:44 PM Michael R. Havard said:

    I think that what we're missing in most conversations is talk about supporting tools (parsers, validators, cleanup, conversion, etc). I've been pressing standards within my company for 6 years now but so far I can't get anyone to do anything because of the enormous amount of manual labor required to fix the old documents (10,000) and the lack of knowledge that the average page author has..

    Integrating Tidy with Frontpage (bleh!) helps a little in some basic lean up. Unfortunately we need some tools to help convert a whole site. Not only do the pages need to be tidied but we need help converting bad formats to best practices..

    Outside of the W3 validators and Tidy what cleanup/conversion tools are available?

  16. #16 On November 9, 2004 03:43 PM Malarkey said:

    @ Everyone: Interesting points to consider here (and to be honest, not at all what I thought would arise from the discussion).

    @ Colly: Motty? MOTTY? I thought I was much more like Jimmy Grieves! (hic) ;)

  17. #17 On November 9, 2004 04:09 PM Clint said:

    You're exactly right about the discussions going on at the various CSS showcase sites, and it illustrates what both you and Keith are talking about.

    When a site is featured, all most people are able to see and/or critique is the code. This is due in part to the emphasis given to standards in the last year, but also because most of this "new breed" of designers do not have the vocabulary or knowledge to give proper and helpful critique. What really bothers me is when someone will claim a site shouldn't be shown because it doesn't validate. Come on!

    So I agree, standards have been pretty well covered and the bloggers have been instrumental to promoting their use. And while I don't suggest we discard with that discussion all together, I'd personally find a discussion on why a particular font choice was made (there are options besides Verdana or Georgia!) much more exciting.

  18. #18 On November 9, 2004 08:14 PM Roger Johansson said:

    I think discussions and tutorials on web standards and accessibility still are, and will continue to be for a long time, very important and much needed.

    Yes, most of the web designers and developers who read blogs like this one know about the issues. For each and every one of us though, there are probably at least ten or twenty others who don't read blogs and don't have a copy of Designing with Web Standards. These are the people who learned their trade years ago or newcomers who picked up their knowledge from outdated books or old online tutorials like the one Martin mentions in comment #7.

    The more quality material that is available, the more of these, still unknowing, web professionals will pick it up instead of sticking to the old ways.

    (With the current discussion on web standards elitism going on, I'd better add that I hope I'm not coming across as "elitist" here, and that if I am it is not my intention.)

  19. #19 On November 9, 2004 08:42 PM Malarkey said:

    @ Roger: Nice to see you over here ;)

    It's funny how similar or related discussions seem to occur on different sites, as if by some spooky ESP malarkey. You're not coming over as elitist at all, and as I commented on Molly's discussion, I don't buy that A-Lister thing anyway. One of the things I have learned over t'years is that there is always somebody who knows more than I do.

  20. #20 On November 10, 2004 12:48 AM Cameron Adams said:

    Yeah, me :o]

  21. #21 On November 10, 2004 10:15 AM Rachel said:

    Jeremy: "Until developing with web standards is presented simply as "the way to develop," that there's still a great deal of evangelizing to be done."

    I think that is starting to happen - it needs to happen more, I agree. I write for a couple of UK web design magazines, writing PHP and ASP tutorials in the main. My stuff outputs valid XHTML/CSS as just "the way to do things" and I hope the side effect of that is that people reading the tutorial for the ASP/PHP code pick up some standards knowledge too. However (and I do moan about it) the magazines are still putting out tutorials based on building sites using nested tables, invalid mark-up and spacer gifs. Judging by the number of emails I get from readers, there are a lot of people picking up the majority of their knowledge from these types of publications, and many of these are people outside of the standards debate, who probably haven't even heard about the issues.

  22. #22 On November 10, 2004 10:46 AM Patrick Griffiths said:

    I think it's a struggle getting the standards message across to designers/developers, but there's always a struggle in getting any message across to anyone. But it _is_ getting across. Even though a lot has been said, it's even worth repeating it again and again to increase the likelihood of the message being picked up and understood. And one persons writing/presentation style might suite one reader/listener over another.

    I agree that there's a burning need to get the user-agent manufacturers to comply with standards, and, again, the message does seem to be getting through (there's increasing support for XHTML and even CSS on mobile browsers for example). But, frankly, if it doesn't suite them (as in isn't profitable) in the short term, they're not going to care, especially if they (they being Microsoft) assume they'll dominate the market with their product no matter what.

    There's a real need to convince the clients/managers or even other (non front-end) developers of the importance of web standards. An organisation might get their Java developers to do the HTML, for example, because, well "it's a piece of piss - anyone can do it". But not only do they not know how to do it the best way, they don't give a toss about it in the first place.

    The thing is that most web standards evangelising resources, such as this one, are written by designers _for_ designers. And when blog entries come up about the business of web standards, for example, not that many people seem to care.

  23. #23 On November 10, 2004 07:50 PM J. J. said:

    I think the problem is that there are too many places to go next. As Robin, Phil Baines, and Drew all mentioned, or at least alluded to, I think we need the see the forest through the trees a little better. Most of our standards-compliant sites are optimally designed, but they don't make extensive use of many other technologies.

    Personally, I've been brainstorming how to create a dynamic site that catalogues religious literature (lists and info on Bible versions, Qu'ran resources, noncanonical texts, etc.). So far, it's been a struggle for me just to get a simple MovableType site standards-compliant. How do we begin to create a database-driven website at square one? I think a wiki style would work best in this example.

    SitePoint has been a good forum, including the books that they publish, but even there I've seen posts that ask questions similar to the one I've posed above. I could go on about this, but I'd like to pull together some more links and resources to solidify my "religious literature" site idea; hopefully I'll have a post up on my own blog about this issue. Thanks for getting my juices flowing, Malarkey!

  24. #24 On November 11, 2004 02:16 AM Andrew Krespanis said:

    What can we talk about now? I thought colourful badges on comments were the flavour of the week? :P
    Run out of new tricks to show off? Then lets make learning standards more sexy so that instead of being 'web design with standards' the term becomes 'web design' and is considered the norm.
    Lets bite the bullet -- everyone who's ever written a beginner level article on using web standards needs to chose their most hated part of the XHTML or CSS 2 specs and rewrite it for human consumption. Between Patrick's HTMLDog, Russ' maxdesign (listorial, floatorial) and Westciv's House of Style we've already got a large portion of the CSS specs decoded out of their super-geek bable. Throw in some pretty, semi-opaque diagrams and all that fluff that keeps the goldfish-like attention of designers (myself very much included;) and we're on to a winner.
    On the up side, I'm seeing more local jobs pop up with requirements like 'Thorough understanding of the W3C accessibility guidlines'. Granted that those positions are only ever in Uni's, but at least one large group of insitutions is waking up to the future.

  25. #25 On November 13, 2004 03:17 PM Ryan Brill said:

    Didn't read through all the comments, so it's probably been mentioned a couple of times already, but hey, what's one more.

    We could talk about design for a while... We are web designers right? I'd love to see a bit of a shift towards more design related conversation.

  26. #26 On November 15, 2004 12:37 PM dotjay said:

    I think that we haven't heard the end of standards yet. Even now that standards are taking off a bit more, there will be many a discussion to come. We all know the Web's evolving all the time, but many others do not. :0(

    So, back to the original question: I think it should be more a question of what we want to talk about now.

  27. #27 On November 15, 2004 12:47 PM dotjay said:

    Erm, speaking of Molly's articles, have you noticed that there's a link to "Stuff and Nonsense" in her blogroll?

  28. #28 On November 15, 2004 01:02 PM Malarkey said:

    @ dotjay: Yes I did notice that. I didn't want to assume that this was in error. So, if you're reading this Molly, is this correct? ;)