Preserving the history of web design

Talking to Dan Cederholm on Unfinished Business this coming week, our conversation to book writing, in particular working on second, maybe even third editions of books we wrote years ago.

Dan’s been diligent in updating his early books and has worked on three editions of his Bulletproof Web Design for New Riders. Me? I haven’t worked on even a second edition of Transcending CSS. That’s for several reasons:

I never thought that I could make the time I needed to devote to one pay. Particularly as my royalties are incredibly low due to a big mistake I made when I signed a contract for that book.

I’d already said everything that I wanted to say in the first edition of Transcending CSS and I could never get excited about going over the same topics again.

I think that in a lot of ways, Hardboiled Web Design was was a sort of unofficial second edition of Transcending CSS. only I was able to make it even better thanks to working with my editors and the fine folks at Five Simple Steps.

There is an another reason though.

I’ve always liked the fact that Transcending CSS is stuck in 2006. To me it represents how I and others were thinking — for better or worse — at the time. I like to look back at the example sites I chose, most of which look nothing like their screenshots today. The book’s become almost a historical web design industry artefact, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose.

My problem with second editions is that updating them seems a little bit like rewriting history, in our case the history of our industry.

I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the web is a pretty darn important part of human history and we’re the ones who (currently) design it. But we’re also pretty bad at preserving the history of what we previously did and currently do. Sites that contain important ideas, techniques and tutorials can go offline in the blink of a cursor — witness .Net Magazine’s destruction of over nine thousand articles this week.

It doesn’t matter that many of those articles were old, that the techniques may be out of date or that they attracted very little traffic, they’re still important reminders of how things used to be and how we learned to overcome what today seem like trivial problems with limited technologies.

I bet some people reading this would laugh (out loud) at the thought of Dan Cederholm figuring out how to make the background colour of two different height columns match. His faux-columns. We take transforming unordered lists into horizontal navigation and tabs for granted, but I remember the day that Doug Bowman’s Sliding Doors of CSS was first published.

For every Sliding Doors there’s been a hundred or more terrible tutorials but that doesn’t matter. It’s still fascinating to look back at some of the crazy ways we thought were the best ways to build websites at that time.

What really matters is that we preserve the whole story of the web design industry. We should do this for people in the future to learn from. To learn from our mistakes so that they don’t repeat them. To learn about the progress we made so they don’t undo it and also for posterity, to preserve the hundreds of thousands, likely millions of hours of thinking that went into making the web.


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