“A nearly impenetrable thicket of geekitude…”

Designing With Web Standards, by Jeffrey Zeldman

Review of Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards.

Summary: disappointingly light on the “how”, refreshingly heavy on the “why”.

This is a book that, at least according to All Consuming, everyone seems to have been reading recently. I started reading it expecting yet another collection of cool CSS tips to make your web site sparkle: the good news is that it isn’t like that at all. Instead, Zeldman has written a book to try and change the way people think about web design.

It doesn’t make sense to do more than summarize his argument here. In essence, though, the view put forward in detail (and repeatedly) in the first half of the book is:

  • A web site with no control over presentation looks awful by comparison with traditional media.
  • Web designers went overboard towards precise control in pursuit of good-looking sites.
  • Getting precise control in browser-war era browsers meant “tag soup”, evil tricks like browser detection, multiple versions of each page and a huge testing load.
  • People still do this “because it has always been done that way”.
  • It doesn’t have to be that way! If you start from the assumption that most people now have browsers that can cope with modern web standards, you can get design control without all that other stuff. You still need to make sure that the site is acceptable for the small proportion of your audience still using old broken browsers, but you no longer view them as your starting point.
  • Go down this route and you’ll get also get accessability for disabled users and on new devices almost for free.

I found this a compelling argument: I think that is largely because Zeldman argues it well, but I believe also because any argument that says “start simple, and complicate only as much as is necessary” will appeal to anyone who has a background in software development. Any approach based on layers of tweaks upon tweaks always breaks down eventually, with luck being replaced by a new and better-thought-out framework.

The second half of the book covers the nitty-gritty of the standards-based approach and how to go about using it. However, the main value of Designing With Web Standards is in my view not its “how-to” information, but the initial material present the argument as to why such an approach should be taken.

If you work in web design, maybe you should consider buying a copy of this book and tearing it in half. Give the first half to your boss so that he is persuaded to make your life easier, and keep the second part as a reference.