When An Event Apart, a conference for web designers and developers, sold out in Chicago last October, Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman were gratified, but not necessarily surprised. The two web authorities have watched the event they launched grow from a quiet meeting in Philadelphia in 2005 to a four-city road show four years later. The conference grew out of A List Apart, a mailing list started by Zeldman 10 years ago that quickly turned into a web magazine written for serious professionals. Zeldman’s core interests, then and now, are web standards and the browser compatibility and design issues they address. For example, when Internet Explorer version 6 came out, A List Apart declared that table layouts no longer made sense. “Tables are dead,” A List Apart declared in 2001, replaced by CSS. Today, that stance is conventional wisdom.
“We got 16,000 subscribers within three months,” Zeldman recalls. “Someone would post about Netscape 4, for example. Other people would write posts in response. We collected those posts and at the end of each day we sent out one newsletter that was written by our users, but which we had ‘curated’―deciding which things got in.” Hence the name―‘A List Apart’ from all other lists. (The name is also a reference to the 1964 Jean Luc Goddard film: Bande a` part.)
Fast-forward to 2003, when Zeldman and Meyer were meeting over breakfast at a Mexican diner while attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. The two men kept saying they should do a conference of their own―how hard could it be? (Says Meyers: “If I’d known how hard it could be, I’d never have done it.”) In 2005, they spun An Event Apart out of A List Apart. The first conference was a one-day event in Philadelphia around the 2005 holidays. A friend brought the microphones, the mood was low key, but it worked. The pair expanded the event to two days, hired a professional staff, and have been doing the road show ever since. The target audience has been the same from the beginning: intermediate to advanced designers with several years’ experience under their belts, who are passionate about the craft. “I think the highest level of skill you can attain is to be a craftsman not only in action, but in approach,” says Meyer. “The thing about being a craftsman is that you care about doing it right―it’s not just something you slap together and shove out the door.”
“Come hear your bookshelf”
The largest group attending An Event Apart are in-house designers and developers working as part of a team. There are also people who work for consulting firms, and, in fewer numbers, freelancers. Participants come primarily from North America, but increasingly from beyond, including Japan.
As for the presenters, Meyer and Zeldman insisted they not just be good in front of a microphone―they had to contribute meaningfully to web development and design. “If someone was going to talk about accessibility, that meant that they were on the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, or like Joe Clark, they were a leading critic of W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, or like Derek Featherstone, they had spent years promoting web accessibility and building training programs,” Zeldman said. “We wanted speakers like Douglas Bowman, the guy who did the blogger redesign when Google bought it and is now the lead designer at Google. He’s making a huge contribution to the way the web looks. There’s Liz Danzico, who just started a program at School of Visual Arts in interaction design; she’s a brilliant information architect.”
Meyer was particular impressed with Derek Featherstone’s presentation on accessibility, which he gave in San Francisco earlier this year. “He clearly cares very deeply about the subject, and he brings that passion to the stage. He started off with a story about a real-world accessibility problem where someone couldn’t be served because their needs conflicted with a company’s policies. The problem was that the policies weren’t necessarily stupid, but they completely failed to account for someone in this situation. It was amazing, and Derek is an amazing speaker.” Other Meyer favorites: Dan Cederholm’s talk on CSS design; Aarron Walter presentation on websites that are findable, which he distinguishes from conventional search engine optimization; and Flickr’s Heather Champ on managing communities.
In Chicago, Curt Cloninger, author of Fresh Styles for Web Designers, spoke about William Morris, a 19th century designer whose work included textiles, architecture, and interior design. The idea of web designers claiming Morris and other pre-web designers as their own is becoming a recurring theme at An Event Apart. A cabinet maker needs to know how and when to use a jigsaw, router, or Dremel tool. “The equivalent is knowing when to use a heading or when you need a div tag,” Meyer says. “Given a certain layout, do you use positioning or floats, or try to put it all inline? When do you do image replacement as opposed to having the image in the foreground? Knowing all that, understanding how the tools and techniques work together, you can come up with answers in each new situation.
“You will also be aware that, occasionally, you’ll be faced with two options that are both equally good or bad, depending on how you want to look at it,” Meyer says. Your job is to pick the one that makes the most sense for the context. In other words, this is not a science; it’s an art and a craft. There are plenty of people who treat website production like it’s an assembly line job―they just bang stuff out and do everything the same way and all of it looks about the same. There’s certainly room for that in any field. Sometimes, prefabricated chairs are just fine. But often, to get something that really works for a particular situation, you need to talk to a craftsman. Those are the people to come to An Event Apart―the people who are craftsmen and can design a chair for mass production but wouldn’t really want to, just because it doesn’t interest them. They are more passionate about the field than that. They want every site they do to be the best one they’ve ever done―to be the most efficient, and the best implemented―and then go onto the next project and build on what they’ve learned.”
Meyer likens An Event Apart to a master class, except that the conversation between the speaker and audience runs both ways. “We have thought leaders, people who have written important books, up on stage talking about what they see coming, what they’ve been working on, how they’re thinking about the field, and what is the best way to do things. One of our unofficial mottos is ‘come hear your bookshelf talk.’”
Serious web development
The success of An Event Apart speaks to an emerging professional class of developers and designers. The field still has no certification requirements, and neither Meyer nor Zeldman think that hammering a framed “Master of Web Development” certificate to your wall would necessarily be a good idea. But the web―at least at the professional level―is no longer designed on gut feeling. An amateur’s enthusiasm is no longer enough. Researchers have poured hours into usability and eye-tracking studies. Web analytics tools now assess not only how people arrive at a website but, collectively, where people go, how they get to check-out, or, if not, where they drop off. When a company’s future depends on their sites’ user-friendliness, user stickiness, and ability to convert visitors to paying customers; when media companies begin to suspect that online delivery may be trumping the printing press and airways, then the seriousness of web design and development will be reflected in the people who do it.
Even so, Zeldman doesn’t anticipate the field will ever have the kind of professional certification found in medicine and law. “Designers are judged on their work. I can rent an office space and say I make logos for people, but if those logos suck, I won’t get more work. If they are good, I will. In web design the training happens mostly on the job. You make a lot of mistakes while you’re getting a salary or while your client is paying you. But then you learn, and because it is an emerging industry, we are all learning together.” Zeldman sites as an example two different philosophies for e-commerce sites from the 1990s. “One was exemplified by Amazon: ‘Let’s make it easy for people to find stuff and shop.’ The other was expressed by Boo.com-- ‘let’s make a knock-out user experience with animated avatars that talk to you.’ Boo.com went out of business. The whole industry learned that we need to make the experience clean and simple, not like a Lord of the Rings quest. At the time, some people knew that, other people didn’t―but now everyone does.”
Says Meyer: “The longer you’re in the field, the more likely it is that you’re going to love it and want to do it right for the sake of doing it right. Anyone who treats this work as an assembly-line job is not going to grow in that sense. The web is getting close to 20 years old now and the popular web, which I date from the release of Mosaic and Netscape, is around 15 years old. There are people like me who have been in it that long and lots of people who come to An Event Apart who have been at it for close to a decade. They’ve been there all along but somewhat invisible, as the whole field is somewhat invisible in a way. We don’t always know who we are.”
New ways to interact with mobile content
At Event Apart and in their travels, Meyer and Zeldman are also spotting some technical trends and areas of debate. One of them is the sense that developers may go back to the earlier practice of specifying text size in pixels. The reason, says Meyer: “Desktop browsers are now moving to page zooming instead of text zooming. Opera has done it for years―if you set page zoom to 150%, everything scales, not just the text. Firefox 3 now does that by default, Internet Explorer 8 is supposed to follow suit, as is Safari, because they’ve already got page zooming on the iPhone. For a lot of years, the best practices was not to use pixel text size, but I think this going to be a cause for disagreement, and it will be interesting to see where the accessibility experts come down. It’s hard to say: if there’s one thing being in this field has taught me is that you rarely ever get uniformity on anything.”
When we spoke, Eric Meyer was just leaving for Tokyo to participate in Web Directions East―so I asked him how Japanese web design and development differed from its U.S. counterpart. He cited Japan’s head-start on mobile web design, but also an increasing foothold for other browsers besides Internet Explorer―at least since his last visit in 2005. “Because of that shift, I see more receptivity to using standards and having things that work in more than one browser, not just IE, but IE/Firefox, or IE/Firefox/Safari. Also, the iPhone’s success in Japan has introduced Mobile Safari into the equation.”
He says that Mobile Safari and Android, which are both built on the Webkit open source web browser engine, open up a new way of interacting with mobile content, “which is basically to treat your mobile devices as a tiny little monitor instead of being a whole different medium.” That approach, which contrasts with that of the Blackberry, could become the norm, with the desktop browsers more or less replicated on mobile device. What the mobile screen lacks in size, it makes up for in a clever touch screen interface, including the iPhone’s “pinch” and “spread” for zooming, finger sliding to drag, flick to change what quickly, scroll or change panes.
That the iPhone has managed to host YouTube and Google Earth apps without using traditional web pages is a case in point. “The YouTube application is a completely different way of getting to those videos―you get to the content directly, rather than navigating through what we think of as the YouTube interface, which is the web site’s design,” Meyer says. “But in truth, we just don’t know how the mobile space is going to shake out, UI-wise, just as we had no idea in 1998 what the web would look like in 2008. “
And how will the downturn in the economy affect the profession? Zeldman thinks that demand will continue for web designers and developers. “I could be wrong, but I think people still need websites, even more so when stores are closing. How do you interact with the public if you are closing stores? I don’t see people getting smarter―but websites are getting smarter.”
Back in 2000, said Zeldman, the book The Cluetrain Manifesto declared that the Internet changes everything. “You can’t just push your message out there because the Internet is a two-way medium and we can push back. So markets are now conversations, and if you want to sell to people, if you want to involve them in your brand, find new ways to listen to them―and if you don’t, you are not going to sell to this generation. The Cluetrain Manifesto was ‘out there’ when it was first published, but now, websites for mainstream companies and news organizations have embraced the idea. As that happens―as far-out predictions become the norm―people will think of new creative ways to do things in a two-way medium that is still evolving. And when it happens, people will say: “wow, why didn’t we always have that―it’s so obvious.”
Sidebar#1: A List Apart’s Web Design Survey
In 2007, A List Apart put online a survey asked 37 questions about the profession of Web design, development, and related occupations. Some 33,000 people, including 2.4 percent from Asia. Among the results:
- Nearly half of the respondents were age 25-32. About 7% were under 21, while almost none were over 60. 82% were male. Women tended to be information architects, usability specialists, web producers and writers/editors. Interestingly, these job titles tended to have the highest salaries and the more experienced workers.
- 28% worked for a company, 22% for a consulting firm, 10% for a startup or non-profit, and 23% were freelance. 42% said they worked 40-50 hours a week.
- Education was not necessarily a predictor of income: while a doctorate paid off, the correlation was small or non-existent. Moreover, some jobs seemed to benefit more from a college experience than others: more than 60% of creative directors, designers, and developers thought so, only 37% of project managers, 21% of designers.
- Just over half said they had majored in a related field of study. 9% had more than 10 years experience, a third had three years or less, and a third had been at their job just one year or less.
- Salaries typically ranged from less than $10,000 (17%) to $40,000-$60,000 (23%). Nearly 6% claimed to make more than $100,000 annually. For-profit companies paid the most, government agencies paid around the middle―and both were represented by respondents with five or more years of experience. Almost half of freelancers reported making $20,000 or less.
- 72% kept a personal site or blog.