Reflections on WOW

A Proud (Honorary) MemberThis past weekend (Fri–Sun) I attended the WOW Web Design and Project Management conference in Cupertino, a three-day introductory bootcamp on web standards led by Molly don’t-forget-the-E. Holzschlag, Aaron Gustafson, and Andy Clarke. It was great to see Andy again after we hung out quite a bit at SXSW05, and it was equally great to finally, officially meet Aaron and Molly, whose paths I crossed numerous times at SXSW but we were never in the same place long enough to actually converse. Overall the workshop was a great experience, and this is the last time I’ll be using the word “great” for the rest of this post, I swear.

I’ve been using, supporting and evangelizing web standards for a couple of years now. I read the books and the blogs and even a mailing list or two. I know the jargon, the methodologies, and the schools of thought. I generally think I’ve got this stuff down pretty well — which isn’t to say I have nothing left to learn, far from it — but most of the material covered was not very new to me. Even so, a refresher course is always a good way to clear cobwebs and reboot your skillset. I still gleaned numerous nuggets that will help me in my work and have come away reinvigorated, my head buzzing with new ideas.

What I Learned

Andy demonstrated how he uses Macromedia Fireworks as a project management tool. The software has two key features which Photoshop lacks: Frames and Symbols. Frames essentially act as a snapshot of a file in a particular state. You can then easily flip between states, so Andy uses them to save stages and variations of his designs. Multiple comps are kept in a single file, each one retrievable at a click and all still editable without effecting the other frames. The functionality can be somewhat duplicated in Photoshop with layer sets, but that gets quite unwieldy and the files become massive with all those redundantly duplicated layers. Frames in Fireworks were originally intended for creating animated GIFs, and I had never even considered this other use. ImageReady, Adobe’s “me-too” answer to Fireworks, does feature similar state-saving frames capabilities, but is so crippled in other ways that it’s not worth using over Photoshop. [Update: I just realized Photoshop does have a snapshot feature in the History palette where numerous states can be saved and switched between. It simply had never occurred to me to use it for project management and versioning, rather than just a “power-undo.”] [Scratch that, I haven’t found a way to make Photoshop save the history snapshots between sessions. As soon as the file is closed the history gets purged. Fireworks wins.]

Symbols are something Fireworks took from Flash. They’re essentially graphic clippings that can be imported and placed into a working file. Each symbol can be a multi-layered file in its own right, and when the symbol is modified that change propagates to every other instance of the symbol within the master file. Andy keeps a symbol library of commonly-used elements like lists, buttons and contact forms. It then becomes a simple matter of dragging-and-dropping a symbol into a wireframe or mockup, saving you the steps of recreating those elements every time you start a new project and speeding up the conceptual process.

I last tinkered with Fireworks when it was at version 3 and was wholly unimpressed. I saw nothing it did that Photoshop couldn’t do equally well or better (especially once slicing and save-for-web were introduced in Photoshop 5 [I think it was]). But I’m now totally sold on Fireworks. I’ll be acquiring version 8 when it hits the streets and Macrodobia should write out the commission check to Mr. Malarkey.

Aaron briefly walked us through the creation of a custom Document Type Definition (DTD), which is something I’ve never had the foggiest notion of doing myself. DTDs frighten and confuse me. During Aaron’s short walkthrough I admit he lost me for a bit and it passed several feet over my head until he got to the practical example: a custom DTD allows you to validly add your own attributes to HTML, and those attributes can then be accessed with DOM scripting. Aaron demoed about 9 lines of JavaScript that will validate a form by searching for a required="required" attribute on input elements and checking that those fields are non-null. A slightly more complex script could add many more levels of validation, but still wouldn’t be nearly as heavy as the way I’ve been doing it for years. But moreover, the fact that the script just looks for custom attributes means it’s completely portable, rather than being tied to only one form with a bunch of hard-coded IDs. That was the Ah-Hah moment and I started seeing all kinds of ways custom attributes could be used within the DOM. I may just have to try my hand at making a DTD some time. It’s really not as scary as it seems.

What I Already Knew

Molly was the mortar of the entire workshop, explaining the fundamentals of web standards in plain English, making it approachable to the novice while still detailed enough to inform the professional. Not an easy balance to strike, I assure you. We in the web standards community sometimes take for granted that others in our industry will know all the same stuff we know. After all, the information has been readily available for years now. None of this is a dark secret.

But go to one of these introductory workshops, spend some time reading the CSS-Discuss mailing list, or visit the front-end forum on Ultrashock. It becomes instantly clear that there are a LOT of working web professionals that haven’t yet sorted out this whole standards game. Some are willfully fighting it and those fools need to be ignored. But the vast majority of standards newbies merely need some guidance and encouragement. These are curious and intelligent people, eager to understand, they just need someone to talk them through it, to demystify the subtleties, to ease that transition.

Just when I think everything has been covered and there’s no need to repeat ourselves, I realize that the surface has barely been scratched. Repetition is good. We have to keep talking about web standards, keep preaching the gospel, keep pushing the capabilities of CSS, keep leaning on companies to catch up, and keep the doors open for anyone and everyone who wants to join in.

Lasting Impressions

The web standards community — and there really is such a thing — is a pretty tight-knit group of a hundred or so vocal luminaries marching at the head of a column of thousands of developers who quietly toil in the fields, plucking semantic berries from amidst the presentational thorns of Web 1.0. We are being steadily led to revolution, and more are falling into step every day. I had the immense honor and pleasure of spending a few days rubbing elbows with three of those bright leaders.

Aaron Gustafson

Aaron will rail at length against the evil entity that is Wal-Mart, yet his sense of diplomacy is well-formed enough that he’ll save the real political fulminations until he’s sure you can handle it. His sense of humor is delightfully low-brow, yet he compulsively says “bless you” to anyone who sneezes in his vicinity. I must admit that before this event I was under-aware of Aaron. I knew his name, had seen him around the halls a bit, and I’ve been following his recently-launched blog for a few months. But his star is rising, and we’ll be seeing astounding things from him in the very near future. Keep your eye on him.

Andy Clarke

The Modfather of the Brit-pack, Andy simply oozes Cool with a scimitar wit (as sharp as a rapier, but much broader). He rolls his own cigarettes Marlowe style, proof enough of coolness even without the accent. Before I met Andy I didn’t know it was possible to speak with a swagger. His obvious love for design infects and inspires, making him a captivating presenter. He lights up with exuberant glee when he shows you whatever sweet new thing he’s working on and you can tell just by looking at him that this is a man who totally digs his job.

Molly E. Holzschlag

Queen WaSP Molly is a prolific and outspoken standardista who I previously knew chiefly through her writings and by reputation. Hence, having only briefly met her in Austin, I still felt I had a good sense of who she is and what she’s about. I had tremendous respect and admiration for her work with web developers and browser-makers to improve the state of the web for everyone. But now, having spent some time getting to know her better, one thing has changed: Molly has also become one of my absolute favorite human beings of all time. She truly, deeply, passionately cares about the web and the people who make it, and she preaches it with such heartfelt conviction only a robot or a Republican could survive five minutes unconverted. If you ever have the opportunity to learn from — or party with — Molly E. Holzschlag, do so.

But enough sycophantic name-dropping. Thanks for everything, guys. See you in Texas.


  1. It truly was a pleasure Craig. You are a great (I couldn’t resist) person and a lot of fun to hang out with. I really appreciate the gas burned on our behalf, the meals we shared and your tolerance of my somewhat inebriated political tirades. We will definately be hanging out more in Austin.

  2. Craig – what a fantastic tribute and let me say that the feelings of love and respect are returned 10,000-fold. Looking forward to seeing you in Austin!

    [Edit: Malarkey confirmed that the second Malarkey was pure malarkey, so I’ve corrected the attribution of this comment. Cookies are tricky things when sharing browsers…]

  3. Hmm… Malarkey sure gets around… I think that third comment was Molly, but an existing cookie may have prepopulated the fields with Andy’s name and URI (if they were sharing a computer at some point, which I expect they may have done).

    Molly, if you come back and that was in fact you, let me know and I’ll modify accordingly.

  4. hey Craig,

    Thanks for the info on PSD history snapshots, I was thinking the same thing about Layer Comps in Photoshop, which I have never tried to use before, by the way. But I think they still won’t be as sweet as Fireworks. For Photoshop though, I think Layer Comps in CS and beyond are the closest to what Andy was doing, you just have to be sure to not make any changes to or delete any of the layers that your Layer Comps rely on.

    Anywhoo…sorry we didn’t really get a chance to chat, I think we exchanged cards at the very end there. I must mention though, I was admiring your atari/rubiks tshirt from afar. Maybe we’ll get a chance to chill and talk acronyms at SXSW.

  5. Was nice to meet you too Sally, I thoroughly enjoy the satiny weight of your card.

    I think “SXSW” is technically an abbreviation, though I do sometimes pronounce it “Suckswuh” in which case it could be considered an acronym… I recently had the opportunity to mark up the phrase “ATM PIN” which is, of course, an abbreviation followed by an acronym. I was giddy.

    You can get your own wicked console shirt from Defunker.

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