Focal Curve

Reflections on Suckswuh 2007

Like everyone else, I just got back from the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin. This was my third time, and right up until the start I thought it might be my last. It was big in 2005, huge in 2006 and was outright massive 2007. There were literally hundreds of speakers and attendees numbering in the thousands (I’ve heard estimates between 4,000 and 5,000, which feels about right). We’re told the Interactive conference outsold Film for the first time since its inception, by a factor of 3-to-1 according to rumor.

I feared Suckswuh was jumping the shark this year, and would be so overextended and overwhelming as to become unfun. But, strangely, the size had just the opposite effect, for me anyway. With so many people there and so much going on, I felt less pressure to meet and see everyone and everything, and instead just enjoyed who I was with wherever I was. I attended the talks I was most interested in and went to just a few parties, usually turning in early. I had more real quality conversations this year than at the previous two, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Deeper, lengthier conversations with fewer people is far more rewarding than brief, sound-bite chats with hundreds.

It seems the very immensity of the thing forced people to narrow their focus to just the things they really wanted to attend and the people they wanted to speak to. And yet, it didn’t seem to splinter into closed cliques as much as in the past. Obviously there were groups that tended to cluster together, as always happens, but this time around they seemed more fluid and relaxed, the cliques mingling and cross-pollinating freely. This social free-formedness is one of the things that makes SXSW so much fun.

On a sadder note, there were several absent friends, people I’ve met at Suckswuhs past that couldn’t make it this year. Meri, Elly, Simon, John, Jon, Kelly, Stephanie, Jessica, et. al.: You were missed. On an especially sadder note, Lauren had to leave early because her mother was in a nasty accident. By last reports she’s in stable condition and will make a full recovery in due time. Best wishes to Lauren and mom. Hopefully your second anniversary will be better than the first.

When it came to daytime programming this year, there seemed to be far less about “how to do ___ with CSS” and more discussion about design and media in general. Web standards aren’t just Kool-Aid any more, they’re the main water supply.

I neglected the mobile/social/gaming/business tracks wholesale, but tried to hit most of the design-related sessions. Highlights were “Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0” by Andy Budd and Jeremy Keith, “Why Grids are Good,” by Mark Boulton and Khoi Vinh, “Bullet Tooth Web Design,” by Andy Clarke and Jason Santa Maria, and “Web Typography Sucks,” by Mark Boulton and Richard Rutter (that’s two for two for Mark Boulton; the man knows design and speaks about it with elegance and clarity).

The 25-minute “Power Sessions” were an interesting experiment, and worked well for the most part. The main fault was that all of those sessions were originally proposed as hour-long talks, so cutting them in half forced the speakers to leave out a lot of good info. Even so, most of the shorter talks I saw were well done. If the Power Sessions return next year I hope presenters are allowed to pitch their ideas with a shorter length in mind from the start, to allow sessions tailored for short-form that won’t feel so incomplete and rushed.

There were a lot of sessions I missed out on, but I resolved not to get too upset about it. As with people, when there are just too many presentations happening at once you’re always missing something good, so why worry about it? I chose to skip a few entire blocks of time so I could get a bit of work done, and while there are things I’m sorry to have missed, I’m choosing not to dwell on those regrets.

A major sour note was struck at the climactic closing party, where a special VIP section had been closed off in one corner of the venue. That section didn’t seem very special, and the people within it didn’t seem any more important than anyone else. We’re all equals at SXSW, siblings in industry, geeks who share the common bond of passion for our work. And here’s this pointless pocket of exclusivity, needlessly drawing an invisible barrier between The Accepted and The Rejected. Utterly weak. I’ll be ranting at length on this shortly.

While the VIP thing was stupid and annoying and left a bad taste in the mouths of most, it wasn’t enough to completely ruin the Suckswuh experience, just to tarnish it slightly. It sucks that our lasting memories of Geekstock ’07 will be marked by snobbery and snubbery instead of the uninterrupted camaraderie the rest of the week offered.

The final morning was a bit sad, as it has been before. Saying farewells with full knowledge that most of these people won’t be seen for a year at least, and quite likely never again, is enough to make anyone choke up a bit. Yet this was also a little different this year, a little more relaxed and joyous. For one thing, Twitter absolutely came into its own at SXSWi07. With mass-IM updates from all the folks in my list, I can maintain some contact with this entire circle of friends I’ve made. In fact, even arriving at SXSW was smoother this year. Twitter made it seem as if I’d spoken to everyone just yesterday, with less need for “so what have you been up to this year?” small-talk catchup and instead diving right into real conversation about topics other than ourselves. And so the goodbyes were less teary because I’ll be twittering with everyone tomorrow anyway.

The first time I went to SXSW I was starstruck. The second time was like a reunion. This time it just felt like coming home. Overall, this was hands down my best Suckswuh to date and I will definitely be returning next year.

Grokking Deutsche

Shortly after How To Grok Web Standards was published on A List Apart I was contacted independently by two gentlemen, both wishing to translate the article into German; Eric Eggert on behalf of the German-language web standards boosters society, Webkrauts.de, and later by a nice chap named Stefan David. ALA controls the copyright to all the material they publish, yet graciously maintains an open policy regarding translations. I encouraged Stefan and Eric to collaborate, and now it seems they have. Stefan’s translation, Webstandards verinnerlichen, has been posted (both at Webkrauts and at Stefan’s own blog) and hence duly pimped. I’m honored.

Grok

My first article for A List Apart, How to Grok Web Standards, has gone live with issue 230. I’m giddy with excitement, as this is a fairly momentous event in my career. ALA has been instrumental in my growth as a web designer-slash-developer, and to think that I have progressed to the point where I can perhaps offer some guidance to someone else is enough to swell the ego to Hindenburgian proportions.

I discovered ALA around 2003 while reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s seminal masterpiece “Designing With Web Standards.” As has happened to so many others, it was DWWS that finally made me sit up and pay attention to web standards. Prior to that I was using tables to lay out my pages and CSS was only good for removing underlines from links. But Zeldman’s book is a wakeup call for presentational designers. It’s as much about the “why” as it is about the “how.” I took it upon myself to learn more about the mysteries of CSS, and it was zeldman.com and ALA that were my gateway.

I followed links and discovered Mezzoblue, Simplebits and StopDesign (I had seen and enjoyed the CSS Zen Garden, yet oddly had never visited Dave’s home site, Mezzoblue, until following a link from Zeldman). From there the linktrail led me through the broad network of standards-oriented blogs: Andy Budd, Shaun Inman, Jeremy Keith, Jeffrey Veen, Molly Holzschlag, Ethan Marcotte, Richard Rutter, Joe Clark, Dunstan Orchard, Andy Clarke, Eric Meyer, and many many more names that deserve dropping. Every new site I discovered brought new links of its own to expand the network of know-how, and it was through reading the writings of these people, these bright luminaries of semantics and style, that I found a new passion.

It began with technique. Faux columns, elastic layouts and horizontal navigation lists with sliding doors were handy reusable design patterns, tricks to employ to make my pages look good. But gradually came the realization that this whole “separation of content from presentation” hullabaloo was more important than mere technique; it’s the very cornerstone of the web medium.

I realized that the web isn’t really visual by nature, it’s merely a visual representation of the underlying ideas. The web is a conduit for the transmission of thoughts. Thoughts articulated in words, made portable by markup and given presence through style. If any one of those aspects of the medium takes precedence over the other two, it’s the thought behind it that suffers the damage. I developed a new appreciation of HTML as nothing more than markers to denote the meaning of text. It’s the text that really matters and the ideas behind it, the message driving your content, that thing that something about something is about. Presentational markup hurts content, and design that harms content is bad design.

Until a few years ago, browsers’ support of CSS wasn’t strong enough to make CSS design practical. We resorted to table hacks because there were no other options. But today’s generation of browsers, bugs aside, support CSS well enough that we needn’t keep designing pages the way we did in the olden days. We must unlearn what we have learned, readjust our attitudes and start doing it right. When I see the work of a designer who still uses tables and font tags, it just broadcasts loud and clear that they haven’t updated their skillset in half a decade. There is simply no acceptable excuse for designing web pages today the same way we did in 1999.

So why are there so many practicing designers — those who would call web design their profession — who still haven’t jumped ship? For some it’s just a symptom of ignorance, a lack of exposure to the books and blogs that have been preaching web standards methodologies. Those people need to be welcomed with open arms, offered understanding and guidance on their new journey. But others willfully resist, dismiss CSS as “too hard” and all this web standards mumbo jumbo as hype. They’re comfy with the sloppy, inaccessible presentational pasta that has cluttered the web for far too long. After all, it seems to get the job done. Everything looks just as it should, right?

I couldn’t comprehend that mindset, how anyone could learn about web standards and still reject them by choice. I finally figured out what the problem is; their brains just don’t work right.

A strictly visual thinker is not concerned with semantics and accessibility. They’ll treat a web page as a picture of a web page, and commit whatever HTML sins are required to bend pixels to their will. They don’t appreciate the significance of markup as a support system for content, don’t understand that every presentational tag and attribute is an obstacle hindering the movement of information. They’re thinking like an artist, obsessed with the experience while neglecting the message and the mechanics. Understanding web standards — not just how they work but what they mean — takes more than memorizing techniques for presentation. A web page serves a purpose above and beyond surface aesthetics.

Nearly two years ago I started drafting a post on this topic, exploring the mentality of standards-aware design and the thought process that goes into it. It’s difficult to articulate without a lot of hand-waving and abstraction, so the post lamented in draft stasis, occasionally being dusted off and reworked before going back into the locker unfinished. When Krista Stevens contacted me about writing something for ALA (on a reference from Aaron), I decided it was high time I brought that post out of storage and gave it to the world. I hope someone out there can glean some nuggets of truth and inspiration from How to Grok Web Standards and will use that to further the advancement of the web as a whole. I’m honored to contribute to a publication that has contributed so much to me.