Molly E. Holzschlag
Published on February 23, 2005
Digital Web: So this is quite likely your eleventy-umpteenth computer book. Am I correct?
Molly E. Holzschlag: I stopped counting at eleventy-one.
DW: How do you answer the statement, “CSS is too hard! My brain is starting to bleed.”?
MH: There are three primary educational challenges when it comes to learning how to use CSS at the professional level.
The first is making sure people understand the relationship of CSS to markup. Second, we must learn the languages we use from the ground up. XHTML and (especially) CSS are not really as simple as they might look at first blush. Just knowing how to put some rules together isn’t enough. We have to understand the complex stuff—application hierarchies, conflict resolution (boy, those terms turn me on). In essence, I mean we have to understand the theory as well as the practice. The third challenge is dealing with browsers. We all can use CSS more effectively when we understand the limitations and support issues within our target browser base.
DW: Do you feel CSS is best left to the pros and not the great unwashed masses like myself?
MH: That would be like saying the Web at large is best left to the pros. I think there are levels of use and application. There’s the guy who has a blog, and he wants to futz with his template styles a bit, but he’s not a professional Web designer. Does he need to commit himself to learning about specificity or hire a pro just to add a cool background or some border colors? If he’s a tinkerer, he can tinker. Then there’s my 70-plus-year-old mom, who wants to post pictures to our online family album. Does she need CSS? No, because there are tools her nice daughter set up that can handle those details for her.
But then there’s the professional application of CSS to professional Web sites small and large. That role is always going to require deep knowledge and experience. So no, it’s not just for the pros, people should have fun with CSS and the Web itself, but the pros have to know it far more intimately.
DW: Dave Shea. The underdog. A complete unknown outside of the Vancouver circuses and sideshows he works at for spare change. How did you decide to team up? Nothing better to do?
MH: Actually, we have a great story. I’ll tell my version of it here, but bear in mind any inaccuracies are my own. It goes something like this:
I wrote a book called Sizzling Web Site Design back in the ungodly year of 1996. In 1997, Dave was haunting book stores in search of inspiration for his future—and he finds my book. He likes my book, and decides he wants to become a Web designer. So that’s what he does.
One day not long after the first round of CSS Zen Garden designs had been published to rave reviews, I receive an e-mail from a guy named Dave thanking me for having inspired him to become a Web designer. As you’ve pointed out, I’ve written a lot of books, so I get lots of really nice e-mails from readers. At first, I didn’t make the connection of this Dave to the CSS Zen Garden site. I wrote him back a pleasant, but rather generic thank-you e-mail.
Dave must have realized I didn’t get the connection because he pops back with a “Oh, by the way, I’m the CSS Zen Garden guy.” Holy moly! I was blown away—here’s a guy that I supposedly inspired who has gone on to create something that totally inspires thousands upon thousands worldwide. Talk about a proud-mama moment for me—there’s nothing like that rush of thinking, “Hey, maybe I did make a difference.” Very cool.
A few months later, Dave and I met at SXSW and talked a lot about books. At first Dave was hitting me up for general book-writing advice, somehow we got onto the idea of a co-authorship.
A week later, I was at the Waterside Conference (a tech publishing event I’ve attended for years) and Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel, VP and publisher of Peachpit/New Riders, who is an awesome human, came up to me and asked if I had any cool ideas for her. I relayed the conversation that Dave and I had just had the week before, talked about the CSS Zen Garden, and told her our background story. Within a week, Dave and I had our contract, and a half year later, here’s our book!
DW: That’s a great story! Do you feel this book pushes the envelope of CSS, or do you feel as I do, that books are inanimate and not likely to push envelopes?
MH: I think people will be very surprised to find that while the book’s subject matter is based around CSS, it’s not really a book about CSS. Rather, it’s a book about contemporary Web design. Are you going to learn CSS from the ground up with this one? No, not at all. You will learn lots about CSS, but as it pertains very specifically to aspects of design: imagery, typography, layout, special effects and so on. This is a highly visual, very beautifully designed and executed work—the emphasis is ultimately visual inspiration.
DW: Going with your Zen Garden theme, if Dave Shea was a fruit or vegetable, what type would he be?
MH: A silly question, but I can ride with it. I’d have to say Dave is most like an artichoke. He’s complex and layered, has very pointed focus, a strong heart at center, and is flavored with the necessary zest to stand out as unique.
DW: You read it here first. Dave Shea is fact, an artichoke.
There’s a lot of buzz in the coding community lately. Folks are claiming to rebel against the very standards they once upheld on the basis that CSS layouts are dull and full of boxy bits. Do you think this book will shut these annoying hamsters up once and for all?
MH: I think the CSS Zen Garden itself proves the boxy and dull idea wrong. The book just extends that.
DW: Any feelings on using hacks or filters? Do you think hacks will always be a part of CSS or do you foresee a day when code is pure and naked as a jaybird?
MH: I like to think we will clean up our CSS down the road just as those of us who are working to contemporary best practices have cleaned up our markup in recent years. We’re removing presentational hacks from HTML, focusing on the semantic use of elements—we can write some very pretty, very clean HTML and XHTML these days. But of course the hacks have now moved into CSS by necessity. I think it’s OK to hack when necessary to address specific browser needs, but I was influenced early on by Tantek Celik’s idea of sensible hack management—something I’ve studied and written about over the past year as it interests me. Our book doesn’t teach hacks per se, but we do discuss many techniques used in the Garden that employ hacks and progressive enhancements—what Dave refers to as MOSe technique—Mozilla Opera Safari Enhancements.
DW: Do you two see this book as more of a working reference manual or something to skim occasionally for technique?
MH: Neither.It’s a visual experience. It’s a book you want on your coffee table as much as near your computer. It’s a celebration of contemporary Web design first and foremost, with CSS driving many of the discussions—but again, in the context of design, not outside of it.
DW: Is it true that the proceeds of this book are really paying for hotel damages from your infamous WebWorld scandal of 2004? Or... was I not supposed to bring that up?
MH: You must be thinking of a different girl. You know how conventional I am, and how much self-control I exhibit at conference parties. Shame on your for thinking that was me.
DW: [cough] Sorry, Molly. Can we expect further collaborations with Mr. Shea and yourself in the future?
MH: Whether in the form of a book, article, or other collaborative project, I’d almost guarantee it. We’ve discussed co-authoring an article on how we co-authored the book, because we really had our hands all over everything. It wasn’t a, “Hey you write this part and I’ll write that part” kind of process. We were constantly reviewing each others’ material. We had Shaun Inman as our technical editor; Dave took control of a great deal of the book’s design including its cover. We were given a lot of support from New Riders to make this a truly unique book.
We also availed ourselves of multiple forms of technology during the process. We used a private weblog for updates, discussions, project tracking; we used IM, telephone, teleconferences, e-mail, FTP. It’s a new model of co-authorship and one that for us, at least, worked really, really well.
Dave and I quickly found our groove and we stayed in it through the entire process. The combination of his strengths and mine made for a very equal footing. We were able to spot each other technically, editorially. His design skills and my publishing experience helped balance our individual roles and temperaments. It was and will likely remain one of the most rewarding collaborative projects I’ve ever experienced.
Molly E. Holzschlag is an instructor, Web designer, and author of over 30 books related to Web design and development. She's been coined "one of the greatest digerati" and deemed one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web. There is little doubt that in the world of Web design and development, Molly is one of the most fun and vibrant Web characters around. Learn more about Molly at, where else? Molly.com
Dave Linabury a.k.a. Davezilla has written articles for A List Apart and been a featured speaker at SXSW. He is an information architect for Campbell-Ewald Advertising and really hates cold coffee. His blog, Davezilla.com, has garnered him a fair amount of attention in the media, and an equal amount of trouble. Recently his Manly Tips for Bachelor Living was made into a 2005 desk calendar.