Dave Shea

Dave Shea

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In: Interviews

By Craig Saila

Published on January 21, 2004

Digital Web: This past year, 2003, has been a very busy one for you, both personally and professionally. What are some of your professional resolutions for 2004?

Dave Shea: Topping my list would be better time management skills. I’ve been rather horrible with that since the summer which, maybe as a partial explanation, is a time when I’ve been busier than ever before in my life.

Anything one does within the context of work has to stay that way, for balance and sanity. It’s hard to make that distinction when you really enjoy what you do, to the point where it’s a hobby as well. I think most of us working on the Web can relate to that feeling.

I’m all for loving my job. But there are boundaries, and I don’t want to become married to it. Family and friends take precedence over things done for money. Luckily I haven’t gotten into trouble with this yet myself, but 2004 promises to be a big year. It’s something I’m going to have to think about sooner or later.

DW: You suggested that you’ll be taking a job in Buffalo. Will you be able to put into practice some of the work you’ve been doing on mezzoblue and the CSS Zen Garden at your new job?

DS: I seem to have confused a lot of people with my cryptic references to Buffalo. No, I’m not planning on defecting any time soon. April and I love it here in Vancouver, to the point where she (born and raised in San Diego) decided to move up my way after the wedding.

While we were married in June, we’ve been waiting on the Canadian immigration system since well before the wedding. Just prior to Christmas we started hearing back about the remaining issues. We’re on the home stretch now, which is a good thing.

But on to what you asked. I quit my job at the end of last year, and I’ll be setting up a design agency of my own, where I’d imagine I’ll have a lot more control over the final output.

During most of 2003 I worked for a small company here in town that helped get me to where I am today. I did a lot of on-the-job learning with those guys over the years, which is something I can always be grateful for.

But for the past three years I’ve struggled with the sort of things that a lot of us developers in the trenches struggle with. I saw a better way to build Web sites, and for years I tried to impart this vision on the company. I wrote documents explaining the benefits of XHTML. I tried breaking the shackles of supporting NN 4.x, that derelict of a browser. I started playing with table-less layouts.

I did near everything I could to boost accessibility and promote validation, only to be thwarted by a really bad content management system and coders who continuously couldn’t make heads or tails of the simple markup I’d give them. Tables and font tags would mysteriously sprout up everywhere after I’d handed off my code, because understanding it involved changing methods that, like it or not, continued to work.

In fact, I’ve attributed the creation of the Zen Garden to a lot of things in the past, including Chris Casciano’s Daily CSS Fun and the poorly-managed Hack Hotbot contest of last year. But these were catalysts: the core idea came as a result of working for a company who just couldn’t see the light. I built it to show, not tell, the benefits of standards.

The ironic part is that they’ve never seen it. No, really. I left the company just before Christmas, and to the best of my knowledge in that whole time not a single one of them stumbled across the Zen Garden (aside from one or two I had told). I really can’t explain it.

But that’s now in the past. I’ve started working part of my week with a local open source shop that uses all the cool three-letter acronyms (PHP, XML, CSS, RSS, MySQL). They’re also really into Movable Type; the intranet is a series of group weblogs. It’s a great environment with a lot of smart people, and though it’s a departure from the usual client work I’ve done in the past (they work with the shipping industry, specifically), it’s been a nice change.

And as mentioned above, I’m also taking on contracts. I’ll be launching my new business site, brightcreative.com, some time in the first half of the year. Stay tuned on that count.

I’m not sure where any of this is going, but it’s looking like a fun year.

DW: You’ve cited some unique inspirations including everyone’s favorite landscape painter, Bob Ross, and a plastic gnome that speaks Finnish. What are some of the other things that inspire your Web work?

DS: You mean people have read that page? I’ve been working with the Web for going on seven years now, and I still couldn’t point you in the direction of everything that has inspired me along the way, but I can summarize a few if I really try.

I used to do a lot of programming, going back to 1994 or so. I’ve always had a mathematical/scientific bent, and the problem-solving intrigued me. Still, I couldn’t see myself doing it for a living. I was more interested in building the graphics and UI’s for the software. The moment of epiphany dawned on me when I picked up a now ancient book by Molly Holzschlag in 1997, and I realized the Web was a great way to reconcile the artistic and logical halves of my brain. She’s the one who got me going on all this, and it’s hard to express how cool it is to have the chance to work with her at the Web Standards Project.

I toiled in the trenches for years, mastering the table-based layout and wielding the tag like no one’s business. It wasn’t until later that I started stumbling across this one site a lot of the time I googled for Web design tips, or whatever the equivalent of Google was back then (good grief, it’s hard to believe there ever was a time before Google.)

That site was A List Apart, and I started reading the Daily Report of its founder religiously around, oh, late 2000 or early 2001. I found out about XHTML. I found out about taking CSS beyond text formatting. I started playing with table-less layouts. I met interesting personalities. I started becoming aware of this whole other world of online publishing happening in the form of Weblogs. But that all came from reading the Daily Report.

It’s impossible to summarize all the good things that Zeldman has done for the Web community, directly and indirectly. There are thousands of designers better than I who will cite him as the one who showed them how it’s done, but he’s the guy that got me here too.

And there are plenty of others whom I look to for continued insight and inspiration:

DW: As you mentioned, you recently joined the WaSP. What would you like to see the group accomplish while you’re active in it?

DS: A change in developer mind-set, so that the question is no longer “Why standards?” but instead more “Why anything but standards?”

This is 2004, the heavy lifting has been done. Many have taken the plunge. Still others who haven’t started developing this way are feeling a nervous uneasiness about their current methods, and looking at those who have as leaders. Promoting the “Why” has been incredibly effective. The benefits are obvious, and with Wired and ESPN and PGA.com and SprintPCS and the rest of the highly visible sites that have climbed on board as examples to point to, the business case is strong. Savvy clients are already starting to demand standards-based coding.

But it takes more than will alone to make the switch, especially in environments where you have large teams that need to un-learn old skills. Where does the time come from for employee training? How do you break habits when you’re not as confident in the new methods, or at least in your skill with using them?

This is where the change needs to occur. We’ve got the momentum, but it’s going to take a few solid pushes to get everyone else over the edge with us. It’s a “When,” not an “If,” and developers who haven’t bothered to come along will have trouble finding work.

We’d rather not let that last part happen, so initiatives like WaSP’s Learn are important to keep informing and providing the resources (and links to resources) necessary to keep up. The interviews have been great for pointing out the benefits of making the switch to those who still need to hear it. We’re developing more ways to keep the momentum going. It’ll be a good year.

DW: After launching CSS Zen Garden, you heard from a lot of people suggesting ways you should have done it. Is there anything you would have done differently had it launched today?

DS: Oh, for sure. I don’t have a whole lot of room to make changes these days, but I did adjust a few things shortly after launch.

It was coded as XHTML 1.1, but someone wrote me an incomprehensible e-mail about MIME types. In the intervening months I’ve picked up enough to know exactly what he was talking about, so it’s down to XHTML 1.0 Strict these days, which I’m sure someone somewhere takes issue with.

I kind of cheated to get around the adjacent links screen-reader bug (WCAG checkpoint 10.5). Which seems to have been old news in 1999, which means in 2004 it’s probably not relevant anymore. If I’d used a <ul> in that instance it would have helped. But it doesn’t keep me up at nights.

Some days I wish I had a dynamic system to add new entries, since that’s generally where I get bogged down. Looking at my inbox I’ve got 20 or so submissions I’ve yet to attend to. And that comprehensive design list is starting to get mighty long. I think I’ll be forced into doing something about that.

I get e-mail requesting a lot of other things that might be fun. Some have suggested a forms-based Zen Garden since CSS and forms don’t play well. Some people would like to see a multi-page Zen Garden based on changing, dynamic content. Some want to see an e-commerce version, a Web-based application version, or a version for any classification of Web site that you can name. One person even went so far as to throw down the challenge, but in the six months since then, I don’t think there have been any entries.

I’ve never been opposed to these ideas, and I’ll keep encouraging anyone who thinks they can build a better mousetrap to do so. But I don’t think they’re necessary for a few reasons. Any talented designer will look at what the Zen Garden does and see that the content itself is largely irrelevant, it’s the principle of the thing that’s important. And the barrier for entry on the Garden is lower because you’re not trying to hit a moving target; while a certain time investment is necessary to build a great design, people aren’t spending the next three years tweaking for every possibility and contingency that something like a dynamic system would require. This isn’t paid work, after all.

The Garden worked on a lot of different levels that I never considered until well after it launched. If people making decisions about using CSS or not absolutely can’t see the forest for the trees, maybe these alternate Zen Gardens will be necessary at some point; but in cases like that, I think referring them on to Wired and ESPN and their ilk will be far more effective anyway.

Oh, and unrelated, but since a lot of people ask what the difference is between an official design, and one in the list of all submissions I get: it’s merely a judgment call. Something about the official designs has made them stand out. They’re beautiful, they’re clever, they’re well-crafted, they test well in all browsers. Not all of them meet all criteria, so there’s no science involved. It’s just me and my choices, for whatever they’re worth.

I mentioned at the very beginning that I secretly hoped the bar would be raised so high that my original five would look like the black sheep in comparison. We’re getting there!

DW: One of the other prominent sites you were involved in for 2003 was the Mozilla redesign. How did you get involved with that site?

DS: Your guess is as good as mine. I made an off-the-cuff remark on mezzoblue in July (or whenever their last redesign happened) that I’d be happy to lend a hand if they needed it. A few months later, I was redesigning mozilla.org. It was pretty surreal.

DW: So, what were some of the challenges you faced with that redesign?

DS: The open source community faces some interesting issues I’d never considered until I was seeing it from the inside. When you have a lot of people volunteering their time to a cause, their sense of investment is rather high. It can get rather political. Luckily the Mozilla group were relaxed about the process, and we didn’t hit many major stumbling blocks. There was one that particularly stands out though: the two people I started working with on the job turned into four, and then they all got replaced by five others. This was really not that long after Mozilla was freed from AOL, so some shifting while contents settled was inevitable.

Before the launch (and after I was done my part) I guess a few changes were made that altered the look and feel. I’m still fond of the original beta version we were playing with, for all its faults. I hit the wall on a few code issues, which probably goes toward explaining the changes, but that’s just reality when you have deadlines!

DW: Have you ever considered throwing in the proverbial towel in regards to Web design?

DS: Only every now and then, when I think I can make it on Broadway.

That is to say, no, I haven’t yet. Like anything worth doing, it has its ups and downs. Spending an afternoon cursing out a browser that doesn’t exactly support the specs properly (no names, rhymes with “Winternet Hexplorer”) can be a trying experience. It’s good to bury oneself in Photoshop for a few hours to relieve that particular tension.

Some days I wonder if in five, ten, twenty years I’ll still be wanting to, or even able to do what I’m doing today. The technology is going to continue to change, and to a certain degree it’ll become commoditized. Once you have Dreamweaver spitting out valid XHTML that works with the major databases and CMS’s out of the box, a lot of today’s Web development market will drop off.

At one point in time, we had spreadsheets and word processors and desktop publishing; today we have Microsoft Office. The early Web was all about custom development for specific applications, now we have push-button e-commerce and content management. A lot of custom development becomes unnecessary as the major players embrace and extend.

I mentioned above that I decided not to be a coder based on preference for graphics; this was one reason. But software is a commodity, and design will continue to require a human brain. That’s where I see the future, or at least, my own future.

Naturally, this is only a general line of thinking and not the final word on anything. A lot of lower-end design is commodotized already today thanks to clip art and FrontPage, and a lot of high-end software requires unique talent that’s worth big money. But if I have to pick and choose for myself, I’ll take my chances with pixels over code. Results may vary.

DW: Having survived the debuts of both the Zen Garden and mozilla.org, can you offer any advice to people launching public sites?

DS: Do your best with what you have: make sure you’re meeting the client’s goals and the users’ requirements, and the rest is gravy. There are more factors than just code involved in standards-based design, some of them economic, some of them political. Unless you are just one person working on a site for yourself with unlimited time on your hands, absolutely free of constraints, you won’t be able to code the “perfect” Web site.

Develop a thick skin. We’re still at a point where a lot of fanfare greets each new standards-based launch, which means each new site is still under a lot of scrutiny. With that comes praise and criticism. It’s easy to focus on the negative comments, and miss the long list of positives. Don’t get too wrapped up in defending your work to people who feel contentious. I’ve been noticing that a lot of critics have pet causes, and unless you meet their entire list, you’ll have done something wrong. Some can be quick to find fault, and slow to accept that there may be more reasons for something than they see.

Yes, Web standards and accessibility and usability and design and a fresh lemon scent are all very important. But there comes a point in every development cycle where you have to call a site “done” and get it out the door. Each new job is a learning experience, and the more you do, the better you’ll get. I’d much rather launch a minorly-flawed site than launch no site at all. And so would my clients.

DW: Finally, what was your most recent “eureka” moment while working on a Web design?

DS: Just about any time I get a script to run the way I expect it to, I feel a real sense of accomplishment. Probably because my expectations are so low when it comes to programming.

I recently built a CSS-based, three-column layout, with footer, with full-height background colour, that’s not dependent on content length in any one of the three columns. For all intents and purposes it looks like it was built with tables, and I honestly didn’t think I could do it.

I know there are a few places that offer templates for that sort of thing, but I always find myself re-inventing the wheel anyway due to design requirements. It’s more important to me to know how to build it myself than it is to have a layout reservoir on hand. If I know the technique, I can use it creatively. My problem-solving skills require knowledge, not templates.

I’ve been saying for a while that I’m purposely trying to design something in Photoshop that I can’t build. I’m interested in exploring the extreme limits. So far though, I’m batting a hundred; I haven’t been able to do it. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

DW: Thanks Dave, and all the best for ’04.

Related Topics: CSS, Web Design, Web Guru

Dave Shea is the cultivator of the CSS Zen Garden. A graphic designer by trade, he writes about all things web for his daily weblog, mezzoblue.com. Hailing from Vancouver, B.C., he can most often be found at the local farmer’s markets or independent coffee roasters.

Craig Saila has been working the Web since 1996, and is now a Web producer for Bell Globemedia’s financial sites, including Globeinvestor. He’s worked in the past with the Ontario Science Centre’s Digital Media Publications group, and as an associate producer at one of Canada’s biggest news sites, CANOE. Throughout his work, he’s divided his time between client-side development and online journalism—dual interests which are apparent at his site, saila.com.