Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman

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In: Interviews

By S. “Corin” Nguyen

Published on August 26, 1999

Jeffrey Zeldman was introduced to the web in 1995 and since then he’s become one the web’s most respected voices. Although, working on the Batman Forever website introduced him to the web, and his site Jeffrey Zeldman Presents gave him recognition in the web development community. It’s his active involvement and contribution to the web over the last four years that has garnered him praise–not only online, but also in traditional media. His interviews can be found all over the web and his sites, like A List Apart and the Web Standards Project, have become important resources for designers of all levels.

Jeff took some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions we posed. His next public appearance will be as keynote speaker at Web Design Denver ’99.

Digital Web: You said once that Jeffrey Zeldman Presents is “pure web design–in the sense of interactive presentation using the special techniques which are unique to the web.”

Jeffrey Zeldman: I said that? I probably meant that the design concepts were shaped by the medium, not imposed on it from some other discipline. I might have been talking about my old things like the Gifplex (1995).

Every medium has its own character, its own elasticity and limitations, and with the web, we’re still discovering the terrain.

Today I’d say the work of people like Matt Owens or Francis Chan is closer to “pure” Web design than my own stuff now, because so much of my new work is magazine-like. Using the Web as a “content delivery system” rather than Forging a Bold New Whatever.

DW: How do you define interactivity? And how is web interactivity different than the click-for-a-response nature of a game like Myst?

JZ: Well, they’re both non-linear: they’re both journeys of discovery. The designer sets up the opportunities, and the viewer decides what she or he wants to see or learn or do. But the Web is not the product of a finite group, and it’s not hermetically sealed. That’s a big difference.

You don’t go from a Myst room to a news article or a repository of desktop patterns–you go to another corner of the Myst world, and you stay there until you quit. Myst is one world with a finite number of developers and designers. It’s controlled. But the web is doubling in size while we have this conversation, and only God can see all of it at once. A photo essay from Bangladesh may take a visitor to a corner of something Peyo Almqvist is designing in Sweden.

Plus there are so many millions of people who simply “use” the Web to check sports scores or the weather. For them the interactivity is just functional, like a TV remote, and that’s okay too.

Web makers are enthralled by the medium’s possibilities, like parents watching their children grow. But to most folks, it’s no more intoxicating than a telephone… a slow telephone.

After all, most of the Web is simply functional, a tool for distributing information or selling things.

And most of the new people who use the Web are directed to functional sites by other functional sites–portals–which are created to make money, same as television. A lot of people will never even see the great stuff.

People enter the world of Myst for a magical experience. Most people don’t enter the Web that way. People like us do because we make the stuff, and creation is magical. A writer adores language, while ordinary citizens use it to write business letters or find out what’s playing at the local Octaplex. To a Web designer, five lines of code can be Satori.

In a way, then, what’s magical about web interactivity is that it’s driven by your psyche–whether you’re looking for sports scores, pornography, or beauty that makes your jaw drop. Of course, porn can do that too, I guess.

DW: There is no one standard for design education accepted at institutions of higher learning across the Country though a standard for design education (four year curriculum) has been set by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Industrial Design Society of America and the National Association of Schools of Arts and Design (the only organization authorized to accredit art and design schools). At this time, there is no agency for monitoring and enforcing of those standards, as well as education of employers and clients that those standards exist. Should such an agency exist?

JZ: Well, I’d be out of a job.

I’m sure it will happen soon, though the Web is still being gerry-rigged, and how do you teach something like that?

There are film schools now, but they didn’t exist when D.W. Griffith or F.W. Murnau were inventing film language, nor when Hitchcock and Welles were reinventing it, nor when Bergman and Fellini were taking it where they took it. Of course now everything happens faster, so it won’t take sixty years to develop a reasonable curriculum, as it did for film. Especially if large companies like Microsoft can turn “accreditation” into a revenue stream and/or a sales tool that teaches people to use their proprietary technology. (“I’m ‘NT Accredited.”) As the pharmaceutical industry did by funding medical schools that teach doctors to prescribe drugs for everything.

What’s exciting about the work now is that we are exploring an undiscovered country. I’m glad I’m here doing this now, glad I started soon after the Web was launched. I wouldn’t want to work in an industry like television where everything is “known,” where everything has been tested, where 90% of the creative approaches you might take have already been deemed failures unworthy of financing. There’s no canned laughter on the Web.


DW: The U.S. Department of Labor classifies graphic design, and ostensibly web design, as a trade because no firm standards of preparation, performance, behavior, monitoring and enforcement of those standards exists. Unlike law, medicine, cosmetology, dog grooming, etc., design has no set certification or licensing before someone calls themselves a designer.

Should there be a minimum standard? If not, why not? If so, what would those standards be? And how would that affect the web if those standards must be met before someone can call themselves a designer?

JZ: You need to distinguish between Web standards like Style Sheets and scripting languages, and professional accreditation based on “standards” which often merely promote the interests of small groups. Style Sheets and other standards we’re fighting for at Web Standards Project are no different than standards for electric current, or the NTSC standard for television, or the number of frames per second which pass through a projector. These kinds of standards are necessary to ensure that the medium works. They’re the bottom line.

On the other hand, while you may need a diploma to become a dog groomer, you don’t need one to become a novelist or a screenwriter or a movie director or a music producer, and you don’t need one to be a Web author. Brian Eno’s creative vision makes him a music producer. No special license required. Eno’s engineer is a different story. On the PRODUCTION end, you can’t do the work unless you already have a certain level of technical mastery.

If you’re a production person, or a programmer, and you don’t know your stuff, you won’t last in the industry, because the projects you work on will fail, and you’ll be blamed. But it doesn’t matter if you studied programming at MIT, or taught yourself with the help of some books. Most of the teachers “accrediting” people in that Web School of the future will be unaccredited and self-taught. Oh the delicious irony of it all.

If you’re a creative person, there’s no way to validate that. You can’t even say the market validates it, because we know how many artists have failed in their markets, only to be appreciated later. If you survive in this market, you must be doing something right. If you don’t, you may still be great, but you didn’t find the right projects, or let the right people know what you were doing.

I know great designers in this medium who never studied design. It was just in them. Like the blues were in Leadbelly.

For the most part, I suppose the market is the only semi-validation we have, in the sense that those without the true calling will eventually leave the medium, just as musicians or actors who don’t quite “have it” eventually fall back on other kinds of work. And most of those who do have the calling will thrive. Never underestimate the value of good work.

I don’t know the educational background of the people at Chopping Block and I don’t care. I look at their work and I like it. Done. I think clients are are that way, too, though bigger clients are always more cautious, and eventually the Proctor & Gambles will want “accredited” Web firms to produce their online marketing. Right now many of those companies go to firms affiliated with “respectable” older media–respectable in that client’s world–such as the interactive divisions of large, old, stable ad agencies. And I imagine that tie-in to Grey Advertising or whoever is all the reassurance such clients need.

DW: In one interpretation, when someone expresses in idea or emotion to be interpreted by another person with traditional media, like paper or canvas or stone, that person is called an author or artist, and the work is called art. How would you define art? Are there websites that can be considered art? Which ones?

JZ: Some stuff makes me feel, some makes me think, and some changes me forever. I call that stuff art. Like “love” or “honor,” it’s tough to define and almost completely subjective.

I consider many sites to be art, or art-like objects, and I write about my favorites in the “Outside Reading” column at, and list others in the exit gallery at

There’s art and there’s Art. We’re an infant medium, and as such, we’ve not yet produced any Citizen Kanes. No Guernicas, no Grapes of Wrath. Not yet.

When I read a novel like The God of Small Things, I think, “that’s what life can be.” When I see a great site I think, “That’s what a website can be.” That’s a profound difference.

And that’s what I mean by withholding the capital-A from the art of the Web. We’re still primarily at the stage where what is moving about the experience is how far the person has taken the medium, rather than a vision of life they’ve implanted in your mind forever.

Though I’ll back-pedal a little from that and say that sites like come pretty close. Also Frances Fiddlehead’s work, “The Place,” which I fear is offline.

Still, look at all the books, CDs, films, photographs, and paintings we have. How many of them are profoundly moving? How many will last? When you look at it that way, our little Web is doing all right.

DW: Most arts have recognizable styles, like impressionism or transcendentalism. What recognizable styles of websites are there? And could you describe their chief characteristics? Is it possible for individuals to have a recognizable style?

JZ: No matter what I do–and I’m now developing an extremely corporate site–it always feels like my work. For better or worse. And that was true when I was composing and producing music nearly 20 years ago. It always sounded like Jeffrey’s music. I was incapable of creating a jingle, even when I really needed the money. It always came out like monks in a hollow drum, or streams of sad memory, or unhealthy chemical excitement–even when I tried to be commercial.

And that’s just me, and there are lots of people better than me.

Style is an important component of authorship in any medium. You always know a frame of Hitchcock or Bunuel, even if you haven’t seen the film. You know Mozart when you hear him, you know Miles or James Brown when you hear them. John Lurie, David Byrne, Doris Lessing, James Ellroy–they all have a voice, and style is kind of an easy word for one aspect of that voice.

Web work serves the content, the viewer, the client, but all of it is filtered through the subjectivity, prejudices, and limitations of a creator or a small group of creators. If they’re good, they have a voice, a vision, a “style.” No matter who or what they are serving.

I think I answered your last question first.

I haven’t categorized Web styles, but off the top of my head I can describe a couple of people’s work–just to prove the point that style is always part of authorship. For instance:

Lance Arthur has a symmetrical, logical, architectural design approach that is flawless and clean and deceptively simple. (The code that supports it is baroque.) He focuses on the interface, always coming up with something that is intuitive, and discreetly sensuous–in the sense that you want to push the buttons; there is almost-tactile pleasure in interacting with his interfaces. He’s one of the few people who use white in interesting ways, and his overall effect is always understated. All of this pristine control in the visual realm is a counterpoint to his written content, which is rambling, rambunctious, parenthetical, witty, barbed, satirical and sometimes scatological. In short: order versus disorder, control versus chaos.

Michael Schmitt is a designer’s designer who uses but deconstructs the grid, cramming mini-animations into boxes, using JavaScript so that each time you load the front page different content appears, making sure that each miniature decorative component serves a navigational function as well as a “merely” visual one–he uses DHTML better than almost anybody. I think he’s, like, 21 or something. People like that, you’ve gotta love them.

Derek Powazek approaches personal storytelling–which is his chosen mission on the Web–the way an art director approaches film storytelling. Everything serves the narrative. And he never repeats himself. Yet I can always tell Derek’s work from other people’s. Not because he uses the same five fonts, or the same framesets, or anything like that–he doesn’t. The stylistic similarities are extremely subtle, and the main thing is that his visual approach is always driven by the need to bring stories to life in ways only the Web can deliver.

DW: Do you think the expression of an idea or the communication and interpretation of the idea is more important?

JZ: I think they are the same.

DW: If your expression is more important, would a designer still have to consider the visitor’s browsing experience (bandwidth, navigation, etc.)?

JZ: Well, you always have to consider those things, unless you’re designing something for an audience of one.

DW: If the communication and subsequent interpretation of idea by another is more important, and one had to consider the visitor’s experience, wouldn’t that be the same as saying that novels shouldn’t be written in chronological order (Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis) or use words that the author has made up (Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess) because it makes it harder on the readers?

JZ: Okay, I think I see where you’re going.

And I think the answer is unfortunately less interesting than your question because it is general.

The answer is, every successful site strikes a balance between challenging the viewer and extending the medium (on the one hand), and communicating effectively (on the other). Where each site falls between those two poles will be driven by the content and the intended audience.

It’s really pretty simple. Anthony Burgess made up the language of Clockwork Orange to tell that particular story. But he wouldn’t have used that kind of language to tell the housekeeper where he kept the cat food, and he wouldn’t have used it in an article about chess. Similarly, there are sites whose mission is to extend the (visual/narrative/structural) language of the Web, and still others whose less lofty mission is to entertain a particular audience and these sites are not necessarily driven by the need to provide universal access or absolute narrative (structural) clarity. On the other hand, a site about self breast examination or hospital admissions procedures needs to be clear as an unmuddied lake, and accessible to every imaginable browser and platform.

In a way, all we’re talking about is Art versus Commerce. With most sites occupying the middle ground (and leaning toward commerce).

DW: Where do you think the evolution of the personal site is heading? Is there anything beyond the journal, poetry/writing, “I’m and individual” site?

JZ: Oh yeah.

Eyesaw …delightful personal font site.
FameWhore … Francis Chan’s arty Flash fest.
Hoggorm … inspiring personal portfolio.
Kaleidoscopies … Albie Wong’s schemes for Mac; beauty for its own sake.
Mozco !Garash! … amazing Japanese iconist. … Jason Kottke’s deal. Fresh and experimental. … transcendent multimedia artistry.
Quiet Foxes … file under “Zen.” … l. Michelle Johnson’s world.

These are all personal sites as is Jeffrey Zeldman Presents. Not a “this is my dog, this is my wife, I love/hate Rush Limbaugh” in the bunch.

I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of wonderful personal sites. You can find plenty at Coolstop v4.5 Portal and Must-C and

Rich, deep content, beautiful design, and imaginative interfaces are not limited to big-budget sites. You’re more likely to find that stuff on a personal site, where the creator is free of commercial constraint and the limiting factor of client taste levels.

The personal site is the heart of the Web. I hope it always will be. That’s one thing that makes the medium great, and separates it from mass media.

Not that I’m knocking the “here’s my dog, I wrote this poem” sites. I think it’s great that people create those sites. It’s great for the people, it’s great for their families and friends, and it’s a training ground for Web artists. (How else are you going to discover that you love this medium and are driven to create for it? You start by putting up a home page.)

And for the millions who don’t go on to become serious Web artists, it’s still cool, because it’s creative expression, and so much of life beats that out of people at an early age–particularly in the Web, and especially in America. We are all born creative just as we are all born intuitive, spiritual beings, and anything that reopens that in us–anything that takes us away from the passive entertainment-surfing with which we relax between hours of often unfulfilling work–somebody help me end this sentence! – anything that re-opens those channels in us is a force for good.

DW: What is beauty in web design?

JZ: Content that speaks, color that vibrates, design that works.

Related Topics: Web Standards, Web Guru, Web Design

Jeffrey Zeldman is the Principal of Happy Cog Studios, a Web design agency and consultancy, and the author of Taking Your Talent to the Web (New Riders, 2001). He is group leader for The Web Standards Project, and Creative Director of A List Apart, a magazine for people who make Web sites.