Mark Trammell Interview
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Published on October 24, 2005
Digital Web Magazine: First things first. Let’s talk about the book, Professional CSS: Cascading Style Sheets for Web Design. Can you tell me a bit how it came about and how you came to be involved?
Mark Trammell: Christopher Schmitt and I chatted a number of times about the challenges of designing Web sites—in academia, in particular—and talked about working on a book together. When he approached me about contributing to Professional CSS, the other authors were all designers I hold in high regard, so I jumped on board.
DW: How do you see this book differing from what seems like an onslaught of recent books on CSS?
MT: The seminal books by Eric Meyer, Jesse James Garrett, Jeffrey Zeldman and Jeff Veen have shaped a large portion of my professional life. More recently, Dave Shea and Molly Holzschlag’s The Zen of CSS Design (which I can’t recommend strongly enough) paints the story of the Zen Garden beautifully and looks at many ways of styling the same piece of markup. Dan Cederholm’s Web Standards Solutions simply demonstrates good development practices and I’m excited to read Bulletproof Web Design.
There are so many strong, thoughtful voices in Web development these days and, possibly aside from the self-perpetual nature of the Web, it is the collective force of these views that keeps the Web evolving as quickly as it is. To that cause, Professional CSS looks at a number of large, contrasting organizations and the challenges in developing their sites in what I believe is a novel way.
DW: I’m curious how working with the other authors went. You’re all talented guys. Did you have much interaction? Was it smooth as silk or was there some creative friction?
MT: We went over each other’s work to make sure sections flowed and referenced each other, with Christopher as the herdsman. Most of us were able to get together at a conference this past spring, but the lion’s share of collaboration was done through Basecamp.
DW: In the book you discuss your work on the University of Florida (UFL) Web site. Can you share a few thoughts about the project and how CSS was beneficial?
MT: I guess the short answer would be the usual suspects: separating aesthetics from markup, well-structured document creation and the ability to improve accessibility. I really can’t imagine going about that project in any other way.
DW: It’s been a year and a half since you launched the UFL site, and I’m guessing you’ve learned a thing or two in the meantime. Is there anything you would have done differently had it launched today?
MT: UFL’s Web development is incredibly distributed, with millions of pages scattered across hundreds of servers. We launched the new UFL site in February 2004 and needed to manage the change that comes along with a major redesign.
The launch and accompanying hubbub was a perfect opportunity for evangelism of standards and their use in academia. There has been some movement towards standards in higher education, but nowhere near enough.
DW: In addition to being a Web developer for UFL, you also teach user-centered Web design. What’s that like?
MT: It’s rewarding to interact with students, especially when you design Web sites for them. I get the opportunity to have frank conversations with students and it certainly affects how I approach designing .edu sites.
From a teaching perspective, it’s especially gratifying when I get to a student that hasn’t developed antiquated Web development skills—a tabula rasa, I suppose.
DW: What are some of the things your students are learning? What do you feel is important to teach them?
MT: I normally teach students with a mix of business, computer science and artistic backgrounds. A designer that wants to please a client in the long term must be able to draw on a broad set of skills that pull on concepts from all three of these areas. I’m not suggesting that a successful designer has to be an expert or hold degrees in all of these areas, but colloquial work in a supervised environment that draws on each of these areas develops designers that are well-rounded and more confident in focusing on a client’s constituency.
It is often challenging to find material useful and novel to students coming from such different disciplines but standards-based, user-centered design practices usually fit the bill.
DW: As a teacher, how do you see the role of education in Web design now, and how do you see it changing and evolving?
MT: University Web design courses are an ideal time to start young developers thinking in terms of separation of content from aesthetics and behavior, but unfortunately, this is rarely the case. If the correspondence I receive from students in higher education Web design courses is a true barometer, academia is not keeping up with the Web’s progression. Students often complain of being taught development practices circa 1998, at best. Photoshop slicing and table-based layouts rule the day in most courses and the Web suffers for it.
Unfortunately, this is changing much too slowly. Almost invariably, the department-level committees that assign teaching assignments have no knowledge of Web standards. This results in the showily artistic computer science professor or most technologically savvy art professor teaching Web design courses through tools like Dreamweaver without regard for underpinning. There are exceptions, of course, but they are scarce.
DW: So, now that the book is finished, what are your plans for the future? Is there a redesign of the UFL site in the works?
MT: We’re constantly studying how the site is used and making small changes to adapt. We’re also looking at how we provide information to some specific audiences and have just finished a news site and related podcast built with WordPress.
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Related Topics: CSS, Web Standards, User-Centered Design (UCD), Web Design
Mark Trammell is the university Web administrator at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla. When not attending college athletic events with his wife, Kaye, he occasionally posts to Chasing Function.
D. Keith Robinson is the creative director for Seattle experience design firm Blue Flavor and writes about Web design and more at his blog Asterisk. His expertise comes from 10 years of professional Web development and design for companies like Boeing, Microsoft, and Sony.