Innovation & Design

Jeffrey Zeldman: King of Web Standards


As a pioneer of standards-based design, he helped put an end to the browser wars and made Web sites available to all

It's hard to remember what the Web was like in 1995, when Jeffrey Zeldman designed his first site. But suffice it to say that in those days "WWW" might as well have stood for the Wild West Web—there were no rules and no best practices. In a way, it was a time of great experimentation. But Zeldman soon came to see the flip side: The chaos was leading to user frustration and spiraling development and maintenance costs that threatened healthy development of the Web.

At the time, Zeldman was working as an art director at an advertising agency, and a client wanted a Web site. That project launched a new career that now includes the 11-person New York design consultancy Happy Cog; the Webzine A List Apart; the traveling conference An Event Apart; and a new book imprint—all dedicated to Web design. Perhaps most important, Zeldman helped to pioneer the movement known as standards-based design—a yawn-inducing term that basically ensures that a Web site can be used by someone using any browser and any Web-enabled device.

This concept may seem obvious today, but during the Browser Wars of the 1990s, Microsoft (MSFT) and Netscape each claimed close to 50% of the market, and their browsers were almost entirely incompatible. It wasn't uncommon to type in a URL and find that the site didn't work. Companies eager to open their virtual doors had to invest in multiple versions of their sites. In short, it was a bad situation for businesses and consumers alike. Yet the browser makers were behaving as many software companies do—by trying to out-feature the competition with the introduction of new proprietary technologies.

Chaos and Lawlessness

"There could be no filmmaking without industrywide agreement on frame rates, lenses, and audio recording equipment," argued Zeldman, and the flourishing Web was no different. In fact, the Web already had standards or nonproprietary technologies recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The industry organization was founded by WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee along with the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and the Swiss particle physics lab CERN to create guidelines and ensure that Web technologies work well together.

Some standards defined the basic structural languages of the Web—the piece of code that defines something as a headline, for instance—while others established the language used for the presentation of content. The problem was that although the standards existed, they were widely flouted.

"The Web standards movement was a bottom-up thing in response to the top-down communities that weren't being responsive," says Jeffrey Veen, manager of user experience for Google's (GOOG) Web applications, who served as executive director of interface design for Wired Digital back in the Wild West days. "Both Microsoft and Netscape came to HotWired [as it was then called] to show us early builds of their version 4.0. We told them you're not using this, you're not using that, you're building things in the wrong direction, and we're not going to support your browser." "This and that" included inconsistent support for standards such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), for instance, and incompatible versions of DHTML or "Dynamic HTML."

Getting Organized

In 1998, Zeldman co-founded the Web Standards Project (WaSP), a coalition of designers and developers with a message for the industry. As the organization's official history page puts it: "If Netscape and Microsoft persisted in building ever more incompatible browsers, the cost of development would continue to skyrocket, tens of millions of people would find themselves locked out, and the Web would fragment into a digital tower of Babel."

"Many thought it was a fool's errand—that the browser companies were never going to listen to us," recalls Zeldman. "Others argued that 'users don't care if you use Web standards.' Well, of course they don't. They just know that your site works better."

Take the example of CSS, a tool designers use to articulate how the information contained in a Web site's pages should be displayed on different devices or in different browsers. Before CSS, code controlling the appearance of content was written into the basic source code of a page. That meant Web site developers who wanted their sites to be universally accessible had to create multiple versions of a page (one for each browser or device).

Speaking the Same Language

CSS allowed developers to separate content from appearance; style sheets are like little notes that say to the Web server, "If you're sending a page to a PC, make it look like this." There might be separate sheets for PCs, for a "printer-friendly" layout, for a PDA, and so on. For designers, CSS means that the page will appear as it was intended, no matter what the device. For developers, CSS means they only have to build the page once. And for users, CSS means, as Zeldman says, that the site works.

For companies with a Web presence—needless to say, most companies—CSS means "You can control you branding, your image, and still deliver content to users in the most appropriate style," Zeldman says. It also means that a site redesign wouldn't require every page to be recoded—an expensive and time-consuming proposition.

And it's not just with redesigns that standards save a company money. In 1998, WaSP estimated that the need to write four or more incompatible versions—common practice in pre-standards days—added at least 25% to the cost of designing and developing any Web site. Designing with standards can also reduce maintenance costs. If a site reduces its mark-up weight (basically its amount of code) by 35%, it reduces bandwidth costs by the same amount, according to Zeldman.

Designer Compliance

Google's Veen argues that standards also reduce risk. When Wired Digital built pages to be viewed with browsers using nonstandard technologies, he says, "We had no way of knowing whether our content would work when the next browser version came out." Once the browser companies committed to supporting standards, Web developers could be more confident that the next version of a browser would not suddenly introduce a new version of, say, HTML, that wouldn't work with older Web sites.

While the advantages seem obvious now, Web standards were a hard sell to Microsoft and Netscape back in those days. The lobbying efforts were helped by the fact that many engineers at those companies recognized the value of standards and pressed the cause internally. So by 2000, Zeldman was ready to declare victory and get back to designing. But then he realized that while the browser makers were recognizing standards, many designers still weren't using them. "Some of the designers I expected to embrace standards said, 'Do you know how much money I make by knowing how to encode a Web site for six browsers?'" says Zeldman. Other designers worried that standards would limit their creativity.

"Nobody cared about, or understood, the benefits [of Web standards]," says Dan Cederholm, founder of the Salem (Mass.) design firm Simplebits and author of several books, including Bulletproof Web Design. "It wasn't until Zeldman published To Hell With Bad Browsers that people really started taking notice of using CSS for Web layouts."

A Writer's Flourish

The articles Zeldman was publishing at A List Apart, the Webzine he co-founded in 1998, were convincing some in the design community. And to reach a broader audience of designers and Web site owners, Zeldman channeled his evangelism into a book, Design with Web Standards, first published in 2003. The book, like his articles, reflects his former lives as a reporter for The Washington Post and an advertising copywriter; he's a talented writer, adept at making technical arguments in language that non-techies can easily understand.

When he writes, for instance, "Yahoo's front page is served millions of times a day. Each byte that is wasted on outdated HTML hacks is multiplied by an astronomical number of page views, resulting in gigabytes of traffic that tax Yahoo's servers and add Pentagon-like costs to its overhead," it's easy to grasp. And although Zeldman was only one of many designers and developers behind the standards movement, he is widely recognized as one of its most important voices, in part because of his ability to talk about the dry and, let's face it, dull subject of standards in a way that made everyone see their importance.

Today, most sites are standards-compliant. WaSP lives on, and continues to work with Web software developers to ensure compatibility with W3C standards. Zeldman, though, is no longer actively involved with the Web Standards Project, leaving him more time to work with Happy Cog clients such as Advertising Age magazine, Warner Bros. Entertainment (TWX), and Amnesty International. It also leaves him time to be, in his words, "an ambassador for the profession," and in that role, his influence has only grown. As Khoi Vinh, the design director for NYTimes.com, says of Zeldman: "He's a lion in the field."

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