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The Invisible Hand-coder

July 28, 2003

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The peak of the Internet stock bubble – and by extension, the Internet work bubble – was over three years ago. That’s a long time to be out of work. That’s a long time to be living hand-to-mouth, trying to get contracts. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. To anyone that asked, I’d suggest that they think very hard before packing in their day job and taking up Web design work. If they were determined to do it, I’d suggest that they learn the Web-standards way of doing things, in preference to the boom-time nested-tables and spacer-GIFs way.

You see, as I predicted last year, clients are looking for efficiency and professionalism. They’re no longer willing to pay big bucks for shoddy work that’s hard to maintain. They want clean, professional-looking sites that won’t break the budget. And it seems that it’s the designers using Web standards that are able to provide them.

In another past column, back in January 2001, I claimed that “just about the only sites that use syntactically valid markup are the ones about syntactically valid markup.” That’s certainly no longer true now, and I’m glad that events moved on enough to make that 2001 statement untrue. Who knows? In a few more years, it might instead seem faintly ridiculous. Barely a week goes by without some seemingly quite random commercial site converting to CSS layout, valid markup and frequently, XHTML. You can usually see mention of these standards-oriented redesigns on Jeffrey Zeldman’s site. Eric Meyer has collected links to some recent ones all in one place. They’re an eclectic bunch, including sports sites and corporate publications. These sites didn’t take that long for their designers to generate, compared to the resources required in the old, 20th-century days, and they take as little as half the time to load as their previous versions did.

To get a sense of just how much more productive the standards-oriented designers are than their nested-table bloat-page friends, consider my own recent experience. A friend of mine asked me at work if I’d consider helping with a site redesign for the volunteer organization she’s involved with. She sketched out a rough, two-column layout on a piece of paper for me. One of her fellow volunteers sent me the organization’s logos as GIF files, which I used with Eric Meyer’s excellent color blending tool to come up with a palette of colors for the site. (I ignored my own suggestion and used some colors that were neither (so-called) Web-safe nor Web-smart.) It took me, at most, two hours of fiddling to get a mockup that the “clients” (my friend and the one who sent the logos) were delighted with. It would have been closer to an hour had I not hit a bug in IE5/Windows. And the page templates are clean and will be easy for a bunch of rag-tag volunteers to populate with content.

I hadn’t intended to mock up the whole page to such a level of polish. But I started experimenting with a simple layout, and before I knew it, it was done. Once you’re familiar with basic CSS layouts and styles, it’s remarkably easy to do this. Sure, I was lucky that the “clients” weren’t determined for it to look identical in Netscape 4 and newer browsers. It wasn’t a particularly complex design, and I didn’t need to wait for them to work out what their information architecture and sidebar menu text should be. Still, two hours of my time one evening saved them who knows how much time and money compared with getting some FrontPage-wielding so-called designer to come up with something vastly more complex. (Although to be fair, FrontPage is quite capable of generating valid markup nowadays.)

I’ve spent the last three years advocating that Web designers should author to Web standards, on the basis that it was more efficient, that it saved bandwidth, that it ensured Mac users wouldn’t be shut out of a Microsoft-only Web, that it made redesigns easier, it was better for non-standard devices and search engines, and that you could do more with CSS than with the old <font> tag-soup approach.

But now the real reason that full-time Web designers should be full-bottle on Web standards is that enough of your competitors already are. In a market as tight as the one faced by full-time Web designers, you can’t afford to be behind the game. Someone else could easily under-bid you. And if they’re reaping the productivity benefits of standards-oriented design while you’re not, then they almost certainly will be under-bidding you.

As I said last year, if you can’t even balance your tags, you should get out of the industry. What a pity, then, that this is an industry so dependent on contract work and freelancing. That means a lot of table-and-spacer jockeys have left the industry, but haven’t realised it yet.

— CodeBitch ( is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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