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Interview with "A List Apart" Founder Jeffrey Zeldman

Article by Awwwards in Design & Illustration -

Jeffrey Zeldman is certainly one of the world's most renowned personalities in Web. Guru of Web standards Zeldman is also an entrepreneur, web designer, author, podcaster and acclaimed speaker.

He has been blogging independent web content since 1995. He was one of the first pioneers of Web Standards, and is creator and editor-in-chief of A List Apart and founder of web design studio Happy Cog.

We were with him at the Future of Web Apps event that took place in London in October.

www.zeldman.com | Twitter: @zeldman

  • We chatted to Jeffrey in London

    Question Awwwards Team: You’ve been involved in a lot of projects since 1995. The Web Standards Project, Happy Cog, A List Apart...How do you find the time?

    Well, the Web Standards Project I’m not involved with anymore. It’s a pretty quiet thing now. Some friends and I started it in the ’90s, Steve Champeon, Jeff Veen, Dori Smith, Tim Bray...

    When we started nobody cared about web standards. We made up the word, because there were no web standards, there were just some W3C recommendations that nobody paid attention to and there were four versions of scripting languages. One was Javascript. And so all that stuff has been taken care of. There’s a new group called Future Friendly that’s sort of picking up the ball and saying “Okay, now for the next generation of devices, how do we approach this again?”

    There could be a new Web Standards Project tomorrow, say for TVs, I think. Phones tend to have Webkit or Opera browsers, or Chrome browsers, and it’s good, so though I’m simplifying, that’s not too much of a problem. But TVs have browsers now and people are going to want to navigate using a TV remote,and a TV browser isn’t necessarily a fully-fledged Webkit or Mozilla or Opera or IE browser, so you really don’t know what you’re getting. I think there’s always work to be done.

  • A List Apart

    Then there’s A List Apart. We’re in the middle of a redesign, it’s launching at the beginning of the new year. It will continue in the vein that we started, but it will have more features. I started the magazine in 1998 and every 2 weeks a new issue would come out and usually there were 2 articles in the issue and that was the whole thing. It was always a magazine. I thought of it like a magazine, I ran it like a magazine and so it’s not a blog and it’s not constantly putting out content.

    Our focus will continue to be very well-vetted, carefully-edited, carefully-researched articles that try to advance the craft of web design, focusing on content strategy or responsive design or some other aspect of the craft. But we’re going to have columns- we have some really brilliant people lined up as columnists- and we’re going to have a blog. We’re launching with those two additional content features just to get people used to the idea that there’s more frequent content. We don’t want to introduce everything new at once because we would lose our focus and also it would take a huge staff and we don’t have that. We’re going to roll out new features a bit at a time and see how our community responds, but we have a lot of other secret, wonderful features coming.

    The design is already beautiful and the new design is really beautiful, impactful and very magazine-like. Jason Santamaria did the last design and it had sort of a literary quality. He was trying to evoke the feeling that this was a library for web designers and he did it very skilfully, and now Mike Pick and Tim Murtaugh are redesigning and it's going back to the magazine idea, a modern magazine like Esquire (which is actually an old magazine but always has modern art direction). I think it'll be very interesting to see how the community responds.

    We have an editorial staff and we're constantly reviewing submissions. There's a lot of stuff we send to other publications because it's good, but it's not quite right for us, or sometimes things feel like a rehash, like they're not really new. We have a very high bar. That's why we don't publish all the time, because we're really trying to advance the craft of web design and digital experience design generally and that means that we have to say no to a lot of content that gets submitted to us. There's a good place for that content but we're just not it.

    Even though we have a wonderful acquisitions editor, a wonderful editor-in-chief, and a whole team of technical editors, I still write the blurbs when the issue is about to go live. I've always done that and it wouldn't somehow feel like A List Apart if I stopped. If I ever stop doing that I'm sure it'll be great, and I'm sure other writers would pick up where I left off, but there's just something about doing it that feels right to me.

    Happy Cog. Our editorial headquarters are in New York which is where I am, and we have client services headquarters in Austin and Philadelphia. They do wonderful work so I'm able to delegate a lot of that work. I don't have to be hands on and I can focus on the editorial side. I meet the clients and I know what's going on and it's wonderful, but I don't have to supervise the projects. I stopped doing client projects only about a year ago.

  • A Book Apart

    Question Do you mind not doing them?

    It's mixed. Is feels like a relief in some ways, after 20 years of doing client services. To not necessarily have to call a client on a given day is kind of a nice thing in a way. I love clients, I fall in love with our clients. I always have good relationships with them. We pick our clients carefully, so I miss it too. And then delegating is a strange thing because on the one hand, you trust the people that you've hired and they're really good, they really know their job. But at the same time you're not doing it, so there's a sense of loss and fear of "Is it still Happy Cog if I'm not doing everything?"

    The self-aggrandizing fantasy I have about it is it's like Walt Disney. When he started he animated every frame, he did all the animation and all the drawing at first, and eventually he did none of it. So there's some kind of arc there, I'm somewhere on that arc. I'm definitely not Walt Disney, but that's how I'm able to feel comfortable with it. This is a natural evolution and this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I love the editorial stuff. I think I'll do more client services again, but right now it's just nice to have a break and focus on the magazine and the books and the conference.

    Jason Santamaria, Mandy Brown and I founded A Book Apart, and we have new books every few months. Mandy is the editor, so I'm involved in acquisition and content but I don't actually have to do the hard, in-depth manual work of reading each draft and revising the work with the author (though we have great authors so not much revision is needed). So that's how I'm able to do all these different things. The conference has a great staff, An Event Apart, and we have 8 shows a year now.

  • An Event Apart

    Question Who's in charge of looking for talent and trends and content for an Event Apart, and how do you go about it?

    My partner Eric Meyer and I do that. I see what people are talking about on our stage, I see what we're doing at Happy Cog and what my friends are doing at their studios and it's kind of easy to see. You run up against a problem like "What do we do about responsive images?", you read other people's blogs to find out what they're saying about it, you find the smartest people talking about the stuff, some of them I work with, some of them I speak with at An Event Apart or at other conferences.

    We're always looking for people who have made a difference in the industry. Luke Wroblewksi with mobile, Ethan Marcotte with responsive, Karen McGrane with adaptive content and Kristina Halvorson with content strategy. These are people who've made a huge difference and are great speakers. That's really important because some people are gifted writers, but on stage they freeze up, they're not natural, they're not funny. We're constantly looking for new people to bring along because we don't eventually want to be a bunch of 70-year-olds: "You saw them for the last 10 years, come see them again!". We're not just going to keep bringing the same stuff out every year.

    We structure the days like playlists and we'll start with someone really strong on a particular topic and then we'll make sure the next speaker has a related topic but a slightly different angle on it. Maybe the middle speaker is less experienced, so we'll sandwich them between two really strong speakers. They may turn out to be the hit of the show. I really think of it like music, like making an ideal playlist. It's not just how great is that song, but how great is that song after this other song? We try to make sure there's an educational narrative running through the two-day conference and we really try to take a holistic approach. Are you going to get a pretty strong overview of the most important issues that we're all wrestling with right now? What do I do about mobile? What do I do about content? How do I not design the whole website and then beg for the content the day it's due? How do I deal with all these new devices? How do I avoid all these traps and problems?

    I used to make a joke that there are 500 standard breakpoints in Android. Android is like Windows in a way, like Windows used to be. Apple was always "We make an operating system for our own computers, and here are the three models of our computer this year, and buy one of those because that's what you've got to choose from". Windows was always, "Hey, we don't care if you've got a really new computer or an old one", and by being compatible with all those different devices they offered a different experience. Windows meant you could basically have $5 and still have a PC, and that was wonderfully democratic but because they didn't know the capabilities of each screen and everything else, it was a complicated operating system, and buggy, and you might not have a great experience. And I think that's true with Android too. Android is along that line. The phone has all kinds of capabilities and features, depending who manufactures it.

    Originally when the iPhone came out it really excited people in mobile. "Now I can really design a good thing for mobile". But they were like, “Well, now I can design for this screen.” But when Android came out they were like "Oh, there's too many screen sizes, now what will I do?". Responsive is one answer to that, and there are other answers as well, but the idea that you can just design for one screen size is gone, I think.

    Responsive is one answer to that, and there are other answers as well, but the idea that you can just design for one screen size is gone, I think.

    Question Is everything you do at Happy Cog now responsive, or are there still projects that aren't?

    I would have to say just about everything is. I did a fixed-width responsive design for my site, which doesn't make sense, except it does, it works. I have a hard time myself because I think we're doing some really gorgeous stuff now with responsive, but it's a challenge. If you buy into the hallucination that we have some control over the canvas, and you set up a fixed-width, it is easier to do a design that feels controlled and very elegant, very finished. Just like if you're designing for a particular screen size you could go, "I'm going to fill this part of the screen with this". We like that, we like our canvases. It's harder thinking outside the canvas. I think there's an explosion of new ideas in design, but then some responsive designs are absolutely gorgeous.

  • Our collegue Martha caught up with him.

    Question When clients come to Happy Cog, to what extent do you have to evangelize to them about content-first and accessibility and web standards?

    The beauty of it is, most of the clients who come to us come to us because of our reputation and they often come having read A List Apart, and maybe reading A Book Apart books. So when they come to Happy Cog, we don't generally have to sell them a content strategy, they come wanting it. We don't have to sell them on web standards, they know that we do that. That's why they're coming.

    I think, this is a generalization, but people in the same field tend to hire us. In other words, someone who read “Designing with Web Standards” and worked as a designer, and is now maybe a content director at a company, brings us in. Their boss may bring in another studio that's more corporate, bigger, better-known in the corporate world, and so then we sort of compete for the job, but if we're hired the people who hire us want what we have. That's the marketing we do. A List Apart started before Happy Cog, so A List Apart is Happy Cog's marketing but we don't do the magazine for that reason. We do the magazine to try to advance the industry but then, because we happen to have a company that does stuff, people who care about the industry will go “Well, let's give these people a shot, they seem to know what they're doing.”

    Question So you tend to get quite ideal clients in a way?

    Yes, we tend to get really smart, wonderful clients. No job is ideal, and no client is ideal, we're not ideal. We're all people, so there's always something unexpected that happens. Something needs to get done faster than we agreed, or the portion of the budget we thought we had for research dries up. There's always some kind of negotiation, but we have really good Project Managers too. That makes a huge difference.

    When I started Happy Cog it was originally just me freelancing, and I was putting together small teams of freelancers in the beginning and that was cool but we didn't have Project Managers. I was like "I'm a Creative Director and I'm a Project Manager". That doesn't work so well. I mean, it worked well in that we did great projects, and I had nice relationships with the clients and we fought for good work and everything, but I wasn't necessarily going to get up early in the morning and call the client and say "Here's what we're doing today". Clients really like hand-holding, and the more money they're spending the more they need that. And it makes sense. I can't imagine taking $100,000, giving it to someone and waiting three weeks to see if they had something to say to me. Now we have these brilliant Project Managers who are constantly checking in with the clients and making sure everyone's on the same page, everyone knows what's expected that day and everyone knows what we're working on, and if there's a quibble about something that it gets back to the right people, it's addressed. That makes a huge difference, it's one of the most important things. Nobody talks about it.

    Question What made you realize you needed that?

    Having done without it, and then hiring people like Dave DeRuchie to do it in Philadelphia and seeing what a difference it makes to have really brilliant people at the top of their game handling that, so that designers can design and coders can code and everyone can relax and do their jobs and not worry about someone being angry because you forgot something.

    We've almost never had an unhappy client, but once I had an unhappy relationship with a client. I thought we were speaking the same language and I thought from our contract and everything else that it was clear what we were and weren't delivering, but the client somehow had in his mind that we were responsible for putting all the content on his website. We delivered these templates and style guides and content guides, and we gave him these "For instance" pages, and we had a content strategist and an editorial person on that project, more than design studios did back then. But it got to the point where he was never going to be happy, and he was never going to pay, and we were never going to finish so...not always ideal.

    You learn from that, and I learned two things from that. One is I'm glad I incorporated because if I wasn't incorporated and things had gone really wrong I could have lost my apartment, been selling pencils on the street. And the other thing I learned was that I needed a really good Project Manager. I shouldn't assume my clients get it, I shouldn't assume they're so smart, they're so cool, they get it. We're very lucky that usually that's the case. I mean, we work for it too, but we tend to have clients who get what we do and want what we do and understand what we do. But every once in awhile we're not going to have that and so you just need someone who very clearly says "This is what the studio's responsible for, here's what we're doing."

  • Trends and Future in Web Design

    Question What trends do you see coming in web design?

    I think people are getting our content in different ways, they're finding it in different ways and they're using different devices and, for good or evil, web-capable TVs are the next thing. So I think we have to keep on thinking about mobile-first and content-first, I think we have to keep on figuring out what to do with tiny devices that have high-res screens and may have fast bandwidth but may have slow bandwidth. I think there's a lot of stuff to figure out. How do we keep using standards? How do we develop new standards? I think given the wide range of devices and use-cases, one of my favorite imponderable questions is "I have a screen that wants high-res Retina images, but I'm on 3G".

    How do we keep using standards? How do we develop new standards? I think HTML5 is key.

    What do you send me? And how do you know if I'm on 3G? 50% of the time people are using their mobile in their home or office, where they have fast bandwidth. I don't know, I have no way of knowing what your bandwidth is so what do I send you? Whatever I send you I'm going to make somebody unhappy. Is there some other way to go about it? Can we just carefully choose our images, like, "I'm going to use watercolors where even if it's medium resolution, it still looks cool". Can we blur the background so that there's less bandwidth even if it's high-def? There's lots of stuff to think about, there's lots of new challenges. I think responding to all those new challenges now, when we're moving kind of faster than reason, that's a big challenge now.

    And then taking better advantage of mobile. Taking better advantage of geo-location and built-in cameras and all that stuff, whether native or Web App. Taking better advantage of those things.

    I think HTML5 is key, because it's so semantic and has new content semantics like "article" and "section". I think it's made for the way we're publishing now and I think we're going to see big changes in how CMSs are designed to accommodate mobile and orbital content and I think we're going to see an end of pages, in a way. We're going to stop focusing so much on pages and start focusing on content chunks, and how we structure them and how we design them for different use-cases, different devices.

    Question Which technologies are you focusing on right now?

    Our front-end developers are using Less and Sass now, not just CSS. Less and Sass are CSS preprocessors that can speed up development, so our front-end people are using those. We're studying the problem of Retina images and what to do about that. We're looking into and working in native. But mainly we're using good, structural HTML5.

  • Question Who's leading the way into the future?

    Luke Wroblewski is pretty brilliant on mobile. We have him speaking a lot at An Event Apart, he's one of our favorite speakers, he's really funny. This is a guy who when I first saw him was talking about web forms, the most boring subject you could possibly pick, and making it fascinating. I saw him at South by South-West five years ago. South by South-West is a festival. There aren't many presentations by individual speakers but he was making one. It can be very crowded. It's a really wonderful festival but it's not necessarily the best environment to hear an individual speaker speak on a technical topic. But Luke had the whole room enthralled and I thought, "This guy can talk about anything, he's amazing". I think he's really smart. He was a lead designer at Yahoo for 10 years, so he's had a lot of experience. I think he's leading the way.

    My very humble friend Ethan Marcotte with responsive design, who worked at Happy Cog until recently, absolutely brilliant guy. Jeremy Keith from Brighton and his partners at Clearleft, Richard Rutter, Andy Budd, I think they're really brilliant. Jeremy Keith is a really great thinker. Eric Meyer, my partner. I think Kristina Halvorson has been amazing with content strategy and it changing the whole industry. I think she's done for content what I tried to do for web standards.

    I think Karen McGrane, who's talking about adaptive content now, just a really brilliant person. When she was very young she was basically the first information architect, at Razorfish. She trained so many people, she trained Liz Danzico who now runs the School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design program in New York. She trained the people who trained the people who trained the people. Some people get 20 years into the business and they're sort of burned out, but she's still really young because she started young. Karen is really vital and she's leading a whole new way of thinking about content management systems and content distribution. These are some of the people that I think are pointing the way. I'm leaving a lot out and I feel bad, I hope none of them are reading this. We try to publish at A Book Apart the people who we think really have something very important to say.

    Question Well, thanks so much.

    A pleasure!