Many try to set trends, but few accomplish setting standards. Jeffrey Zeldman, a web evangelist, is the author of two books, a web designer, chief architect, stunt double and leader of the web standards movement. Founder of Happy Cog Studios and Creative Director of A List Apart, it can be hard to keep track of Zeldman's numerous accomplishments.
You described yourself as a once novelist who wouldn't sell novels, a composer who barely made a living, and a synthesizer-player in a post-punk-techno-surf band with a small but ardent following - do you still dabble in any of your once fields, or feel a fondness to do so again?
I don't miss my recording studio and instruments. The creative challenges of my present work satisfy whatever it is in me that needs to thrash around and make something for other people to look at or read or listen to.
I would like to have a piano around, mainly so the baby can grow up with music -- not just listening to it, but creating it. I don't mean she needs to become a musician! I just mean, regardless of what she will one day do in life, I want her to have the opportunity to approach art from the inside, not merely as a spectator.
What has since become of your 3 unpublished novels? Will that ever be something you share with the public? Could you tell us a little about your stories?
They stank. You will never see them. I didn't know enough about life to write meaningful fiction. Also, like many young creative people, I was more interested in impressing you with my skill than in telling a compelling story.
The third novel, "Sugar and Snow," written when I was 21, nearly got published by a major imprint, but at the last moment sanity prevailed and I was able to go into a richly satisfying emotional tailspin.
You recently had a child, how has that changed your life and/or your career?
Career? Ha ha ha! My baby is one month old. Taking care of her is a full-time job for her mommy and me. I do as little professional work as possible, none of it extracurricular. If it won't put food on the table, I have no time for it. Literally.
I'm sure that will change, and I think as I watch our baby react to the world -- as I learn how she learns -- it will influence the way I design, write, and think. But at this moment I'm in a baby bubble and nothing else matters.
Do you sometimes feel shock with the roster of accomplishments you've accumulated under your belt? Do you have any specific goals for the near future?
It's nice to have my own business and I'm mostly happy to have had a hand in changing the way many sites are designed and developed, but neither of those things is a particularly big deal.
If I had a goal for the future it might be that next time I come up with an idea for the web, it might be nice if it brought my family some dough. My more successful efforts seem to have benefited the community at large without lining my pocket. That was okay with me then, but now I have a kid.
You also have a long list of involvements, from Communication Arts Interactive Festival to the Addy Awards. Do you have any new involvements at the moments, what are you currently focused on?
I'm sorry to be such a dull interview subject, but 90% my mental energy goes to my baby (and there isn't all that much energy to begin with, as I'm sleep-deprived).
That said, I'm kind of thrilled to be keynoting the upcoming Web Design World in Boston and doing the introductory remarks for SXSW Interactive 2005. Those are tremendous honors. I'm on the advisory board of the upcoming Blog Business Summit and I think I will also be involved in the next Web Essentials Conference to be held in Australia and the U.S. (I was asked to do the first Web Essentials but the date coincided with our baby's due date.)
I still have half a plan to launch a travelling road show (An Event Apart), but in the past year I've been so busy -- and the people I wanted to launch it with have also been so busy -- that I'm not sure now if it will happen.
CSS is finally becoming a more recognized piece to the web design process, do you feel that it has reached a strong point of utilization or still remains to have room to grow?
It is becoming the new mainstream layout tool, which is mostly good.
Like everyone who does it, I wish browser support was where it should be. The main problem is that Internet Explorer's development was frozen, on both the PC and Mac platforms, before it was truly good enough. (Not that the other browsers are perfect.) What happens is that you get a layout working beautifully in Mozilla or Safari within a few hours ... and then spend a few days debugging it in the other browsers. You have to jump through your own sphincter to get it to work right. It should not be that hard. It wouldn't be, if we had a competitive browser market. Opera, Mozilla and Safari are continually improving their standards support. IE should be too, but Microsoft doesn't think it has to, and it's hard to argue with a gigantic market share (however that market share was earned).
So CSS adoption has room to grow in two ways:
1.) Those who aren't using it yet eventually will.
2.) Even for people who use it constantly, there is a learning curve, not so much about how the CSS language works, but more about how different CSS rules fail in different browsers for no very good reason. (Recently we had to turn off ITALICS in MSIE/Win to keep it from ripping a layout apart. Italicized words are italicized in all browsers except MSIE/Win, where they are bolded. Stuff like that is unfortunate.)
Do you ever feel frustration between the Mac vs. PC war? Do you find yourself frequently getting caught in the battle or do you manage to steer clear?
I don't think about it and I don't worry about it. I use Macs.
The other day I was reading The Economist Magazine's assessment of the IT industry, in which they complained that software was too difficult and that its complexity was a design failing, not a design strength. (I agree.) They repeatedly cited Windows technology as being hard to use, and it is. The other day I showed a client how to turn on subpixel antialiasing in Windows XP, to make text look much better on the screen. This client has been using Windows for decades and had no idea the software even contained that option. It took the two of us ten minutes to find the option buried several layers deep in a control panel that seemed to bear no relation to the topic of text display.
The stuff consumers want to do is easier to do on a Mac. I can publish baby pictures to the web within two minutes of taking the photos. It could be easier still and I'm sure it will be.
OS X has one failing in my view. When things went wrong in the old Mac OS, a computer illiterate could make them right again -- typically by dragging a clearly labeled preference file to the Trash and restarting, or by temporarily dragging a control panel out of the system folder and restarting. Today when things go wrong you need to know something about UNIX, and that is a step backwards in terms of seamless operability because it requires the user to be at least something of a computer expert. And Macs were supposed to be the computer for the rest of us. Again, this complexity only rears its head when things go wrong. When things work as they're supposed to, a chimp could use this operating system, and that, I think, is a good thing.
"No, I was too smart, I read too much, and I didn't play sports..."[/color][/i]In a previous interview you were quoted as saying, "Some kids hate the cheerleader because she is popular. I know I did...", were you a misfit throughout school? If so did it have anything to do with the dormant computer geek waiting to jump out?
No, I was too smart, I read too much, and I didn't play sports.
I quit smoking a couple of months ago after maybe 30 years. I started smoking the same time I started stealing stuff from stores. None of this was because I was a bad kid. I just didn't fit in.
I didn't fit in anywhere until I started using drugs and playing in bands. (I don't do either of those things now.)
You were one of the original founders of The Web Standards Projects, are you still involved with the site? If so, in what capacity?
I left The Web Standards Project in late 2002 or early 2003 so other people could take it where they felt it needed to go, and so I could concentrate on growing Happy Cog's business instead of spending my every waking hour evangelizing web standards. I'm not affiliated with the Project any more but I'm glad they're there and I wish them success and happiness.
You were actually an original supporter of iStockphoto, how did you become involved, what was your initial impression of the community and did you expect the evolvement the site has taken?
When iStock began, back in the 1990s, the web abounded with independent magazines, community sites, portals, games, and sui generis entertainments. Creative energies were high throughout the industry. It was very much like the punk rock explosion of the 70s. Everybody and his brother was out there.
Then the air leaked out of the scene. Sites disappeared or were left to rot. Creativity was no longer a good enough reason publish, it seemed.
But iStockphoto kept going.
And growing. It has steadily evolved new and useful and fun features while attracting an ever-wider international membership. That is remarkable. I love iStockphoto not only for what it does, but also for what it (indirectly) says: which is that people can achieve anything in this medium if they are motivated, innovative, and concentrate on analyzing and meeting real human needs.
In that sense, iStockphoto is what the web, and especially the independent web, is all about.
With the redesign and standard's-compliant version of Blogger, do you feel that you've played a part in raising the standards for blogging for the general web user?
Well, I would credit Blogger and its parent (Google) for hiring a smart consultancy, Adaptive Path. And I would credit Adaptive Path for asking Douglas Bowman of Stopdesign to spearhead the visual aspects of Blogger's redesign. And then I credit Bowman for redesigning Blogger beautifully and with web standards, and for hiring several third-party designers including me to come up with blog-appropriate, standards-compliant user templates. It was Doug who said, when he pitched us, "We will put standards-compliant templates in the hands of potentially millions of bloggers." I'm proud to have a played a part in it, sure. It was also an interesting creative challenge to make a shell that could support literally any content -- a shell that would have a feeling but would not overwhelm the personality of whoever used it.
Any time a major organization incorporates web standards, it puts the rest of the industry on notice, sure. There were already standards-compliant blogging tools such as WordPress and Matt Mullenweg, WordPress's founder, deserves credit for that. But the world naturally took notice when Google was behind a standards-compliant makeover (even if the interest in web standards came from the consultants and not necessarily from the parent company). So that raises the stakes for everyone, absolutely.
How do you predominantly meet majority of your clients?
They send Requests For Proposal to Happy Cog.
I don't pursue clients, not ever. It seems distasteful to do so. Makes me think of Willy Loman and Glengarry Glenn Ross and all that. I'm very lucky that people contact us about work. And I've put together a good team to make sure we're worthy of their desire to work with us. And that's it.
The last book (Designing With Web Standards) I'm sure helps attract clients, although I didn't write it for that reason.
You've mentioned you dream client would be Jim Jarmusch, are you any closer to working with him? Any reason in particular you're a fan?
I've always really liked his first feature film, Stranger Than Paradise. It's completely original and magnificent in its combination of formal rigor and offbeat but real humanity. (I also like his film Ghost Dog, but nothing can touch Stranger Than Paradise.)
I met John Lurie (composer, star of Stranger Than Pardise) in the late 1980s when my brother Pete was playing with Lurie's band, The Lounge Lizards, but that's about as close as I've come to working for Jarmusch, which is not close at all.
I always like the idea of working for people or groups I admire. I mean, who in the service industry doesn't fantasize about working for the most interesting or important possible clients? On that note, I'm very happy that we've recently worked for Amnesty International and the United Nations Womens Development Fund (as well glamor clients like the Kansas City Chiefs and Fox Searchlight Pictures). So I'm not complaining.
Happy Cog Studios
A List Apart
Photo Credits: Deadair