September 11, 2004

Designing for the Web

Or, How I Came to Love Web Standards

Web Standards folks aside, I'd hazard a guess that most web designers have held back from adopting some of the newer standards for coding websites — for years, and perhaps for far too long.

From a historical perspective, this wasn't without reason — since HTML coding not supported in "all" browsers gave quirky results, the idea back then was to ensure that websites would "degrade gracefully" — that is, they would look and function pretty much the same, if not identically, when viewed in older browsers. Unfortunately, as browsers continued to evolve, this approach meant continuing to forego certain display features inherent in more modern browsers.

Yet other web designers, frustrated by the cross-browser compatibility arguments and the slow move of a slowly dwindling percentage of users to upgrade their browsers, "solved" this problem by opting to design for Internet Explorer only, abandoning users of Netscape 4 and anything else for IE's "better" display and huge user base — a user base that increased over time to some 94% of the market. Other designers, meanwhile, saw designing for one browser (albeit the currently most popular) to be as logical and forward-thinking as attempting high rankings in one search engine only (albeit the currently most popular). Although we've recently seen IE's marketshare dropping to 85% in some spheres, IE isn't particularly the issue, as later versions support more modern web page coding (more or less).

To bring this back home: I've been using external CSS for fonts and a little positioning for years, but found that our clients weren't interested in what code we used or how we created it but did expect their websites to display well no matter what … and it is this "no matter what" that dictated the scene for us. They expected cross-browser compatibility, period. And, to be honest, I was extremely unwilling to have the CEO of a client company pop over to a buddy's house of a weekend to proudly show off his new website … only to see it "broken" in some who-knows-what browser from 1998. So I stuck with table-based layouts (albeit, far fewer tables) and watched, from a distance, as designers struggled with cutting-edge table-less layouts, knowing that, one day, I'd be doing the same. Those of us who were also involved with SEO (Search Engine Optimization, the art and science of making web pages optimum for search engine rankings) had plenty to do anyway — constant study and testing, constant work, you know the drill.

And then I decided to start a blog. This one. And tripped right into the world of Web Standards. My first foray into table-less CSS-based XHTML design. I get no credit for this; that's the way the WordPress blog software is built — no tables, almost all visuals controlled by an external Cascading Style Sheet. Not being new to CSS, I was able to design the site fairly quickly, but also made changes that simply didn't display the same way in Internet Explorer 6 as they did in Opera 7.x or Mozilla/Firefox. Which meant I had to find a solution.

To make it short, I read many pages of explanations and hacks. Floats theory. Box Model. Celik, Tan and Holly Hacks. IE this and IE that. Viewed code on sites that were not having that problem. Just when I considered throwing it all into a two-column table, I found that I personally couldn't do so without at least determining the solution. That, and the fact that I had become ridiculously charmed by this table-less code and just … really didn't want to give it up. <grin>

Thus I ended up at Zeldman.com and webstandards.org … and saw what they were trying to do and the brilliance of it. We've had the Browser Wars for years; in 1996-97, I came across the One World, One Browser plea to Microsoft and Netscape (then the most widely used browser) to ensure their browsers displayed correctly and the same, and we've all complained of the issues for years and years.

"We work with browser companies, authoring tool makers, and our peers to deliver the true power of standards to this medium." The Web Standards Project

Of course, one needs just a teensy more detail than that, but perhaps the cre8asiteforums thread between Web Standards advocate Adrian Lee and I might be of benefit. This post is partial delivery on the promise I made in that thread.

So, what about those old table-based websites?

Will I now rebuild all of our clients' sites to conform to table-less Web Standards? It depends, and I suspect will vary from client to client. Could they reach a wider audience with Web Standards coding? Probably. Would they lose some? Right now, maybe.

I am fairly pragmatic as well as idealistic (as befits an artist/marketer who can also deal well with search engines). I have not yet gotten to the point where I simply cannot bear to see table code in a page.

But, while the time when all browsers and "devices" are standards-compliant is not yet upon us, it will be. It will be.

Diane

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