- Artwork by Cesar Lemus
Jeffrey Zeldman answers the provocative question, “Is Web Design Dead?”. He enlightens us to what the Web was, where it’s at now, and where it could go in the future. He touches on the many short-sighted predictions that tend to prod our delicate psyches such as automation and new technologies poised to replace Web Designers. He encourages us to ignore the rhetoric and continue to learn as tools change how Web Design is done. He also emphasizes that the Web was built on sharing, and that we must continue to share if we want to not only protect its spirit, but keep it alive and thriving.
Jeffrey Zeldman is the Godfather of Web Design, and unquestionably the greatest friend of the Web. He’s a guy behind highly esteemed Web Design content initiatives such as A List Apart, An Event Apart and A Book Apart. He’s a prolific speaker and heavily influential blogger. He’s the Author of the our industry’s staple: Designing with Web Standards. He’s the host of The Big Web Show. He’s also the founder of renown Web Design studio Happy Cog. Back in the day, he played synth and Casiotone with The Insect Surfers, a DC post-punk techno-surf band.
- Godfather of Web Design (3:58)
- Is Web Design Dead? (5:58)
- Moving to In-House Design (12:59)
- Opposition (21:25)
- How’d It Make You Feel? (26:14)
- Ask Customer Service First (31:20)
- Small Business Owners and The Web (39:27)
- Early Days of The Web (41:13)
- Keeping the Spirit Alive (49:40)
Jeffrey Zeldman’s Website
Jeffrey Zeldman’s Twitter
A List Apart
An Event Apart
You Got This [ARTICLE]
An Episode Apart with Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman [PODCAST]
Live Recording at An Event Apart Denver (2017) with Luke Wroblewski, Cassie McDaniel and Chris Coyier [VIDEO]
Jason Ogle: All right. My guest today really needs no introduction. Jeffrey Zeldman is the godfather of web design. Do they still call you that Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Zeldman: I think only I call me that. But thanks.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Eric Meyer once called me the grandfather of web design, which I wasn’t ready for that.
Jason Ogle: [laughs] well, you’ll always be. I think, I believe you will always will be. And I hold you in that esteem myself and I know many others do as well. You know, it’s funny, every so often somebody will write an article that will say “X is dead.”
Jeffrey Zeldman: Oh yes.
Jason Ogle: “UX is dead. Web Design is dead.” We liked those click-baity articles. It seems like some people…
Jeffrey Zeldman: “Forget the web.”
Jason Ogle: –to write those. And we liked to click on them.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Yes.
Jason Ogle: Right? So, today’s conversation – and I remember when I first emailed you about this Jeffrey, I said something to the effect of in the subject line, like “Web design is dead.” I think that’s what I put, just “Web design is dead” in the subject line. And then, in my opening body, I think I said, “I know that chaps your hindquarters to see that.” And I said, “Do you want to have a conversation about this? This field moves fast.” And certainly, there’s always new things happening and that’s sort of the exhilaration and the sometimes intimidation of kind of keeping up or trying to keep up. I was kind of doing some research and I came across a quote from somebody that said something to the effect of “Building websites is now a commodity that often goes to the lowest bidder. Chances are if you build websites for clients for a living, you aren’t getting their business because of your talents. Actually, there are very few web design firms that exist on the merit of their own design.”
I have a feeling that you find an argument with that? I do too. I have some arguments with that statement. It’s very blanketed, but I felt like that’s sort of what we’re going to be talking about today. And of course, Mark Twain has been quoted saying “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Jeffrey Zeldman: Yes.
Jason Ogle: So, is web design dead Jeffrey?
Jeffrey Zeldman: No. So, let’s back up. Okay. First of all, I remember buying wired in 1994. And in 1996, I believe they ran an article that said “The web is dead. Forget the web pushes here.” Right? And we were like, “Oh my, you know, the web was dead in 1996.” Right? We couldn’t even do background. We could barely do background images. We didn’t even have a design language, but it was dead. People had been saying this forever. And, people have complained whenever there’s any kind of technological evolution when middy was introduced, right? Which allowed synthesizer, players to program their music in advance and can, you know, and multi-track digitally and all this other stuff. Joseph Zawano, who was the keyboard player for “Weather Report Kids,” was a seventies jazz fusion band with Wayne Shorter. Jacob Pistorious, legendary players who’d played with Miles Davis and Canabol Northerly.
And they were expert musicians, let’s say. And Zawano used to do a thing where he would play, he’d wires keyboards backwards and then play a Bach fugue with his hands having to go backwards just to keep his brain limber. So, there was this era when musicians had to be really good at playing their instruments. And then when middy came out, Zawano was like, “Well, now any idiot can pull the trigger.” People hated rock and roll when it came out. And then they said “Rock was dead, Rock was dead.” The Samba was going to replace it. So, we love these kinds of stories. You know, we can’t really grasp history while we’re in it, right? So, there have been absolutely been changes to the market over the past five years. There’s no question of that. And if you’re a freelancer with your own clients and you have good word of mouth and you keep getting referrals from those clients, web design isn’t dead. If you’re one of the top really smart agencies, like there’s a vanguard of agencies that are really doing fantastic work, that contribute open source projects, share knowledge. And you have a big referral pipeline. Web design’s not dead. Web design didn’t die when ad agencies started doing it for their clients. It took a hit because, ad agencies weren’t always at least initially that they didn’t really see the web the same way web designers saw it and web people saw it, but web design didn’t die.
Web Design didn’t die when WordPress came out or when Squarespace came out. And there’s plenty of agencies that aren’t famous or renowned yet, but where they do really good work and have really good clients and you may not have heard of them but yet, but they’re all over the world. They’re still working. So, there’s still a lot of work. There’s less work. And there’s a couple of reasons. There’s less work. One is if you use to serve save Fortune 50 or Fortune 100 clients, designers have done a very good job over the past 10 years of saying “Design is not something that you hire out. Design is a way of thinking. Design is something you need in house.” And clients said, “Okay, you’re right. We need it in house.” And now there’s lots of design teams in house, whether you’re a product company or not. Even if you know, if you’re an insurance company, you’re not designing digital products per se, you still probably have a design team that works on your website.
So, a lot of that work isn’t available agencies. That doesn’t mean web design is dead. It means it’s being done by different people or it’s being done by the same people, but they don’t have their own agency anymore. They work in house now. As long as we’re using the web to deliver information and products and I buy things from Amazon and from online retailers and from little stores and from little artists that have their own little websites. I read newspapers and magazines online. There’s a hoarder in my family. I don’t want to be a hoarder. I want to read everything. I’m voracious, but I don’t want to pile up magazines. Books? Yes. I buy paper books whenever possible, but I don’t really want to pile up a bunch of magazines.
So, I do that stuff digitally and that’s on the web. I do a lot of things that rely on the web. I use a lot of apps, but those apps still connect to websites at some point. Not only are they using the Internet to trans, you know, for APIs and to transmit data, they also have some kind of web presence, right? Even Instagram has a website. It used to be just, you know, a phone app and it used to be that there was very, very limited usability if you tried to follow a link on the web. So, if I used my phone and said, “Hey, here’s a picture I took.” and I shared that on Twitter using Twitter on my phone. And you’re on your desktop and you saw that link, and you clicked to go to Instagram, you’d pretty much hit a dead end that said, “Instagram is a great app. Why don’t you download it?” You’d never be able to find the picture I shared. But they fixed that. Pretty much, even the most app centric appity app apps still have some kind of web presence. And every business, they’re not all great, but every business has documentation online. They do some of their call center work online,
Sarah Parmenter’s research shows introverts actually will wait and use chat so they don’t have to talk to someone on the phone. And not that they don’t like humanity or don’t want to hear someone’s voice, just their emotionally more comfortable, feel safer using chat, which takes place on the website. So, as long as businesses exists, as long as people are sharing information, the web exists and it’s being made. Somebody’s making it right?
Jason Ogle: Yes.
Jeffrey Zeldman: I do think that the market has dried up for a lot of studios and agencies. It’s a very tough time to launch a new studio. It’s a tough time for existing studios. A lot of my friends are moving in house who used to have studios or work at agencies. And I myself this year moved to Automatic after, I don’t know, after starting Happy Cog in the 90s. And then after having a second studio, Studios Zeldman and The Teens, I just said “Enough. Enough, I want to go in house.” And there’s a lot of reasons for that.
Jason Ogle: Can you share some of the reasons that you decided to do that?
Jeffrey Zeldman: Sure. So, one is just purely monetary, financial. The chase, constantly chasing new clients. It seemed like business pitches had slowed down. It used to be at my first agency Happy Cog during our heyday, which I think by the way, I think they’re having a second heyday. They have new owners there, fantastic agency, highly recommend them. But in terms of my own involvement with the place, we would win a certain high percentage of things we were asked to pitch on, that we liked, that we wanted to really pursue. I’m not saying they were magically given to us, I’m saying if we really liked them we would work hard on our proposals and then win a fair number. And from the beginning of conversation to the awarding of the work usually took, I don’t know, a few months? And it seemed like it was taking a lot longer.
So, I was a single father. I live in New York, which is very expensive. I would have great months and I would have terrible months. And it started to wear on me that this was not a way for someone my age and with my responsibilities that I just, you know, I needed to put my family on a really good footing where there was, you know, a guaranteed baseline income. I have a lot of freelance businesses. I have, you know, a conference and at least, a part magazine and a book apart. I’m a partner in and some of those things don’t make money and they’re not supposed to. Some of them make money but again, it’s not a reliable stream. And like a lot of designers, I was finding that, I mean I would fly at my own expense and pitch something and we were doing really well. And then in one job that was heartbreaking. We were up for a very, very, really exciting project. And then the client basically told us, “You’re the people we want to work with.” This is kind of in the bag, not in the bag. They couldn’t say that but basically, “Yes, you’ve got this.”
Then they went away to an organizational retreat for three weeks and someone new came in and replaced them and wanted something completely different. Apathy that happens all the time. You know? So, I just thought, “Man, at my age. Do I really want to deal with this?” And then, all the other reasons for taking a job at Automatic were automatic. I mean it’s an awesome place. If you don’t know, Automatic founded by Matt Mullenweg, the 90’s, is the makers of WordPress.com and related products, right? Like Jet Pack and WooCommerce and some other. But it’s a totally open source company. And all the communication happens in the open, whether on Slack or on the special blog posts we have at our company called Ptwo. I don’t know why they’re called it Ptwo except their blog posts with extra functions that we engineered that are pretty cool.
But it’s a big tech company whose mission is to democratize publishing. And I thought, I’m definitely in favor of that. Automatic and wordpress.com, they’re about owning your own content. I am definitely about that. I looked at them and I was like, they don’t spy on their customers. They don’t sell their customers’ data. I’m not saying – they are definitely tech companies where at the very top and in their foundation there’s questionable ethics, ethical problems just because they were established with no revenue model. And so, eventually the investors want their money back, you know, five-fold. And that means, well if we can stir up controversy and get more eyeballs and sell more ads or if we can share this data. So, you know, I’m not going to name the companies. Everyone knows some of them. And, I’m not saying Automatic is perfect or flawless, no company is without sin, but Automatic, they have a creed. I will always keep learning. I will try to help others. They have a belief system, which is open source and open web are kind of my things, especially open web. Indie web owning your own content. I mean, we make tools that help people do that.
And they had a division secretly that was an agency inside Automatic that makes websites for selected clients. And I thought, “Yes, why don’t I do this?” And the clients that we make websites for tend to be nonprofits, charities, startup organizations that we think are great but don’t really have the financing to necessarily get the website they deserve. Artists, musicians, childish Gambino, just like writers, phenomenal people. It’s a giving back activity. Automatic makes a certain amount of money and we believe in WordPress and we believe that WordPress can help people. And so, we have this little agency, this little secret special projects team that makes websites for people who deserve them, that make websites for people who wouldn’t necessarily have recourse to the high level of services that we can provide any other way.
It’s pretty great. Like we have a lot of clients that I would dream about getting and I don’t have to pitch them, we have them. And I can bring clients in like for causes, I believe in it and we just do the work.
Jason Ogle: That’s awesome.
Jeffrey Zeldman: So, for me it was the best of both worlds. I’m in a product company and in a way I’m a product designer, but 90% of what I’m doing is still – well I’m a creative director in a web design team inside a product company. So, for me it was just uh, kind of a dream come true. And everybody I work with is super smart, super motivated. We have a high number of introverts in the company just like in every web place I’ve ever been and every design place I’ve ever been. So yes, I’m very happy and there’s a lot to do and it’s pretty great.
Jason Ogle: That’s awesome. Well, congratulations Jeffrey by the way, for that opportunity and they’re lucky to have you and I know you feel lucky to be there and…
Jeffrey Zeldman: I am definitely lucky to be there.
Jason Ogle: I did read “The culture at tenants.” I read it online and it just sounds like an incredible place to be. So, I really love the values that are spread there. And you’re the author of “Designing with Web Standards,” and that’s really where a lot of it started for you is really just wanting to share what you’ve learned is being really super early to web design. And really like I mentioned earlier, like Godfather, kind of one of the founding members of web design I believe.
And now I’m wondering, do you, have you received any hate mail or tweets from web design or web standards purist over your decision to work at Automatic?
Jeffrey Zeldman: No, not a single one. The move to a Gutenberg, you know, as the foundational system was not without controversy. There was an accessibility problem and especially keen accessibility problem for people with mobility issues in the Admin of Gutenberg at first rather than delay the launch. Again, people should no Automatic, I hope I’m not misrepresenting this, but basically WordPress is its own thing. WordPress exists as an open source community. WordPress is made by lots of people who just make WordPress. And it’s also made by people who make WordPress inside Automatic. Automatic helps fund a lot of WordPress development and design activity but also a lot of that activity goes on completely independently.
And so, things like deadlines and when things launch, I mean a typical company that has proprietary software, not open source software that doesn’t have outsiders working on it will say, “We’re going to launch on such and such a day.” And they were in charge of all their own decisions. A tricky thing about Automatic is that we’re not entirely in charge of some decisions. I say we like I have anything to do with it. I don’t, that’s not my area. And I don’t mean to speak for the executives in Automatic, but I can tell you activities happen and have a momentum of their own in the community and whatnot. So, there was a need in the community to launch Gutenberg before that problem was addressed. And that’s what happened. And WordPress took heat for it and Automatic took heat for it because Automatic takes heat whenever there’s a WordPress decision, people aren’t happy with. Whether we made it or not. I’m not trying to be weaselly here, I’m just trying to describe a complex situation.
Jason Ogle: Yes. Sure.
Jeffrey Zeldman: But anyway, immediately there were people working on it passionately the whole time. I should tell you the story of how I came there. First of all, I have this magazine, at alistapart.com since 1998 when we started. It’s a web design Journal we publish about once a week and we had been on another platform for quite awhile. The platform was showing its age. We hadn’t updated. It’s all done by volunteers. All the work at A List Apart and volunteers always have other things to do first, they can’t help that. That’s just reality. If you have two tasks and one’s going to feed your family and the other isn’t, you have to do the feed your family tasks first obviously. So, we were sort of delayed and a lot of people volunteered to help, but we were sort of stuck and I was thinking “Maybe it’s time to move back to WordPress.” Maybe A List Apart had never been on WordPress, but I’ve been using WordPress since forever and I thought maybe this would be a good home for us.
So, I reached out and they put me in touch with this secret special projects team that basically said, “Yes, we’d love to help.” And was really smart. They were willing to do a tremendous amount of work, which kind of floored me. And then, I was really worried about Gutenberg and accessibility. So, I asked to speak to the project leads at Automatic, and I did. And everything they said, let me know, they were like good people, serious people. They were working on the accessibility issues. They had constraints and deadlines that they hadn’t set for themselves that they were working against. I knew the problem was going to get fixed. And that made me feel okay, bringing the 40 or so people who volunteer on A List Apart, the thought that maybe we should do this on WordPress.
And some of them were, were nervous because of Gutenberg and the accessibility issue that was very out there at the time. They weren’t worried about anything else. I mean, obviously people – A List Apart, which is a bunch of web geeks, so people were like, “Let’s do a headless system. Let’s use flat files.” There was lots of talk, it was good. I decided WordPress was the way to go. And, in doing research about Automatic and WordPress, I noticed some things about their websites that I thought, “Hmm, I wonder if they’re really telling their story as well as they could.” So, I reached out to Matt. Matt Mullenweg is someone I’ve known really since the beginning of WordPress and when it wasn’t even called WordPress. And I said, “I might want to do some consulting for you.” And he said, “I don’t want to hire you as a consultant, but I would hire you as an employee.” And I hadn’t been an employee in 20 years. So, I was like, “Wow.”
Jason Ogle: How’d that make you feel?
Jeffrey Zeldman: It was scary and challenging because I had come to the point in working for myself for so long where I thought, “I’m stuck in my ways. I am I’m unemployable.” So, to have someone with this billion-dollar company and all the responsibilities they carry say to me, “I’d like to hire you.” That that felt good. I was nervous. “Can I really do this?” But it felt good. We talked about the culture, you know, inclusive design, inclusive company, welcoming people, all very important parts of the company DNA have been for a long time. There were so much that I liked. And then I started without any kind of commitment. I was just working on the A List Apart migration with Tiffany bridge who was a recent hire in the special projects team. And she was so remarkable and the folks she introduced me to were so remarkable and so thorough. And they seem to have such good processes and documentation. I thought “This feels really good.”
And another thing I hated as an agency person running my own agency was having to figure out every process and document everything. And I kind of suck at that. I’m much better at big picture than I am at detail. And I thought, “Well, here’s a team where I don’t have to be daddy.” In my agency. I had to be Daddy. It doesn’t mean that there was anything childish about the people I work with. They were brilliant and very professional and seasoned. But you know, if something fell through the cracks, it was me. If something went wrong, it was me. If there was a communication faulty, everything came down on me. And I thought, “Here’s a place where it’s shared almost like a commune.” I don’t want to sound hippyish but like everyone definitely has individual responsibility, but there’s also great shared team responsibility. So, I don’t want to turn this into a commercial for Automatic, but I thought “This is great.” And I haven’t been disappointed. We’ve been through some upheaval even since I’ve gotten there. And yet we’ve come out on the other side, I think stronger. So, I’m happy there am really happy to be doing web design work inside a product company where I’m involved in the products too and I can learn from the product designers and from everyone who touches the product and everyone who interacts with the customer.
The first thing that happened, User Defenders, the first thing that happened is I spent a week’s in rotation doing customer support. That’s how everyone at the company starts. Whatever your job is eventually going to be, you have to do customer support first. And you get to see the humans that use the product and hear their problems and try to help them solve them. And it’s a great – I mean it’s like learning to swim by having someone throw you over at an airplane into the middle of a sea but you learn to swim if that happened. And it’s great and everybody’s super helpful. Like you don’t have to do it alone. People kept reaching out and saying, “You try to do what you can and what you don’t understand, you ask for help.” So, it was a really good opportunity to make human connections.
There’s someone I chat with every week, beginning of the week and end of the week who I don’t actually work directly with, but they were just a nice person I met while I was doing customer support. So, they were a customer support person who was extraordinarily helpful and friendly. There’s a high preponderance of nerds, people who hated camp, people who like reading. There’s a hyper ponderance of intelligent people who need a little personal downtime every day and yet there’s really – seems like a paradox, but I guess it’s not. There’s tremendous warmth and emotional support there more so than the last time I worked for other people, which was 25 years ago when I was in advertising. Really brilliant people there too. But it was also very cut throat and it was not necessarily about sharing. It’s about competing. So, it’s a relief to be able to work at a place where everyone wants you to do better.
Jason Ogle: That’s so cool. I love that and I’m so glad you shared that. It’s really good for us to know like a lot of things we get kind of myopic with being just at our own companies and only seeing kind of what’s around us. It can be challenging to sort of know that there’s other companies and organizations like Automatic they are doing it different and doing like some really outstanding stuff, especially with people. And I really liked that. The whole onboarding of, you get on the phone in your first two weeks or whatever and talk to our customers before you even like sit down at your computer and like start pushing pixels or you know, start strategizing over, you know, what this website should be or whatever. Like I love that, that’s the first step is really just get that human contact, like talk to our customers. I just think that’s really great and outstanding.
And you know when you’re trying to get data for improving the experience, I think if you have a customer service department, they’re the first people you should go and talk to.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Absolutely. Right? We had to design meet up in Arizona a month ago and they came right? The leader of the customer service team came. And said, “Here’s what they’re complaining about. Here’s what, here’s where the pain points are.” Because every product has pain points. Every product is constantly in need of improvement. If it wasn’t, our jobs would be over, right?
Jason Ogle: Exactly.
Jeffrey Zeldman: We could just extinguish our civilization and go, “We did it. We’re done.”
Jason Ogle: I think my favorite answer to my design kryptonite question came from a girl named Alexa Erasamchuk. She said, “My design Kryptonite is utopia. If everything was perfect, we wouldn’t have work.”
Jeffrey Zeldman: Absolutely. I get design inspiration from being frustrated because I feel stupid and like things don’t work and it’s me and I think, you know, my daughter who’s 14 came of age, she was two when the iPhone came out, so everything’s completely intuitive for her. When I started using software was still like, “Put this donut on the outside of the PC, it tells you the commands to memorize, to do these incredibly basic things. Please load the floppy disk that contains the entire program.” And I have trouble with things that might be intuitive for others, but I think that makes me a better designer. The more thickheaded I am about certain things, the more I can spot problems that might bother other people too. It helps, there’s no substitute for working with users, but being one yourself helps. I wanted to get back to one thing that I sort of glided past in your initial question and I think I missed it and it’s a big opportunity.
But I think whatever tool you use, you have to know what you’re doing. And if you’re using a tool because you don’t know what you’re doing temporarily, that’s okay while you’re learning. But if using a big heavy platform to make a website, and yes, you threw it together in a week and it seems like a good website, but it’s inaccessible to some people or it takes so long to load that most people on mobile are going to not bother dealing with it. You know, if it’s not performing, if the content is bad, if you haven’t shaped the content to help people find, and shape the navigation to the user’s needs, or people say, “Oh well, pattern libraries, styles, design systems exist, so designers aren’t necessarily.” Well who makes design systems? Designers. And the fact that if your company has a designed system, which means you’ve solved 80% of the problems out there. You know what that means? That means – and again, my friend Dan Mall says this, “It means that the 20% of really interesting problems are there for the designer. First, the designer makes the design system, the design team makes the design system. Then there’s this weird stuff we never thought about that’s not minimum viable product. That’s not lowest common denominator. That’s complex and tricky. And that’s where the designer gets to show their expertise.
So, web design is in debt. It’s more specialized. Parts of it are easier, but doing it right isn’t any easier in some way.” If you use tools that put the burden on the user, you’re doing it wrong. So, use all the tools you need as long as they don’t make the site slower or harder to use or they don’t start locking out different devices. As long as you’re doing progressive enhancement and inclusive design and thinking about your customer and learning more about them all the time. But you know, all those things I just said, those are hard. The name of your show is User Defenders, if that’s what you are, that work will never go away as long as there’s people who need things and the Internet is a way of providing those things. There’s going to be a need for experts at various levels of experience and expertise to make stuff.
And so, our jobs aren’t going away. It’s just that some of the lower end jobs. Like you know, if someone used to be able to get a logo made for 90 bucks and then make a website with Dreamweaver that was functional or later make a website with Bootstrap that was functional, but they don’t really know what they’re doing and understand the technology, you know, then that’s what they need to work on. There’s always stuff to do and learn.
I mean, again, not to pimp the company, but Automatic, they have this creed, right? This creed that says like “I will always keep learning. And I will share what I learned” And that that’s the web to me.
Jason Ogle: Yes.
Jeffrey Zeldman: And I think that’s our jobs. I don’t think our jobs are going away. We may be doing them in different places, we may be doing them with different tools, but we’re still User Defenders like your show. We’re still making stuff for people, not devices. That never goes away. We’re still designers. Even if we’re coders, we’re designers. Designers solve problems for people.
Jason Ogle: Yes. I love that. That’s so well said Jeffrey. I can’t help but think about, and you touched on this, about the tools that are available. And many of these tools create code. Many of them will generate code. And I think that certainly we’ve seen an evolution toward at least somewhat more, lot more standards, compliant code. I mean the original Dreamweaver was just like completely just “What the heck is this?” Like proprietary code? Like good luck trying to debug it if you had to like that kind of stuff. I mean we’ve come a long way certainly with these tools and depending on how you look at that, but I mean we’re even seeing like AI jump in. Like Artificial intelligence, like just predicting what your website design should be and we’re seeing a lot of just automation in our craft. And there’s a couple of questions buried in this context and I guess one is with all of these tools and with AI kind of taking over the world, like is it even necessary to learn code now? And also, if you’re a small business owner, why would you need to hire someone to design the website? If it can be done through a tool like Squarespace, Wix, Webflow, or even WordPress?
Jeffrey Zeldman: Okay. Well let me, let me address the second one first. If you’re a business owner, you can’t afford to hire a designer and you have a pretty good handle on what you need. There are platforms out there, I hope you’ll choose WordPress, but you could choose another platform that will let you make something fairly quickly that works. It’s presentable, it’s functional, it’s good. You know, it may have all the functionality you need in core or there’s an ecosystem, like a plugin ecosystem that lets you add functionality.
Jason Ogle: So, you mentioned bespoke design, bespoke web design?
Jeffrey Zeldman: Yes.
Jason Ogle: I’m nostalgic. I know you are too Jeffrey and just seeing, seeing this field evolve so much over the past 25 years, it’s like I miss things. There’s certain things that I miss certainly looking back and about web design and you mentioned like the simplicity of it. Just being able to, to know code, like all have some HTML, some CSS and maybe even just a little Java script and that’s all you needed to know back then. And there is certain nostalgia in me that just goes, “Man, I kind of wish it were more simple still.” And then there’s the other side of me that goes, “Well, there’s a reason that it’s gotten more complicated. And I think business is part of it. It doesn’t make sense to hand code everything from scratch every single time. Certainly, from a business perspective when you’re on the clock and you’ve got deadlines and all that. And then as far as design systems come in and all that.” But are there things that you miss about the wild west of the worldwide web? I’d love to dive into that.
Jeffrey Zeldman: I miss having not enough work to do so that I ended up redesigning my website every month and for fun and to learn something new about web design. And I missed the culture where we all did that. I miss getting excited because Gina Anne or Dan Cederholm or whomever, you know, Viola had just completely redesigned. And people were like, “Oh my look at this.” Right? We would go and look and marvel at each other’s work. And I miss, I think focusing on solving real world problems for real world people is probably a better use of our time in maturity. But I miss that. You know, I missed jamming. It’s almost like, well now you do the music for the Star Wars series. You’re one of the orchestra members and that’s great. That’s a great gig. But remember when you used to just pull your instrument out and jam on the corner and other street musicians would come up and jam and you all knew each other’s names and somebody would grab a harmonica. This is a really weird, dumb analogy.
Jason Ogle: No way. Keep going.
Jeffrey Zeldman: It was wild and fun. I remember going to south by southwest and there were like a thousand people attending Interactive and they were all in my blog role. And like I knew I would go, “Oh wow, you’re young, dirty bastard.org or whatever.” You just be like, it was amazing. It was amazing to meet people who are on your blog roll and hang out. And the medium matured. The business changed, now like 36,000 people attend South by Southwest Interactive. And that’s awesome. And there’s lots of opportunities there, but it’s a very different experience. You know, when we’re nostalgic for the past, we’re also nostalgic for our younger selves. When we had better muscle tone, fewer responsibilities, you know? I mean, there’s no questions…
Jeffrey Zeldman: I mean, I can remember struggling for a week to make a two-column layout for A List Apart when we switched from table layouts to CSS. And I had to work with two experts, Tajik Shellac and Todd Forner to pull it off. To pull off a mass head, two columns and a footer. Because CSS with floats – because the browsers were so incompatible, were so spotty in which what things they supported because the specs hadn’t really envisioned real layout systems. Lots of reasons.
And so, when I think about, oh, the good old days. Actually, struggling for a week to do a rudimentary layout, that’s not so great, but I look at it now and go, “Oh, things were so better then. Now, it’s so terrible because it’s so complicated.” You know, I wrote a piece about this awhile ago at Zeldman.com and Automatic.design, but it published both places. It’s called, “You got this.” And it’s like for me feeling old and like I can’t learn anything new and like I’m done. And then going, “No, I can learn new things and it’s okay.” Like where’s that spirit I had when I was starting where I would like dream in four color GIFs. I would wake up like solving really basic HTML problems. Like solving table layout problems in my sleep in 1996. You know, like I was excited. And it seemed, yes, it was rudimentary, but it seemed complex. It was hard. It was a new way of thinking.
I don’t think about the pain of all that and the frustration. Obviously if we started the web standards project it was because nothing worked and we were frustrated. So, I mean, it wasn’t all good news back then. And I love all the things we can do now. I just, I miss the simplicity. I miss the excitement to have someone just publishing their poem or whatever and finding other poets or someone just blogging about their day. There’s so much less of that. And I hope another reason I went to work at Automatic, again not to plug the company, is because thereabout blogging. There are about so much more. They’re a platform that lets you do all kinds of things, business things, but in their DNA, in their origins, blogging. And I believe in that. I still believe in people valuing what they have to say and having the courage to share it with other people, even if they’re not Hemingway, even if they’re not the greatest. People writing about their fishing trips, even if they’re not the greatest fisher person that ever lived. But do you know what I mean?
People writing about their design ideas, even if they’re not the most famous designer in the world. People just sharing. I think is really important. I think it’s good spiritually, it’s good for the world because we get to learn from each other and maybe respect and understand each other a little bit. I mean we have, obviously the Internet can be used to push hate and push division and we’ve seen that. But I do think with blogging there’s also the chance to say “I’m this kind of person and I feel this way and here’s how I felt when this happened.” And for me to go, “Wow, I didn’t think I had anything in common with this person on the other side of the world with this different belief system and this different kind of government. But obviously we do have something that works both human and we’re kind of more alike than I realized.”
I think that I don’t know that there will ever be world peace, but, I do think, I believe in the dream that technology can make the world a better place by enabling people to share, by removing the obstacles to communicating and sharing. And I’m glad to work at a place where I can do that. And I’m glad to work in a field web design that was started for that. Yes, we can do banking sites, but we started with people sharing documents like you know? Where like, we started as cave paintings, we started as deep sharing. So, I still love that and that still inspires me. And I think were still there. When I missed the past. I think, you know, we’re still very much at the beginning.
Jason Ogle: Wow. That was so inspiring. Jeffrey. I missed the webmaster title a lot. [Laughs] do you remember that?
Jeffrey Zeldman: I do.
Jason Ogle: Just web masters. And I kind of miss what that meant. We just kind of had to know how to do it, everything. And of course, back then everything was a lot less than it is now, but it was just kind of like you just felt that ownership. Like this is my website.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Yes.
Jason Ogle: I’m the webmaster. I own this. Like I control this. This is like one of the few things that I actually own, maybe. Like truly own. Like how many of us actually truly own our houses? Like I pay a bank. I can say I own a house, but I really truly don’t until that mortgage is at zero. So, I feel like our websites, it’s something we can truly own. And Jeremy Keith is a great example of that too, where he publishes everything. I mean even if it’s like two sentences, he’ll just publish it to his website and he said, “After I’m long dead and gone, like hopefully my website will still be live and you can learn everything you didn’t need to know about me.”
But what would you like to see from our community, Jeffery? Like going forward? Like how do we keep the spirit of web design alive? Like what do you think is the path to do that? What is the path to get us all to jam a little more often? And by the way, I want to be invited to that jam session Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Well, I think sharing is still the key. I think going to meetups, writing for publications like Smashing and A List Apart or anything, writing on your own blog, writing on Medium. Sharing code, write on CodePen, sharing your designs on Dribble. You know, I think the spirit of it comes from little craft details that someone shares, right? Where you go like, “Oh.” And especially problems people share. Like, “Wow, Jen Simmons didn’t know how to code that at first. We’ll now I feel okay that I was frustrated.” Right? I think sharing, not just expertise, but lack of expertise, just humbly sharing your reality. I think that is the spirit of the thing and that we can still do that. It’s hard now because sites are so complex and the businesses we make them for are so complex. It’s not like the webmaster days where I did everything from Photoshop to the Pearl script. It’s like, “No, like I have a little, I may not touch anything.”
So, touching the metal, I mean, I think front end developers have it the best in a way because they’re still touching the product. They’re really touching the product in a way that you can’t in Figma, right? Nothing against it. I’m not knocking Figma or Sketch or Photoshop or a pencil drawing, right? Like when I make a pencil sketch or a marker sketch, that’s not the product that the user touches. So, I think of all the things you can do in the web, the front-end developer is closest to it, to the actual product and the backend developer too, the actual product. But I think listening to each other, sharing with our colleagues, learning from our colleagues is how you keep the spirit together. I am lucky in that I’m overwhelmed with so much new information to learn every day that you know, it’s going to keep my brain functioning for another 10 years at least. Right?
I mean, I remember a woman I worked with at 30, she stopped listening to new music. She just kept listening to the same music forever. And it’s okay to love the stuff you loved in high school, but it’s also good to keep exploring new things so your brain doesn’t shut off.
Jason Ogle: Neuroplasticity.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Above a certain age. Our bodies are expendable. No, our spirits. But our bodies above a certain age, it’s like, you know what, if you want to let it kind of go, just go to rot and you know, you’re wearing tees up, you want to lay fallow in your life, you can do that. But I don’t want to. So, I think staying interested in learning new things and sharing.
Jason Ogle: I love that. So, Jeffrey, as we close here, I just want to thank you again for your time. And this has been super rich and inspiring. This is a field that I just fell in love with at right from the very beginning. I fell in love with this field. I fell in love with this work. And I still in love with it. I feel like sometimes there’s lulls where the passion just sort of dies down a little bit where I maybe don’t get my hands dirty as often as I like certainly. In a phase like path right now. And I think that it’s on us Defenders, designers, web designers, it’s on us to keep that passion alive and to never grow weary of learning and growing and trying things. I think that we can still keep that spirit alive.
That’s how the web started, was trying things and sharing things. As Jeffrey mentioned. And you know, as we kind of started off with the whole conversation about the click-baity articles about web design is dead. And I just want to note that one of the more popular articles that if you Google the one that kind of ends up at the top was this same author mentioned, you know, like he says something to the fact that “Web design has no future.” And then the same author also mentions that that “Facebook business pages are the future of business websites.” So, all that to say, you know, and this was written probably five to 10 years ago, all of that to say don’t listen, don’t believe everything you read. And certainly, when it says “Something is dead,” in the title don’t just believe it. And the spirit of the web is alive and well and it will remain.
And so, I highly recommend Jeffrey’s article, he mentioned it. It’s called, You Got This. I was so moved by that article. You’re such a great author and writer Jeffrey, you’re so real. You are. You’re real and you don’t hold back and just sharing exactly what you’re going through, what you’re feeling and kind of your thoughts and philosophy on it. And that’s one of those articles. It’s one of those ones that really just draws you in. And anybody that’s been working on the web for five, 10 even, you know, especially 20 years or more, it definitely read that. If you haven’t, it’s, it’s very, very – I could identify immediately with what you’re saying. And so, I definitely will link to that Defenders in the show notes. Jeffrey, I just want to ask you about your contact information before we go. If he can tell our Defenders the best way to connect and keep up with you.
Jeffrey Zeldman: So, I write, not often enough anymore but I write it zeldman.com. And the best way to contact me is probably @Zeldman on Twitter. DM me there or send me a message there @zeldman on Twitter. That’s where I, ‘Own your own content.’ That’s where I post a lot of things that I’m noticing or thinking about quickly. Things that don’t require a full blog post or a full article. And that’s a great place to reach me because I check it.
Jason Ogle: Awesome. Awesome. Definitely keep up with Jeffrey defenders. And I also want to mention Jeffrey that I’m excited. I get to see you IRL. Is that what the kids say in real life? I get to see you in real life and just a couple of months. Within a couple of months here at an event Apart Denver.
Jeffrey Zeldman: That’s right.
Jason Ogle: And yes, right around the corner. I can’t believe how quickly that’s approaching. I got to…
Jeffrey Zeldman: It’s upsetting me like our lives are just rushing past. Yes. October 28th to 30th in Denver and I’m really excited to go back to Denver and see you again. And see our lineup and just see that town again. What a beautiful place. Although breathing is hard for me there because of the altitude.
Jason Ogle: [laughs] it is challenging at first. I remember the last time that you were there was the first time actually, that Event Apart had come to Denver?
Jeffrey Zeldman: Yes.
Jason Ogle: And I had the wonderful honor of recording a live podcast there. And I remember Luke W. was on stage with me and I kind of like sort of ribbed him a little bit about how Google still hasn’t solved the high-altitude oxygen problem challenge yet. And then he said they’re working on it.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Of course.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Of course, he said that.
Jason Ogle: So, I’m super excited to be able to do that again. To be able to record a live podcast from the stage that I’ve revered for so many years. And so, thank you for that, great privilege and honor. And again, look forward to giving you a bear hug when I see you.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Cool.
Jason Ogle: Yes. And Defenders get your tickets. For sure, it’s going to sell out for sure. It always, it did last year. Actually, probably a month or two before the event actually began. And so, that’s right about where we are now, so definitely get on the website. It’s aneventapart.com. And if you use coupon code, I think it’s “AEAUD,” you get $100 off. So, take advantage of that and get out to Denver and come see us. Give us a hug.
Jeffrey Zeldman: Thanks Jason.
Jason Ogle: Absolutely. And as we close here, Jeffrey, I want to say, you still got this, my friend, you still got this. And so, thank you again for taking the time. Thanks for fighting so hard and for so long for a craft and a field that is just incredible and has been so good to so many of us. And has made an impact on so many for so long. So, keep going. And last but not least, I just want to say “Fight on my friend.”
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