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Web stars speak

/ Interview with Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer is THE industry reference on CSS + ultra kind and friendly person.

He has been working with the Web since late 1993 and is an internationally recognized expert on the subjects of HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

On the move: Eric Meyer has left AOL/Time Warner (x_Netscape) and talks about closing one door and opening a new one!

He is no longer employed as a Standards Evangelist with Netscape Communications while living in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a much nicer city than you've been led to believe.

A graduate of and former Webmaster for Case Western Reserve University and an alumnus of the same fraternity chapter to which Donald Knuth once belonged. Eric coordinated the authoring and creation of the W3C's CSS Test Suite and has recently been acting as List Chaperone of the highly active CSS_discuss list.

Author of "Eric Meyer on CSS" (New Riders), "Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide" (O'Reilly & Associates), "CSS2.0 Programmer's Reference" (Osborne/McGraw-Hill), and the fairly well-known CSS Browser Compatibility Charts, Eric speaks at a variety of conferences on the subject of standards, CSS use, and Web design.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

The very first time, I didn't even know what I was seeing. A high school friend had Compuserve and we used their "channels" to talk to other people, but I really was only watching him type over a 300 baud connection. Shortly after I got to college in 1988, I obtained an account on the Cleveland Free-Net (which was run out of my university) and started posting to special interest group bulletin boards (SIGs). Eventually I found the Usenet gateway, and that's when I first grasped the idea that there was a real global network, and I was on it.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

I thought it was just a bigger version of the Cleveland Free-Net: a bunch of bulletin boards where people could talk about their favorite special interests, like favorite rock bands or television shows or whatever. Some of my earliest posts were to alt.music.rush and alt.tv.mst3k, in fact.

/ Describe how your love for the web started.

In early 1993, my co-worker Jim Nauer started talking about this new thing called "the Web" and how it was a big leap forward. From my conversations with him, I got the impression that it was Gopher on steroids, which didn't interest me. Then the early Mosaic betas came out, and one day he dragged me into his office to show it to me.

An hour later, he had to kick me out of his office, because I wouldn't stop surfing from site to site. I was hooked from the word go. The idea that we could integrate images with documents, and create links from one document to another right there in the text, and jump from one place to another with a simple mouse click - it captivated me. I immediately downloaded my own copy of Mosaic and dove in.

/ You are an internet pioneer what exactly does it mean?

I often think the word "pioneer" must be ancient Greek for "lucky enough to be there at the beginning."

/ What was your first job?

I worked at a very busy McDonald's through the latter half of high school and between my first two years of college. It took me seven months to work my way up from manning the fry station to dressing hamburger buns.

/ How did you first get involved with web standards?

Thanks again to Jim Nauer, I learned from the start to write well-formed markup, which was a personal involvement. When I became interested in CSS and discovered that browsers were so inconsistent in their support, I sort of became a standards advocate without realizing it. The mere act of saying that browsers should act consistently, and working to provide resources to make that consistency easier to achieve, was one of advocacy. I thought I was just creating material useful to me and sharing it with other people, but looking back I can see that I was advocating convergence almost from the beginning.

/ How do web standards relate to a designer's day-to-day activities?

Every time a designer has to work around inconsistencies between browsers, they're suffering from a lack of standardization. Every time they create something and it works cross-browser without workarounds, they're benefiting from standardization. Standards are the foundation of everything we do, from CSS2 all the way down to the ones and zeros. They make the difference between a frustrating work experience and a smooth one. With standards, you can concentrate on the actual design, instead of worrying about inconsistencies and limitations. If designers aren't concerned about standards, they should be.

/ Why do you say designers should be concerned?

Because the better standards support becomes, the easier their jobs will be-- it's that simple. Furthermore, with more consistent standards support, designers will be able to do more interesting things in design. Some of the things I explore on css/edge could lead to more interesting designs for everyone, but the browser support isn't quite there for many of the techniques I demonstrate.

Another good example is the PNG image format. Who wouldn't want to use losslessly compressed images with alpha channels, so we could blend images with backgrounds? It's been years now since the PNG specification was finalized, and PNGs are pretty clearly superior to the GIF and JPEG images we all use today. Yet almost nobody uses PNG, because not enough browsers support them well enough to use. If designers had spoken up to say, "We want this and we won't bother with any browser that doesn't support it," you'd better believe the support would be there. So designers can't afford to sit back and say, "Standards are a geek thing, and we don't have to worry about it."

/ In your view, are there pressing matters that need to be addressed?

Always! My biggest recent beef has been the deplorable state of character encoding and internationalization, about which I know next to nothing except that it doesn't work yet. At the moment I think the biggest W3C-related concern is getting CSS and the DOM consistent. After that, integrating the two with XML is the big step to take. Beyond that, ask me once all that's been done.

/ Would you say that universities/colleges curriculum are up to par with this?

Not really. A lot of courses are still stuck in 1997, where everything is done with tables and FONT tags and spacer GIFs and nobody uses CSS. There are exceptions, of course, but I hear from a lot of people whose professors are still telling them CSS isn't well supported, and who've never heard of HTML validation. This is the real problem.

Until courses in both higher and public education get up to speed, the new designers will be stuck in the same quagmire that's snared so many old hands.

/ What should students do to complement their studies and help them find jobs?

Watch what big companies are doing, and figure out how they're doing it. Wired and ESPN both have gone to non-table layout. Pulling their designs apart to see how they work is a great education in real-world design. And practice.

Keep trying different things, experiment with new ideas, and all that sort of thing. Don't be afraid of mistakes, either; sometimes a "mistake" turns out to be the genesis of a really interesting new design or technique.

/ If you were to evaluate the developmental stage of the internet, what would it be?

A four-year-old. We're past the Terrible Twos and Threes, and are beginning to actually see some maturation happening. There's walking and even running, but the fine motor skills are still emerging. Communication skills are there, but the level is still somewhat rudimentary, although there are bursts of surprising sophistication.

/ What makes for a good web site?

The lowest possible page weight coupled with a compelling design and useful information. All the eye candy in the world won't get me back unless there's some depth, and if I can't navigate the site then I don't really care what information it's supposed to provide.

/ Describe how you landed your first writing gig?

My first paid writing gig was with the late lamented Web Review. I'd put together a private CSS test suite and published some support information for Macintosh Web browsers. Dale Dougherty got in touch with me and said, "We really like your charts. How'd you like to have them on Web Review and make them cross-platform?" I said, "You bet! Want someone to write CSS articles too?" He said yes, and I started writing monthly columns under the title "A Sense of Style."

/ How did Eric Meyer on CSS book idea come about?

After I'd written my first two books, New Riders came to me with the idea of doing a CSS book. Since I'd already done a pure reference and a book on theory, I told them I wanted to do something practical and hands-on. They were all for it. In the beginning, I was going to do a book that combined theory and practice by doing a few projects that just illustrated theory, and then some small projects that showed how to put things together.

Thanks to great feedback from Brett Merkey and further thinking, we realized the book would be much better if we had a series of moderately complex projects that showed how CSS is really used. At that point, I set for myself the goal of making the book feel like the reader was watching over my shoulder as I worked my way through each project. Thankfully, the reader feedback indicates I succeeded.

/ Explain why you think CSS might be the perfect styling language.

I don't. CSS is far and away the best Web styling language we have so far, but it definitely has its weaknesses and it will no doubt eventually be supplanted by something else. I don't know if I've seen its successor yet, although I still worry about Flash MX eating the Web from within. Personally, I think that until someone comes up with a more powerful, human-readable styling language for the Web, CSS will continue to evolve and be the pre-eminent Web styling language.

/ Why do you think CSS is so hard for people to learn?

I think it's mostly the conceptual leap from table-driven design to non-table design. You have to unlearn a whole set of habits and develop new ones, which is never simple.

It's also critical to think of documents in terms of their structure, which is not something designers have been encouraged to do.

/ Why do you say so?

It's just been the way of things. Designers are usually visually oriented, and think of things in terms of how many pixels tall or wide an element should be, or how much space is put between the sidebar and the main content column. They don't approach a document with the idea that the page title should be the biggest heading, the section titles should be the next-biggest, and so on.

There hasn't been a thorough grounding in the structure of HTML, and how that can be used effectively. Who thinks of a toolbar as an unordered list? And yet that's really what they are. When you style the list, then it can become a toolbar, or a sidebar, or a set of nested menus if your browser is advanced enough.

/ What's wrong with tables, anyway? They've been a very useful layout tool for quite some time, so how come we're expected to dump them completely?

There's nothing wrong with tables, except that they're so clumsy and wasteful. Think about the amount of markup needed to create a text box with a double border and a background color. With CSS, you don't need any of that stuff; a text box is as simple as a div and one rule. And you can reuse that same rule on multiple boxes, instead of having to replicate all that table-and-spacer markup for every box.

As for dumping tables completely, nobody reasonable has claimed that you must do so. I would claim that the fewer tables you use for layout, the more efficient your site will become, and that's something worth pursuing. But there are circumstances where using a simple table or two for the basic layout, and then using CSS to style the contents of those tables, is a sensible design approach.

If you can move to tableless design, of course, then I say go for it - odds are that you'll never go back if you can help it. If you can't, then keep things as lean as possible so you can reap the maximum possible benefit for your situation.

/ How should designers go about learning to design with CSS?

The best resource I know is css-discuss. One member has said it's like a magic wand-- post a problem and the community finds a solution (sometimes more than one) in short order. It's a great resource, even for me. I've learned a lot from the discussion there. The list has also created a wiki (sort of an evolving FAQ) that lists a lot of good resources.

/ Why do CSS-driven sites have a reputation for being dull and boring?

Because most of them are. We could claim that CSS designers are actually minimalists, but the truth is that most early adopters of CSS just didn't have strong design skills, myself among them. The other major handicap designers face is that moving to CSS means using a lot of text, and the ability to control (or even influence) typography is rudimentary at best. I believe the poor state of typographic styling might be the biggest obstacle to widespread CSS adoption right now.

Still, nobody claims that oil painting is a boring medium just because Bob Ross produced so much stuff. While an artist is certainly limited by his medium, it's more often the case that the medium is limited by its artists. Until a Picasso or Serat comes along, you don't truly appreciate what the medium can produce. As more designers come to use CSS, we'll see more compelling CSS-driven sites. Wired News is a good example of this, as is ESPN. There are others, including adactio.com, stopdesign.com, scottandrew.com, zeldman.com, clagnut.com, and more. I'd like to think parts of css/edge also show some design skills.

/ Your site is sort of plain. Why should people listen to you when it comes to Web design?

They shouldn't, actually. They should listen to me when it comes to using CSS, and the benefits of standards. For design advice, they should listen to designers who understand CSS. I mean, I do try to make my site presentable, but it's nothing visually stunning.

/ Explain how you came about creating the CSS_discuss list?

As of late 2001, there were a few CSS-related newsgroups here and there, but there was no widely known public mailing list on the topic of using CSS in a practical manner. Furthermore, the most well-known newsgroups were populated by old hands who tended to keep the conversations high-level and often rather brusque. Last, there are many people who prefer mailing lists to newsgroups.

I sort of looked around and decided that if there was going to be a mailing list focused on using CSS in the real world, I was going to have to do the legwork to get it created. Thanks to John Allsopp of Western Civilization, we launched on 24 January 2002, and within 24 hours had well over a thousand subscribers and around two hundred messages! Since then things have calmed down, but it's still a very active community. Due to the list volume, we moved over to being hosted by evolt in December 2002.

/ Describe the ideal scenario for a company to be successful online.

Understanding your audience and their needs, even when their wants and needs don't match. That plus some luck will win the day.

/ What makes a good team?

Communication between team members. Nothing is more important. A team of brilliant hermits will get outperformed by a team of communicators every single time, no matter how mediocre the skill set of the latter.

/ You are a man of vision. Describe this and how it affects your day-to-day activities.

Actually, my vision has degraded to the point that I need glasses now, so now I have to worry about polishing the lenses and all that sort of thing. It's sort of annoying.

When it comes to my work, I just keep trying to find things that I think would be useful to me, if I were trying to learn and use CSS. Usually that's explanatory material like articles, but sometimes it leads to CSS examples like css/edge, or tools like the Color Blender and the SelectORacle. It's the same impulse that led me to create CSS support charts, back in 1996, and publish them to the Web.

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