Jeffrey Veen: WebReference Featured Interview
We interviewed Jeffrey Veen about his new book entitled The Art & Science of Web Design. A Web design pioneer, Jeffrey was the long-time Executive Interface Director for Wired Digital and determined the look and feel of HotWired.com, Webmonkey.com, and the HotBot search engine. We talked to Jeffrey about his new book and his new way of looking at Web design.
WEBREF> How did your book come about?
JEFFREY VEEN> When I wrote my first book, HotWired Style, I looked around at what Web design books were available, and saw a hole in the market. So many books on this subject are about writing code, or making attractive graphics, or mastering a tool like Flash or FrontPage. There just weren't that many books on what you should do once you know these things. So I set out to write a book on the principles of good design on the Web.
This book came from the same place, but without the association of a specific Web site (I've left HotWired). About two years ago, I was feeling very frustrated with the Web. Browsers were abysmal in their standards support, advertising was running rampant and drastically reducing the usability of Web sites, modems were dreadfully slow. So I set out to see why these things were the way they were, and what we could do about it. Each chapter is, in essence, a historical look at the problems of the Web, a in-depth deconstructing of the solutions, and a look to the future to see how things may eventually work out.
WR> Your book is definitely a different kind of Web design book. It doesn't dwell on the technical details like most books, but guides designers towards more elegant solutions. It takes a higher level view of design. Standards are a big part of that, I hear you are a part of the Web Standards Project (from another Jeffrey, Mr. Zeldman). What do you think of the state of standards compliance on current browsers? We find we spend a fair amount of time working around the different browser quirks.
JV> Yeah, we do. When Jeffrey invited me to participate in the WSP, I jumped at the chance. I can't think of a more important issue for developers to be concerned about. I read a report recently that polled the top 250 commercial Web sites, and found that 60 percent - almost two thirds! - were building two or more versions of their Web sites to compensate for differing implementations by the browsers. And these are published Web standards - go to http://www.w3.org and read them yourself. For some reason the browser vendors were thinking that proprietary gimmicks would be better for us. The result is a development tax paid by the majority of our industry to compensate for this arrogance.
WR> You make a compelling argument for separating presentation from structure using XML and style sheets. How can older sites retrofit this newer publishing paradigm on their font-infested HTML pages?
JV> Yeah, the benefits of well-structured content and a powerful style language like CSS are amazing. Unfortunately, not all of our users have browsers that support these advances. That's why I spend so much time in the book looking at strategies for multi-browser design. I also talk about dynamic publishing - moving content into databases and building sites out of scripted templates. You need to stop thinking of your Web pages as static files on a server and more like a collection of scripts and intelligent content that can figure out how to display itself correctly.
WR> Self-adaptive content with behavior, yes. Like your self-sizing headline example. Or em-based fontography example. Your "Object-Oriented Publishing" chapter has the first easily understood example of a db-driven templatized-sql-querying site I've seen. OOP helps solve the maintenance and slow update problems static sites typically experience. What are some other benefits of OOP?
JV> OOP quite literally empowers designers. I've seen so many examples of dynamic sites completely transforming design departments. Sites made of static HTML pages typically have designers behind them that spend a tremendous amount of time fussing with sloppy font tags and complex tables. By switching to database-driven template systems, designers can create interfaces once, then spend their time improving them or adding new features - not just maintaining the work they already did. It's a shift to system architecture rather than drawing pictures of pages in Photoshop.
WR> It seems that great designers are becoming skilled in areas (info architecture, programming, database design) they don't traditionally teach in art school :) How can today's designers keep up?
JV> Read books on Web design. ;) Actually, I find the most valuable place to keep up with the onslaught of new technology is by staying in touch with the community. And the best way to do that, typically, is through mailing lists. Speaking of Zeldman, his AListApart.com list is a great example.
WR> Yes, the writing there is excellent. Your books seems to be saying "throw away the fixed precision of traditional graphic design and embrace a more fluid dynamic design environment." Forget absolutes, embrace your relatives. Like the difference between karate and kung fu. Can you expand on this concept for us?
JV> I've worked with lots of designers that have experience in print work. The work they do is based on control: typefaces, layout based on tolerances of 1/10 point, carefully selected Pantone colors. And I've learned a lot from them about the craft of good visual design. But the Web is so much different. Our users have a variety of platforms, a variety of browsers with dozens of versions, a wide selection of fonts, inconsistent monitor sizes and resolutions. Why, our users can even decide how big or small their browser window is. It's like designing a print project and letting the press operator select the size of the paper!
So, for Web design to be effective, I argue that Web interfaces need to have a sort of intelligence. Pages need to respond to the environment in which they are being displayed. Rather than having absolute control, designers need to think more like playwrights. They get to provide direction for actors, give them content, and then trust that the right thing will happen during the performance.
Revised: Jan. 10, 2001