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Introduction > A Continuum, Not a Set of Inflexible Rules

A Continuum, Not a Set of Inflexible Rules

As this book will emphasize, web standards are a continuum, not a set of inflexible rules. In moving to web standards, you might not achieve perfect separation of structure from presentation (Chapter 2, “Designing & Building with Standards”) in your first site or even your fifth. Your early efforts at accessibility (Chapter 14, “Accessibility Basics”) might deliver only the minimum required by WAI Priority 1, and you might not get all of it exactly right.

The point is to begin. Fear of imperfection can immobilize the unwary in the same way that shame about our flab might keep us from going to the gym. But we won't begin to lose the excess avoirdupois until we make our first fumbling efforts at physical fitness. Likewise, our sites won't attain forward compatibility if we don't start somewhere. Deleting font tags might be where you start. Or you might replace nonstructural markup with meaningful <h…> and <p> tags. This is often an excellent place to begin, and as a consequence, this book will spend a fair amount of its time and yours considering modern markup and XHTML.

Show, Don't Sell

Designers sometimes bog down on the selling part of standards. Over the years, I have received hundreds of letters from designers who want to use standards, “but my client won't let me.” If standards are a continuum, how can any client oppose at least some effort in their direction? For instance, even the most table-driven site can validate against HTML 4.01 or XHTML 1.0 Transitional and can be made to conform to U.S. Section 508 or WAI Priority 1 accessibility guidelines. No client would object to an error-free, accessible site.

What most designers concerned with selling standards are really saying is that they can't go as far as they would like to go on a particular project. For instance, they can't use pure CSS layout for a particular project because the client (or their boss) uses Netscape 4, whose CSS support is patchy at best. That might be true, but it is no reason not to write valid markup and correct CSS and use the Two-Sheet method described in Chapter 9 to deliver an acceptable and branded look and feel across multiple browser generations.

My agency is religious about web standards and accessibility but not about which methods we use or where they fall on an imaginary Standards Purity continuum. We use the method that best suits the project. To sell it, we do two things:

  • In our proposals, we explicitly state which technologies will be used, keeping the description simple and straightforward. For instance, “XHTML 1.0 Transitional, a current standard, will be used for markup.” After the client has agreed to the proposal and signed the contract, “permission” to use the indicated standard has been granted, and further hand wringing is not needed. Where a choice will impact the visual result in older browsers, this is also explicitly stated in the proposal.

  • As work begins, in showing various stages to the client, we keep technological discussion to a minimum—even when dealing with a technologically savvy client. When delivering a redesign that is one-third the bandwidth of its predecessor and that retains formatting (even advanced formatting), no matter how many times it is changed or updated, we don't say, “CSS makes this possible.” We say, “We've set up a system that protects formatting and is low bandwidth.” If the client thinks we're smart and chooses to grant us more business, we can live with that.

Let Your Work Do the Selling for You

When Hillman Curtis, Inc. and Happy Cog collaborated on the Fox Searchlight Pictures site relaunch, our primary client contact was an experienced web designer and developer. Yet some of the hybrid CSS/table methods we used were new to him. “The site is so fast,” he continually marveled, and we let him do so. We naturally included a style guide upon final delivery, and that style guide was explicit in its coverage of the site's technical aspects. But by that point, there was no need to sell what we had done because the results had already done the selling for us.

As you become known for doing this kind of work, clients will seek you out because of it, and you will have even less selling to do. Although Happy Cog is agnostic about hybrid versus pure CSS layouts, all my personal sites use CSS layout and increasingly so do my agency's smaller sites. We have even found it easier to do some design exploratory work in CSS instead of Photoshop; it's easier because it saves time and steps.

A recent project for our Clear Channel Entertainment client required several design variations, as most projects initially do. “By the way, these are CSS layouts,” we informed the client. “I know that,” he said. As these methods become normative (prompted in part by their adoption on commercial sites like ESPN.com, DevEdge, and Wired.com and on government and public sector sites as discussed in Chapter 4, “XML Conquers the World [And Other Web Standards Success Stories]”), they will increasingly go without saying—as using GIF or JPEG images presently goes without saying.

Selling In-House

I've described what happens at a for-hire web agency, but the same goes for in-house work. Try to avoid bogging down in discussions of baseline browsers and other old-school issues. Choose appropriate specifications, describe them briefly in the documentation your boss requires, and get busy.

Two years before writing this book, I lectured to a group of web developers at a large U.S. government organization. They were interested in web standards but bemoaned the agency's reliance on an old, noncompliant browser, which some believed made it impossible to use standards internally. (The belief was unfounded. Remember: Web standards are a continuum.)

While writing this introduction, I revisited the agency to deliver another little talk and found that the climate had changed. Most seats at the agency were now using Netscape 7. A few were still using Netscape 4 because some in-house applications had been built to take advantage of document.layers, the force behind Netscape 4's proprietary DHTML, and these applications were considered essential to some team members. But instead of throwing up their hands in defeat, attendees at the lecture wanted to discuss how they might migrate these applications to the W3C DOM.

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