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Jeffrey Zeldman

By Jeffrey Zeldman

In this interview, Jeffrey Zeldman explains why you should use words and stories to frame an experience. He reveals his writing process and why good copy teases interest; and why making your content the focus, engages readers. Episode is brought to you by Designmodo.

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“You need to be able to express your ideas. So find a way to get your thoughts out there so you have experience articulating and defending a point of view, because that’s what design ultimately is; a point of view.”

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Jeffrey Zeldman is the founder of Happy Cog. He is an internationally known designer and writer, architect of the web standards movement, and creator of some of the web’s best-known sites and brands. He is the publisher of the web design magazine A List Apart and the co-founder of the web design conference An Event Apart.
Founder of Happy Cog
New York
University of Virginia
The Grapes of Wrath
Clean Text
Lynda Weinman
Jeffrey Zeldman is the founder of Happy Cog. He is an internationally known designer and writer, architect of the web standards movement, and creator of some of the web’s best-known sites and brands. He is the publisher of the web design magazine A List Apart and the co-founder of the web design conference An Event Apart.

Jeffrey Zeldman - Why Designers Need to Craft Words

Jeffrey Zeldman
In this interview, Jeffrey Zeldman explains why you should use words and stories to frame an experience. He reveals his writing process and why good copy teases interest; and why making your content the focus, engages readers. Episode is brought to you by Designmodo.

N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.

Can you introduce yourself?

I’m Jeffrey Zeldman. I’m the founder of Happy Cog Design Studios, a design consultancy with studios in New York, Philadelphia, and Austin in the United States. I am the author of Designing with Web Standards, the book that mainly helped people stop doing table layouts and thinking of HTML as this second class citizen garbage that was less important that code and start writing semantic markup, and using CSS for layout and all the stuff that we do today. The third edition of which I co-authored with Ethan Marcotte, a brilliant guy @beep on twitter, who’s gone onto then invent Responsive Web Design and write the article about on A List Apart and the book about that.

I’m the publisher of A List Apart the magazine for people who make websites. We’ve been doing that since 1998. For a long time we were focusing on web standards, and now we still do that of course, but it’s more holistic content strategy user experience, design, tech-pography, basically everything important that has to do with modern web design, we hope you will find here in A List Apart, alistapart.com.

I’m the co-founder of An Event Apart, a design conference for people who make websites, which spun out of A List Apart. A co-founded that with Eric Meyer and we do eight three day conferences a year so far only in the United States in major cities with some of the same people that you’ve interviewed on your show, and just leading designers and developers. It’s a conference for people who care as much about code as content and as much about design as development.

And, I co-founded a book publishing company called A Book Apart, brief books for people who make websites, with Mandy Brown, and Jason Santa Maria a few years ago and we published Responsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte and HTML5 for web designers by Jeremy Keith and lots of stuff like that.

I have a podcast called the Big Web Show.

Yes you do.

Which is Everything Web that Matters, which will be starting up again in September. I took August off because I just got back from two event A Part conferences back-to-back, one in DC, the other in Chicago, and in between I took my daughter to Disney World, so I’m tired this morning, but otherwise good, things are good. I’m back in New York and I hope that’s enough. Is that too much?

No it’s good. It’s a good background. I want to talk about something that doesn’t get covered, and that is writing for the web. I think you’re an amazing writer. It’s refreshing to read your copy. You wrote an article in 1999 titled Writing for the Web. And, I’m actually using that as the basis for this interview.

Oh my gosh.

Lets talk about Guide Copy. Do you remember what you said about Guide Copy and why that’s important?

There was a lot of emphasis in the ‘90s on making buttons and creating affordances and making it obvious through the visual structure of a page what a user was allowed to do, what they were encouraged to do hopefully what the business wanted them to do, or even more hopefully, allowing them to find their own way and do what they wanted to do on your website. But, nobody was talking much about, if at all, about the little words on the page, which were absolutely as much a part of the interface as the graphic design, and that still, 20 years later, we’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’m still judging these award winning sites. They’re fantastic.

From a visual point of view they’re all amazing and it’s really hard to distinguish between them. One thing I noticed is some of them, you get there and they immediately orient you with a sentence or two, and that sentence is fun, and sets up the brand feeling, just like the photography does, just like the graphic design does, like the type choice does. So you get there and you have to figure out, you look at the pictures and go, “These are fantastic pictures, these videos are great”. If I have the bandwidth and the time, and the interest to click your video to find out what you’re about, that’s great, but how about before I’ve expended any bandwidth, how about doing me a sentence or two that immediately orients me to the page.

When I’m making choices all through the site experience why not have copy, words, text that feels like the brand. Only recently, a few years ago, Christina Halverson really took up the charge for content strategy, and I know that’s been around for a while. She was a great advocate of it and still is. Other people have written about it and that’s fantastic and I guess that’s what I was incoherently grasping toward. I just didn’t have the words for it ironically, back in ’99 when I wrote that article, which was our websites are about words. It’s a text-based medium. HTML is text. CSS, even though it wasn’t used much at the time, was text. Whatever we were using to do the layout it was text. It’s all written information at some level. Whether it’s for the machine or the person reading it, it ought to have flavor just like your graphic design does. So, that’s what I was talking about.

Back then I don’t know if Flickr came out a few years late, I know George Oats was maybe the main writer there, you get to Flickr, Flickr.com, and it would say, “Bonjourno Jeffrey, now you know how to greet people in Italian”. It was a really nice way of providing a tiny delightful surprise on the website as part of the experience, but also it was a really nice way of subtly letting me know, it’s an international site. Because it’s a photography website.

Flickr.com is a photography website. Some of my best friends on Flickr, some of the people I follow and enjoy following, have never spoken a word of English and I couldn’t speak their language, but we can admire each other’s photographs. It’s a subtle way of letting me know, this is not a US site or a UK site, this is an international site. It’s a fun way of presenting a brand attribute.

37signals and I know you’ve interviewed Jason Fried, is another site that always, they’ve been through several changes of business model. They started as Design UX consultants, useability consultants, and they became product developers. They’re really wonderful smart people, but they always had this little touch. Even if you use Basecamp, which we use at Happy Cog, a lot of people use Basecamp. When you first got Basecamp, if you weren’t logged in, it would say, just sign in and we’ll send you right along. Instead of saying, username, password, and are still saying that too. Everyone says that, username, password. It’s boring. It’s not an experience. It’s not fun. At 37signals they would say, “Just sign in, we’ll send you right along”.

Basecamp is a project management tool first and foremost, and project management is a very challenging job for people in any field, and on the web it’s no different. It’s very challenging. You’re basically going to designers who say, I need more time, I’m not ready, I don’t want to give the client what they want, you go to the account executives, you go to client. You were in advertising right William? You’re like an account executive without power. Account executives kind of act like the boss in advertising, but a project manager on the web is like a powerless account executive that just goes to the client, “It’s not ready yet”. So, they have to be strong, they have to guide the client into making reasonable demands and expectations. They have to guide the designer and developer, and every person on the team into being on the same page. It’s a really challenging job. So, Basecamp a tool for that person first and foremost in your team. Basecamp has this delight, this little pat on the back that said, “Just sign in and we’ll send you right along”. That little piece of copy, not genius, not going to awards, nobody wants that on their grave as he wrote this, but it’s really an important part of the experience.

Like you I have a background in copywriting and advertising so I always thought the words and the pictures go together, and they’re all important it’s all important. You can’t have a good site with bad code. You can’t have a good site with bad design. You can’t have a good site with bad copy. A lot of people try. It’s the part people forget. So, guide copy is that part of the visual experience that’s purely textual. That part of the user experience that makes people have a certain feeling about and an understanding of your product, and it’s very important in everything we do at Happy Cog as a consultancy, and every site that I’ve worked on, every product that I worked on, it’s key. It’s part of establishing who you are.

I like how on Happy Cog you have this section under Work. I’m on your website now, and for the MTV, you have a button that says, “Prove it”.

Yeah thank you.

I think that is a great example of exactly what you’re talking about.

Just a tiny touch, that yes things.

Right because it could be say, “See more of our case study”. It could be something quite clinical.

And nobody wants to read your case study. I think a lot of it is about seduction and persuasion. If you say, look at our case study. It’s like why? You’re so boring why would I do that? It’s like imagining going on a date and saying, “Hi I’m a good provider, I can cook an omelet, and my SAT’s really check out”. Ultimately you’re going to get through all that information if the relationship goes anywhere, but there are ways of getting through it that are much more charming than the explicit request.

How many drafts do you go through when writing?

Yeah that’s good. The best things I’ve ever written happened when I was angry or hurt or in love or thrilled by an idea and I just had to get it out there. I literally write a lot in the CMS. I write in the CMS in the browser. I don’t go through drafts in Word I don’t like that. There are certain writing tools but right now I do most of my writing in clean text, which is a Macintosh application that has no style. When I’m writing I write really quickly in a tool like that, and then basically when I think I’m nearly done, I paste that first draft into WordPress or Expression Engine or whatever and then I look at it in the sight layout. I see it the way it’s going to look to people. I don’t obviously look at it in every possible responsive configuration. I just pick one or I look in a couple. I’m not trying to typeset. I’m not changing copy length for every possible view because in the response world that’s impossible. It was always really impossible because you never know if someone’s installed a much larger font or set a preference to have much bigger type or whatever some users do.

I look at it the way most people will see it because the layout and the words work together. It’s very important. I could never write an ad without first doing a layout or having a partner create a layout. You have to know what you’re writing for. It’s the same again with the website, you have to know what you’re writing for and you design for the words and you write for the design. So, my process is that I look at it and as I read it in the layout I suddenly see all the stupidity in my writing, the redundancy, the things I don’t need to say, the opening paragraph that’s like clearing my throat.

When it’s in the layout I can go back and remove the unnecessary and change things. So I’ll go through a couple of revisions like that if it’s my personal site, and then I’ll hit publish. To me it’s about throwing it out there, like vomiting it up, going back and cleaning it up quickly, and then putting it out there. Then, just like with the website where you push your product out and then you begin fixing it. You begin aerating on it like two days after the launch or maybe immediately after the launch. I do the same thing with the writing. I will go back and go, “Oh I didn’t need this or that was incorrect, or this word could really use a link”. I still fine-tune it even after the first few hundred people are reading it.

Why does looking at the layout help you edit?

It’s not real until it’s in the format that people are going to see it in. I need to see it the way people will see it. I think there’s also an alienation affect. A slight alienation effect for a writer, which helps you see your errors.

You know how in traditional publishing someone prints out what you’ve written. Surely you’ve seen this with clients too, where they approve copy when it’s copy. Then they see it in the ad and they go, “Oh we can’t say that. How come you didn’t?” We used to have this thing in advertising where we go, “Oh gosh couldn’t you have seen that before we spent thousands of dollars producing this?” That answer is they couldn’t. They had to see it the way the audience was going to see it for the errors to standout for the self-indulgence to standout or the unstudied repetition.

Repetition of words is a great rhetorical strategy. Good writers repeat a lot. I remember when I was a kid and had teachers saying never use the same word twice in a paragraph and all that, that’s not true at all. There wouldn’t be Charles Dickens if that were true. You can repeat and repeat if you know what you’re doing and have control. It’s like every other rule they’re great for beginners and they’re great for beginning to understand how the medium works and then you break them all.

I do this all the time, where I use the same word without thinking about it because I’m being lazy because I’m not being specific enough. When I write quickly, when I write these first drafts, when it spews out there’s an inherent laziness in my thinking as my unconscious is racing ahead of my ability to describe what I want to describe, and it goes, yeah that’s the word, that’s close enough, that’s the word. When I go back and see it set in type, I go, “Ooh, ow, yeah. Did I really mean yet. There’s a lot of lazy words too that we use all the time that are fine in speech but don’t necessarily help us.

Do you think designers need to learn how to seduce more through their writing?

If I couldn’t write we might still be doing table layouts or doing everything in flash. If I couldn’t write I might be designing catalogues. Not that there’s anything wrong with it but I’m pretty sure that my success on the web has not been because I’m the greatest designer who ever lived. Almost everyone who’s ever worked for me I feel is a better designer than me. I’m always just in awe of the talent of the people I work with. They amaze me and I feel like design is brutally hard for me. I feel like I suck at it and I have so much shame and seriously design is so hard for me. When I do something pretty good, I’m so excited briefly before I become despondent again. I give up too easily. I think that’s it I’ve done it and a week later I realize no, I almost did it, I came close.

That’s why I’m talking about writing with you, because when I’m going through your work that’s what stands out.

It’s always been about passion and persuasion making people care. That’s true in every art form. Have you seen the show Mad Men?

Of course yeah.

So if I told you there’s a show about a guy who can’t be faithful to his wife who drinks too much, would you want to watch it, or, a guy who’s pretending to be someone else and totally lies about his past. That actually sounds like you may watch it, but an alcoholic womanizer doesn’t sound like anything you’d care about and yet that show you care profoundly and you root for this guy. I remember like in one of the seasons he was cheating on his wife and his girlfriend was waiting in the car, and the wife was almost going to go out to the car. I was like don’t let her go out to the car. I’m thinking man I would never cheat on my wife, why am I rooting for this guy? He’s a bad guy. But I still didn’t want him to get caught. It’s like a gangster movie. Why do you love that gangster? They make you care.

How do you make people care when they land on your site? How do you have that connection?

There’re a couple of things. You talked about wit. I think wit is a nice way of removing the boring quality. Story telling and personal experience. I think after the Beetles breakup some people picked Paul McCartney as their favorite and some people picked John Lennon, and Paul McCartney was much better at songwriting. He was doing all this amazing stuff in the studio and writing these 72 part songs with 15 hooks in every verse. John Lennon was writing almost proto punk rock. Really simple songs with just guitar and drums, but they were about his emotion. They were confessional. Whatever you think about that, and Dylan did one, Blood on the Tracks, which I only just discovered because I didn’t really grow up listening to him. I only just discovered that it was like there’s something about raw true emotion that’s really important.

Revealing that you’re human and showing at least a little bit about the personality or struggles behind, creating a persona. Fiction writers involve us by creating imaginary characters who we fall in love with, like Harry Potter. That’s great. Well I can’t do that but I can maybe give a little insight about some things I’m struggling with or things that I’m proud about.

One of the first times I was ever asked to speak publicly, the first time was in Istanbul, which is crazy, I hadn’t even been anywhere but Canada and all of a sudden I was in … well, anyway, I was invited to Turkey to speak. The second time I was invited, Jim made a speech at a conference called Web Design World in Denver Colorado, so I wrote a 30-page speech because I wanted to make sure I had something important to say.

Jeff Bean who now runs Adobe Cloud, he’s been around forever doing amazing stuff on the web, Jeff Bean was one of the speakers and he took me out to have a meal the night before. He said, “What’s this? What’s that in your pocket?” I said, “Oh this is my 30 page speech that I’m going to make tomorrow”. He said, “You don’t need that. Just tell stories”. So I threw it out and I got up on stage without that speech. Having written it I knew the points I wanted to make but I made them by telling stories and it was much more effective and I’ve never looked back. It’s basically what I do now. Can you do it on your website? I think you have to. You’re always defining the story. Not we made a new website for MTV, but what was MTV trying to achieve, and how did we help them achieve it? Not metrics although that’s great if you have it and you can certainly do supportive like, “Wow we doubled their traffic, or we doubled conversion”.

Those stories are always good to have. Businesses want those but I think you still have to make it not boring. Make it a story. Make it a journey. You actually went down a journey when you met the client and learned about their business and struggled with something. Maybe you had difficulty with them at some point and a lot of stuff happened. Maybe there were arguments, and there was learning on both sides, and there were hugs. Then the puppy ran away. There’s lots of stuff that happened and then you forget that and you’re like, “Well that jobs done”. And you say, “We increased traffic by 4%”. Who cares? Get back to the story. Get back to what did you admire about them. A lot of times when we choose a client it’s because like Zappos, it’s because of their service is fantastic.

You don’t always get to choose your clients. Sometimes you take a job to take a job but in the client services industry, to build a decent portfolio and to build a reputation, you’re choosing as your client as much. And this was taught to me years ago, and I didn’t heed it. When you get a job, you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. Even though you need a job and you might have trouble paying your rent this month, you really need to pick the right job because it pushes you down a path, a journey.

Ultimately if you worked at five bad places you’ll never get into a good place even if you’re great even if you’re super talented, and you were the most talented person at this hack agency, then you were a talented person at this other hack agency, and you had a talented partner, and you did amazing stuff that didn’t get produced. Nobody cares. You’re just a hack. So it’s really important that you choose the right job. If you’re not happy in your job it’s important that you leave. It’s really important to choose the right client. Not just that you get along with them in meetings, although that’s important, but that you admire their goals, you admire something about them, something about what they’re doing. There’s drama to every relationship. If you can’t say something about a relationship then you really weren’t in one.

Really client services, as much as it’s about useability and research and finding out what the user wants to achieve, helping the business achieve their goals it’s really a relationship with people you don’t even know yet. Good user experience is a relationship with people you don’t know yet, and compassion for them. So if you can’t find stories in that then I don’t know. Then hire someone who can. You can always do that there’s plenty of freelance writers out there. Find someone who can.

Jeffrey lets talk about importance of content being first and I think this is illustrated through the redesign of your blog and A List Apart. I just really want to know the reason for the big typeface, and the padding, and the thought process behind that and why.

Great question. I’m so glad you asked because this is huge to me right now. Literally no pun intended. Zeldman.com the redesign on my site is like an ugly first draft of the beautiful redesign of a List Apart, and the beautiful redesign of A List Apart is by Mike Pick of Monkeydo. Whereas, I helped but it’s basically it’s by him and his partner Tim Murtaugh, and Zeldman.com is like the primitive version. It was deliberately so because I was trying to make a point.

What point were you trying to make?

I’d noticed from using Readibility and Instapaper that they were solving a problem that shouldn’t have needed to be solved at all. Readibility and Instapaper were making it possible for readers to get the content they wanted and read it comfortably on their whatever device. Even when the website put the content in tiny type interrupted by all kinds of junk that was not necessary or desirable in terms of user experience. We used to collect websites, screenshots of websites, and find what the user was looking for, and maybe what 5% of screen space was the content the user actually came for. Some of it was ads and some of that you can’t get rid of. Some of it for economic reasons you can’t get rid of. A lot of stuff a lot of needless navigation, and a lot of brand elements that aren’t helping at all were part of web design. It really started for me with Mark Bolton of the UK, had written an article on Doing Responsive Design from the Content Out. He meant designing flexible layouts with columns and breakpoints that were based on the character of the type. The character of the type rather than set to a specific device, because of course you can’t keep track, there’re too many devices. There’s like 7 thousand kinds of Android right now, so you’re trying to set your break points according to anything other than the content, it’s not going to make any sense at all it’s not going to work.

So, he’d written this article, and Jeremy Keith had written a piece called Content First where he was talking about using the content to set the break points, and I loved that but I thought we could go further because these gentlemen are still talking about layout and that’s fine, but lets actually talk about the content the user came to experience. I started thinking about interaction design and the job of an interaction designer as getting the right user to the right content at the right time, so it’s content and context. I’m not here to decorate. I’m not here to hit something with the pretty stick at the last minute. I’m also not here just to make great wire frames. I’m here to make sure a person can interact with the content they came for with minimum distraction. I also again, going back to Readability and Instapaper, I really enjoyed reading in those formats. Even on a well-designed site I somehow preferred having all the extraneous things removed and just focusing on the pictures and story, which is what Instapaper and Readability allow you to do.

In Instapaper’s case it was initially created by Marco for a completely different reason so he could read stuff later, so he could bookmark stuff at home when he had an Internet connection and then get on a train, and read what he wanted to read when he had no Internet connection. But it turned out a lot of people millions of people in fact, found it very useful to be able to read stuff without all the distraction. I’m on the Board of Readability, and I’m like well, I’m advising these people on how to do it. I don’t do much advising because they’re pretty smart and they’ve got a lot of stuff figured out. But I’m on the Advisory Board and yet this product shouldn’t need to exist at all. Designers should, to the extent possible make sure the content people came for is presented right up front with the minimum of distraction.

I started looking at what are the things that prevent that? What are the things in the industry that prevent that and what could we do instead? Always when you have a personal site that’s always the place to start. When you’re facing a challenge like this you start on your personal site because you have fewer client mandates there. You have no client mandates. You don’t necessarily have advertising, maybe you do, but you can decide, well I’m going to take the ads off and see what happens. I don’t mind losing money it’s just my personal site, or maybe you don’t go there. Maybe you say I was copying Jason Santa Maria and I have this giant footer, and I was copying so, and so, and I have this amazing navigation. I was copying Shaun Inman my navigation goes way down and then it comes way back up with java script and you have all those things that show that you’re a great designer, or you’re a great coder or both. But, what about the content people came to? Shaun’s great, Jason’s great, these people are great, but you can ineptly copy them too, and you can have a sidebar because when we were working on the A List Apart redesign we were talking about what should be in the sidebar. We started going, “Do we need a sidebar? Why is there a sidebar? Just because there is a sidebar?” Because that’s how websites have always been designed.

On A List Apart we write these amazing articles. Maybe we should do something to focus on the articles and remove the distractions. On Zeldman.com if it was a photography site or a portfolio site, I might have taken a different approach, when we were talking about writing, people come to my site if they come, because I write well. So, how can I make the reading experience better for them? How can I focus on that and stop inserting all these extraneous distractions merely because it’s expected of me as a web designer?

I analyzed what did I like about reading in Instapaper and Readability? What did I like about reading on the iPad? I noticed that I am very comfortable. If I’m home with my daughter who’s 8, and she wants to watch My Little Pony on TV and she wants me to sit there and “Watch it with me Daddy”. I’m a little bit bored, a little bit restless, so if I’ve got my iPhone or iPad, I can sort of halfway pay attention to the show with her and halfway pay attention to email or a social network or some work I’m doing, but I don’t feel like I’m working because the device is on my knee or in my hand. I’m not sitting up in front of a computer scrutinizing it. So I thought, what if I could make my website feel as comfortable as that? What if my website could push people back from the experience a little bit, force them to sit back the way reading on an iPad you sit back.

Reading on a Kindle, I sit back and I enjoy it because it reminds me of reading a book and reading a book doesn’t feel like work. Sitting at a desk, scrutinizing, leaning forward with my shoulders hunched and my hand hovering over a mouse, that feels like work. All that non-ergonomic stuff feels like office and cubicle and work. But I want people to really enjoy the reading experience. I want them to feel like they’re reading it on a Kindle. How can I make them feel like they’re reading on an iPad or a Kindle, like they’re reading a book or a magazine article? I said well, make the type big enough that they actually sit back.

You don’t want to look at my site and if you’re sitting forward squinting most of the time when your using the web and you don’t know why you have neck pain after eight hours in your cubicle. It’s because you’ve been squinting forward all day long looking at content. What if you came to this site and there was a little rest. You had to sort of sit back from the page just to absorb it? So I made the type so big, exaggeratedly big that you would be forced to do that and since Ethan Marcotte had created Responsive Design while at Happy Cog and had written about it for A List Apart, and A Book Apart.

Since responsive design was such a huge thing and I’d been promoting it along with Ethan, for two and a half years and been putting Ethan on in a better part. Then I said, “Okay I’m going to do a responsive design with a fixed width”, which doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s totally in denial of what Ethan was saying but I thought I’m going to make a fixed width layout so I can completely control like a good old time art director. But the type size will change depending on the viewing device, so that’s what I did. It’s always too big. Actually on an iPhone it’s kind of perfect but it’s too big on a desktop. That’s okay. I really wanted you to think. People criticized the design and said, “Your site looks really great when I look at it from across the room”. I was like, “Yeah thank you. Thumbs up. That’s what I wanted”. I don’t know if anyone got it but that was the idea.

In the meantime Mike Pick who’s a much subtler much more skilled graphic designer than I am, was working on A List Apart with some of the same thinking because I work in a shard studio space, which I have dubbed A Space Apart, because why not? So, New York Happy Cog is there but Byte Department, Monkeydo, Dinelo Black, and Font Bureau, and Bean are also there, which is a startup, so all these tiny little studios are sharing this space in Manhattan in Koreatown in Manhattan, and I sit in the same room as Monkeydo. So there’s Mike working, and there’s me working, and we’re looking at each other. We’re talking and he’s basically taking this same viewpoint but applying it with more skill. So, A List Apart became so comically big that the logo’s too big for the page and gets cropped out. That’s responsive too depending on what device you view it on. The List Apart logo is comically cropped in a different way. So, that’s fun for us.

We get a lot of people thinking it was a CSS error and when we launched the redesign, people were like, “I think there’s something wrong with your CSS, you’re cropping the logo”. This is because of the medium we’re in. If you go to People Magazine, have you ever seen that? It’s a big seller in the US, and they have Brad Pitt on the cover, Brad Pitt’s head is completely covering everything but P and E in the People logo, but nobody thinks the photographer made a mistake. Nobody thinks that the art director had a transparency problem in photoshop. Everyone knows that it’s art direction. When we do it on the web people assume it’s a CSS layout problem. I don’t know why. I guess because we’re all mindful of how fragile layout on the web really is. Even now, CSS layout as good as browsers are, is till a hack because we use floats and CSS was never designed for a layout. It was really just designed for type and color. It’s only now the new Flexbox and stuff like that where they’re actually, the framers after 20 years, the framers of CSS are finally thinking about what page layout.

Anyway, we went through the simplest layout we could, the most book-like layout we could because for us, both at Zeldman.com, and especially at A List Apart, the writing’s really good and people want to … again I’m saying the writings really good on A List Apart, and the articles are really well edited on A List Apart. We have amazing editors. We want to make it big and impactful and let you focus on that and we actually found that even when we reduced the size of other elements they didn’t suffer in fact they got better.

So, we used to have relative to the size of the content we had buttons at the bottom, like retweet and share and comment. We found that commenting and retweeting were falling off over the years but when we redesigned and made the comment and retweet, we removed the graphic buttons completely and just made tiny little links and tucked them in a corner of the page. It still went up because of the position. If you remove elements and then you have to put some of them back in, but you put them back in the right place, you won’t suffer at all. You’re still not distracting the reader. You’re still letting the reader have this really beautiful experience but you’re keeping the other functionality of the site available. You’re just removing it from the reading experience.

We did this and people made fun of it but then USA Today came out with a layout where it was big content first almost everything extraneous removed, and the New York Times new layout which they’re still rolling out in Beta, so you may go in and see the normal New York Times layout, or you may see the Beta depending on where you are and what your relationship with the New York Times is, and a whole lot of complexity I can’t even begin to fathom. But the new layout for the New York Times is content first, big type, big photos, almost everything extraneous removed. So it’s not just for blogs and it might not work for a travel site or an airline ticket site. For sites that have content, university sites, magazine sites, news sites this seems like the way of the future. Again, not just blogs but New York Times, USA Today, Medium, so I think this is where things are going for sites that are primarily content focused. We have to find other ways to introduce advertising or find some other way to monetize the site.

What’s the role of the designer because it seems like most of their skills are becoming redundant in a sense that maybe five years ago before content first surfaced, their job was there to decorate?

To decorate you’re quite right. There were two kinds of designers back then. There was the person who wire framed, who really figured out the user experience, and that was a designer. They might not call themselves that but that was a designer. Then at the last minute the designer end quote was there to pick colors or negotiate with the client over typefaces. All those things are important and I don’t minimize the pretty skills at all I’m in awe of the designers who have that gift along with everything else that’s required of a designer. The designer role like I said is to get the right content in front of the right person at the right time and to make it as near perfect and appropriate and aesthetic experience as possible.

I think design had gotten away from that like you said and it had turned into decorating and that’s what tools like Instapaper and Readability to me, and I used to talk about this a couple of years ago. Instapaper and Readability were saying, designers, if you don’t wake up and design for the user, you’re going to find your skills aren’t needed because people won’t care about all the work you’re doing. They’ll avoid it. They’ll use Instapaper and Readability and Pocket to see the content the way they want to see it. If you want, again this is for content sites, if you want to make sure people are reading the content, then you need to take charge of giving them the best experience possible visual and otherwise. If your boss won’t let you then you need to fight with him or get a new job. If your client won’t let you, you need a new client. This is really important. The funny thing about this kind of thing is, there’s usually pioneering things like Medium that do it first, and New York Times, and then people go oh, okay then it’s safe and now it becomes easier to sell your client. It’s now easier to sell content strategy thanks to Ms Halverson. It’s easier to sell content first design now. So go to it.

I think you have to do that. I don’t think, if there’s the implication in your question, content first means design skills aren’t needed, I think quite the contrary. Just like with book design it’s just on a much subtler level. Design is needed but now you need to know about how people read and how type works. You have all these beautiful web fonts at your disposal almost too many. What are you going to choose to do? Maybe for bandwidth reasons you have to use the fonts that come on people’s machines. That’s fine too. How can you make it beautiful and readable? How can you encourage readability, not just legibility, not just accessibility, not just useability, but readability? How can you engage the reader? We’re all very distracted and someone sends me an article. Someone could have put five years of their life into researching this article on an important news or medical topic and I’ll read two paragraphs and them I’m gone because I’m distracted.

So, how can you as a designer, seduce, engage, bring people in that much more? It turns out that you do it with type in a little bit of color in a little bit of picture and that’s okay. That’s really what design and art direction have always been about. We’re getting away from I think, reducing the graphic designer and the art director to people who make templates who decide here’s what it’s going to get poured into and I’m going to spend all my time figuring out how the drop shadow should work. We’re getting away from that, which is good. We’re getting back to the principles of design and art direction, which is wonderful.

Coming to a close now and I’ll continue with this theme of writing for the web. What is it that designers need to remember as they go back to their studios as they go back to work after listening to this interview?

Thank you. I’ve loved this interview it’s been amazing and you’re really great.

No. Advice.

Okay, okay I know, I know. I just wanted to say that before I forgot to say that. Heaven forbid.

Okay thank you.

You need to be able to express your ideas. A pretty good designer who can express ideas will actually have a better career than a brilliant designer who’s too shy. A lot of us are very shy and real introverts and it takes work to become an extrovert or to be able to front like an extrovert. I seem like an extrovert I think, but afterwards, after being with people, and I love people rather like I have to go back and take a cold bath and shudder because there’s something very private about designers. I started by drawing comics when I was a little kid. Everyone else was out playing in the sunshine and I was in my room drawing comics. I think a lot of us have this sort of shyness and if we could only just design without the client at all. If we could just do it perfectly and have the client go, “Yes, this is brilliant, I’ll buy it unchanged”. That would be ideal but that’s not the way the world works and actually that wouldn’t really work for us either because the client has knowledge that we need. The client knows their business.

If you don’t sell your best work, it doesn’t matter that you did it. Design isn’t fine art. You can do poetry and put it in a draw and it’s still poetry, and you can make paintings that never show in a gallery and they’re still paintings, and you’re still an artist. You could die starving as an artist and you’ll still be an artist. Van Goh died starving as an artist. But that’s not design. Design is business and it’s engagement. Part of that unfortunately or fortunately, is learning to deal with people and learning to listen, learning to learn from what they’re saying, listening to users and the client and being able to sell, and persuade. You can’t do that if you can’t write.

Writing is like a great practice for talking. I would have sounded one third as coherent, if I sounded coherent at all today, it’s because I’ve been lecturing and I’ve been writing so I know what I think. If I don’t write, I don’t know what I think. If I don’t write I having nothing to say as a lecturer because I’m like, I don’t know. I move stuff around. HTML. Have a nice day. I really don’t know. I’d be thinking about lunch. But because I write, I know the web standards project wouldn’t have existed, and the web standards movement wouldn’t have existed except that a bunch of us, certainly not just me, a bunch of us, really care about this stuff and articulate it. We took the time to articulate a business case and do so passionately.

That has changed the web but it also if you advocate passionately you can have a career. I didn’t know that I wasn’t even trying. I was such a reluctant capitalist. I was such a clumsy backwards capitalist. I had no idea I was going to have a career. I knew I was freelancing and I knew I could make my rent stabilize rent and buy cigarettes back in the day, because I used to be a smoker, if I could pay for cigarettes, and pay for Chinese food, that was career success to me. I didn’t have to punch a clock. That was career success.

Are you blown away by what you’ve accomplished?

I don’t think of it as what I’ve done, but yes I’m blown away but I go to the Event Apart conference and talk to people about their jobs and their lives and I look at these brilliant people like Toby and Marlena who has a birthday today, who’s our producer, Marci Eversole who’s our manager, and I go, how did this people come into my life, and how is this working? It’s amazing to me but I think it doesn’t come because people said that’s the best looking website I’ve ever seen. It didn’t come because a client said, “Whoa view source on this baby. That’s the kind of markup I want”. “Look at this CSS, it’s brilliant”. Like all those things matter, they matter, but if I wasn’t able to articulate, and persuade, I wouldn’t have sold it. I wouldn’t have sold it to a client. I wouldn’t have been able to have a website. I wouldn’t have been able to work with some genius like the late Hillman Curtis and sell web standards to Fox Studios. Fox Searchlight, which we did. That was Hillman’s genius as a designer and a talker and really that one was all Hillman because he did the same thing. Hillman is another great example of someone who had talent and is loved for that but is even more loved because they communicated.

If you can put yourself out there even though it’s hard and scary, and this is why blogging is genius because you can write even when you have no followers and that’s a good way to get in practice, to put it out there and maybe just two of your friends will initially comment. Maybe you just want to turn comments off you’re just not ready for people to comment, that’s okay too.

Speaking is the other thing. Go to meet ups. Somewhere like the web standards meet up in London is really just a booze fest but go there anyway. Even if you drink club soda, go there and talk to people. The more you talk about what you do the more you understand the same way if you teach, that’s how you understand. I never understood design until I started teaching it. The more you teach what you do, the more you understand it and the more you have the skills if you ever have a difficult client or a difficult boss you will be able to negotiate with them and have some success. You’ll be able to help them buy the right thing. If you don’t do that then you’re just afraid of confrontation and you’ll sell what they want to buy that’s wrong for them, and then you fail as a designer. Even though you made something really pretty, you failed as a designer because you didn’t sell the right work. I don’t mean to say this on a negative I don’t want to end with a negative, I want to end with a positive, its fun too.

The first time people start commenting on something you’ve written or just retweeting it on Twitter, that’s amazing. That feeling is really good. Sometimes you might work two years on a website that nobody’s going to see. That’s frustrating but you can post something to a blog and ten minutes later people are responding to it. Even if you don’t become famous for it right away or ever, it doesn’t matter. You’re articulating, you’re learning how you think. If you really have trouble with it, then help out. Help out on someone else’s webzeen but just find a way to get your thoughts out there so you know what they are and you have experience articulating and defending a point of view. That ultimately is what design is, a point of view. If you can articulate and defend your point of view and sell people on it, assuming it’s a good point of view, and the right one, then you can be a successful designer.


Welcome to Dorm Room Tycoon

Interviews that cut to the chase and extract wisdom. Learning from the most influential innovators. Hosted by William Channer.

Wisdom from all my heroes.
Derek Sivers

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