Zeldman on Web and Interaction Design

Web design news and insights since 1995

He Built This City: The Return of Glenn Davis 20 May 2022, 3:02 pm

You may not know his name, but he played a huge part in creating the web you take for granted today. 

As the first person to realize, way back in 1994, that the emerging web could be a playground, he created Cool Site of the Day as a single-focused blog dedicated to surfacing interesting sites, thereby demonstrating the web’s potential while creating its first viral content. (As an example, traffic from his followers, or, as we called them back then, readers, brought NASA’s web server to its knees.)

He co-founded The Web Standards Project, which succeeded in bringing standards to our browsers at a time when browser makers saw the web as a software market to be dominated, and not a precious commons to be nurtured.

He anticipated responsive web design by more than 20 years with his formulation of Liquid, Ice, and Jello as the three possible ways a designer could negotiate the need for meaningful layout vis-a-vis the unknowns of the user’s browsing environment.

He taught the web DHTML through his educational Project Cool Site. 

And then, like a handful of other vital contributors to the early web (e.g. Todd Fahrner and Dean Allen), he vanished from the scene he’d played so large a role in creating.

He’s ba-ack

Glenn Davis wasn’t always missed. Like many other creators of culture, he is autistic and can be abrasive and socially unclueful without realizing it. Before he was diagnosed, some people said Glenn was an a**hole—and some no doubt still will say that. I think of him as too big for any room that would have him. And I’m talking about him here because he is talking about himself (and the history of the early web) on his new website, Verevolf.

If you go there, start with the introduction, and, if it speaks to you, read his stories and consider sharing your own. That’s how we did it in the early days, and it’s still a fine way to do it—maybe even the best way.

I knew Glenn, I worked with him and a lot of other talented people on The Web Standards Project (you’re welcome!), and it’s my opinion that—if you’re interested in how the web got to be the web, or if you were around at the time and are curious about a fellow survivor—you might enjoy yourself.

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Education is its own privilege 12 Feb 2022, 4:02 pm

When I think back to my college friends and me, what a beautiful bubble we lived in! Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a fancy college—it was state school, and we were all from out of state. And we certainly weren’t rich kids: my friend J came from a Lower East Side single parent family, back when the Lower East Side was the Lower East Side. 

The most comfortable of us came from middle class homes with a single professional breadwinner (engineer, dentist). Some of us had been caught in the American legal system as teenagers—although, as white teenagers, we’d had it comparatively easy. 

We’d all experienced prejudice, not only witnessing bigotry against friends, but coming up against it ourselves due to our ethnicity, or sexuality, or religion, or looks, or weight, or height, or comparative lack of athletic prowess, or disability, or the way we thought, or the way we talked, or what part of our town we lived in, or because we did well on tests, or because we did poorly on tests, or because of some other thing, or (usually) some multiple of the above. 

In Pittsburgh, where Cadillacs were called Jew canoes, the kids who tolerated me in ninth grade called me Mini Kosher, and I was subjected to daily humiliations until I proved myself by getting arrested and becoming a low-level pot dealer. But I digress.

We weren’t rich or cheerleaders or jocks (not that those kids don’t have problems of their own), and we weren’t the kind of white kids White America approved of, but we were privileged as hell not only by skin color, but also because we were educated. 


Education should be a right and American public school was initially set up, however imperfectly and even accounting for the racial segregation and deep unfairness of the time, to make sure everybody, at least in principle, would be educated enough to read books, understand political issues sufficiently to participate in America’s representative democracy, take care of their children, earn a living, grill hot dogs in summer, and pay taxes—the good life. 

For the luckiest, those whose families cherished learning, those whose parents read to them, those who looked forward to a Saturday library visit to pick out new books to read (novels and history books and science books and science fiction novels and fantasy stories and books about insects and books about reptiles and books that shed at least some light on the thrilling secret mysteries of adult relationships)…

Those who understood how to take tests so as to do well in school (which is a completely different thing from learning and retaining information), those whose parents encouraged reading and learning and cared and asked about grades and teachers, those with parents at least one of whom had time to spend with them, making them feel loved and safe, those who came from cultures where learning was cherished, so that their aunts and uncles talked about art and science and politics, and not just ball games and recipes…

Those whose families strenuously opposed all racial and religious bigotry, who taught their kids to stand up for the underdog, those who taught their children to approach all others with love and respect (even when, in reality, approaching everyone with love and respect means you sometimes get bullied and ridiculed, because some people are damaged and hateful and will see your humanity as a weakness)…

Those whose families (like all families) were far from perfect, but who somehow, despite failings and tragedies, instilled a love of learning or blew on a spark that was already present…

…So that their kids could do well enough in high school to attend a college, even if they really wanted to run away and join a rock and roll band…

And whether or not it was the most expensive or most competitive college in the land (it wasn’t), it was a place where they’d encounter other smart kids from different backgrounds and discover Truffaut and Bergman and stay up all night enthralled by great ideas or ridiculing them, cracking each other up, sleeping together, experiencing new levels of romance and heartbreak, discovering possibilities.

The ultimate privilege: having a sufficiently educated background to discover possibilities and think for yourself.

If only we all had that.

For Judith

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Walking Through Fear 3 Feb 2022, 6:07 pm

I used to medicate my anxiety by drinking, but that was not good for me, my friends, girlfriends, family, coworkers, liver, or wives, so I stopped.

One way I manage anxiety today is by avoiding or delaying indefinitely the tiny tasks that stress me out—tasks other people do without blinking. Like checking my postal mail. The mail carrier used to think I was away from home, traveling. Nope, just scared to open the mailbox.

Today, I will tackle a series of important tasks I must get done before nightfall. I cannot avoid or postpone them. I’ve already tried bargaining, rationalizing, and pleading with myself, but was unable to find a loophole. What’s gotta be, gotta be.

By the end of this day, I will have done it all.

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Gender Bias and Reputation on Stack Overflow 30 Jan 2022, 4:11 pm

This paper concludes that women are not disadvantaged by their own actions; they are penalised by a scoring structure which conceals sexism and disregarded by a masculine-majority userbase. Far from programmers’ paradise, gender-biases dictate the sharing and recognition of technical knowledge on SO.

Trouble in programmer’s paradise: gender-biases in sharing and recognising technical knowledge on Stack Overflow by S. J. Brooke

Hat tip: Shannon Smith (@cafenoirdesign).

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Fear of getting noticed 24 Jan 2022, 5:04 pm

Back when I was in advertising, one of my team’s clients was a well-known Irish Airline. They could only afford an 1/8th-page ad in the travel section of the paper. But my partners and I didn’t think creativity was dependent on budget. We were determined to deliver great ads for them—ads that would make a viewer look, even though the ad was tiny and was surrounded by other ads.

So we created a standout campaign for them—the kind that would not simply be noticed, but would also make travel-focused consumers smile and encourage them to buy tickets.

We blew up our tiny layouts and mounted the enlargements on illustration board, for an impactful creative presentation when we met to show the client the work.

The great day came. The work was good, and we had rehearsed our presentation to perfection. We booked the conference room, had the client’s favorite snacks and beverages spread out when they arrived, and sold our little hearts out as we presented.

Silence.

The lead client blinked, cleared his throat, and finally said, in a thick Irish brogue:

“I’m afraid it’s far too clever for our needs. It calls too much attention to itself on the page,” he explained—as if getting a distracted newspaper reader to notice his company’s message was a bad thing.

The lead client asked us to set “Ireland $399” in bold type, stick a shamrock in one of the 9s, and call it a day.



Fear of getting noticed is a terrible thing. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Clickbait headlines get a deservedly bad rap in digital marketing, but you know what else should get a bad rap? Blind, boring, infinitely ignorable links and titles, that’s what.

Crafting messages that get noticed and acted upon by their intended audience—the people for whom you create your company’s digital products in the first place—isn’t a crime. It’s your job.


Hat tip to Mark Mazut and Tim Irwin, my fellow passengers on the above disaster. Bit o’ nostalgia for those who remember The Ad Graveyard.

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: artist Dan Licht 2 Jan 2022, 5:09 pm

Illustration by Dan Licht: a scary cowboy smoking a stogie and sloshing his drink. His eyes are red and he looks like he's itching for a fight.
Illustration by Dan Licht
Illustration by Dan Licht.

In 1999, I had the good fortune to work alongside Dan Licht at an NYC digital startup called SenseNet, RIP. Back then, although still in his early 20s, Dan was already an accomplished art director and digital designer. Today he’s a fantastic comics illustrator, artist, and creative director. Check his recent art on Instagram and his client work at Daniel V. Licht dot com.

A heroic letter carrier is pictured sending letters on their way in this illustration by Dan Licht. The picture has a great deal of energy, and the action is all flying toward you, the viewer.
“Protect the U.S. Postal Service,” a 2020 illustration by Dan Licht.

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My First Job 22 Dec 2021, 6:30 pm

I was a teenage telemarketer. Reading from a script, I attempted to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital for Leukemia-Stricken Children. I was fired after three days for departing from the script. 

We were supposed to hard-sell, no matter what the person on the other end of the line said. But when the people I cold-called talked about their financial hardships, I sympathized, asked questions, and didn’t try to force a donation.

Our boss listened in on the calls. My empathy toward the people I called was not appreciated. 

My boss failed to see any irony in the job’s requiring psychopathically cold-hearted behavior toward some needy people in order to raise money for others.

Probably he could not allow himself to see it.

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Enabling Folks to Express Themselves on the Web: State of the Word 2021 20 Dec 2021, 4:09 pm

Screenshot of slide highlighting the four phases of WordPress Gutenberg.

Not only are we enabling folks to express themselves uniquely on the web, unlike the cookie cutter looks that all the social sites try to put you into. We’re doing it in a way which is standards-based, interoperable, based on open source, and increases the amount of freedom on the web.

—Matt Mullenweg, State of the Word 

In a live address, Automattic’s Matt Mullenweg

  • Introduces Openverse (an opt-in content commons);
  • Announces that WordPress’s beginner-friendly Learn.Wordpress.org is now available in 21 languages;
  • Philosophizes about Web3 and the “decentralized web” —which, despite big company colonization attempts, is really what the web has always been;
  • Extols the virtues of Open Source;
  • And more. 

Watch the 2021 #StateoftheWord annual keynote address on YouTube. It’s two hours long, so bring popcorn.

Selected Additional Reactions & Commentary

Hat tips to Chenda Ngak, Reyes Martínez, and Josepha Haden.

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“Like a school bus teetering on the guardrail of a bridge over a roaring river.” 18 Dec 2021, 12:42 pm

“[We are] like a school bus teetering on the guardrail of a bridge over a roaring river. The bus driver is trying to coax the children to move calmly and carefully to an exit door in the portion of the bus that is still on the bridge, but some of the children are running and jumping around because the exasperated expressions of the driver amuses them.” – Lawrence Zajac

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#SpotifyWrapped 2 Dec 2021, 2:37 pm

She’s Got It by The Leonard Simpson Duo; Mittrom by Mach-Hommy & Earl Sweatshirt; Open the Brain by Quelle Chris; Snake Oil Scientist by Marlowe; and Aunties Steak & Rice Hold the Cabbage by Camoflauge Monk (from Chopin Prelude in E Minor by Les Baxter). #SpotifyWrapped

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Blue Beanie Day 2021 30 Nov 2021, 1:37 pm

Photo of astronaut David Bowman from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 wearing a blue beanie in support of web standards.

Blue Beanie Day in support of web standards is celebrated around the world on November 30. Hey, that’s today.

So how can you help? Glad you asked! Take a self-portrait wearing a blue beanie (toque, tuque, cap) and post it to your website and social media channels with the hashtag #BlueBeanieDay.

And for that extra extra, slap a blue beanie on your web and social media avatars, as well.

Do this on November 30 as a reminder to design accessible, web-standards-based websites 365 days a year. Thank you. Love you.

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DOOMSDAY 31 Oct 2021, 3:28 pm

R.I.P. MF DOOM

One year to the day since he left us.

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My Night With Essl 13 Oct 2021, 3:32 pm

Mike Essl and I discuss his portfolio.
Mike Essl and I discuss his portfolio on Night 2 of An Event Apart Online Together Fall Summit.

Herewith, a scene from last night’s interview with legendary web & book designer (and Dean of The Cooper Union School of Art) Mike Essl, who shared his portfolio, career highlights, early web design history, and more. Fun!

If you get a chance to meet, work with, or learn from Mike, take it. He’s brilliant, hilarious, warmly human, and one of the most creative people you’ll ever have the good fortune to know. 

Mike Essl

So ended Day 2 of An Event Apart Online Together Fall Summit 2021. Day 3 begins in less than two hours. You can still join us … or watch later On Demand.

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A little vitreous humor 7 Jul 2021, 3:23 pm

Vitreous humor lines the backs of our eyeballs. We are born with a full supply of the stuff, but as we age, it begins to dry out or evaporate or some damn thing—the ophthalmologist shining a beam into my eye wasn’t overly explicit on this point. 

Sometimes the stuff detaches and comes to the front of the eye. It can be discolored, particularly if the detached part used to be close to the optic nerve. The result is a vitreous floater, which is like having a microscopic slide of an insect’s leg in front of one of your eyes. One eye sees the world. The other eye sees the world but also sees the microscopic slide of the insect’s leg. 

At times the “slide” moves around. At night there can also be white flashes that go off every two minutes or so—spaced just far enough apart to work like Chinese water torture.

The ophthalmologist told me it’s caused by aging, it happens to most people eventually, and there’s nothing doctors can do about it, other than monitor the situation to make sure it doesn’t get worse—because if it gets worse, that could be a sign of something more serious.

The ophthalmologist at the space-age eye hospital told me that over time I would see less of it, or learn to ignore it, or something—he wasn’t overly explicit on this point.

I’m to go back and see him again in a month.

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Not one of us 26 Jun 2021, 11:04 pm

Even people who didn’t get deathly ill. Who aren’t still struggling to recover. Who didn’t lose a loved one—or more than one. Who didn’t bear the brunt of it because of their race and class. Who didn’t lose a job because of it. 

Those who didn’t miss out on senior year. Or the play. Or the prom, quinceanera, or bat mitzvah. Those who didn’t sit alone for months. Didn’t shutter their family’s business. Didn’t die of a curable disease because the hospital was full. 

Even those who had enough to eat and someone to talk to. Who did not lose their homes. Those whose animals survived. 

Even the lucky ones who had internet access and books and music. And who, when a vaccine came along, had access to it, and were not dissuaded by madness.

Even the most privileged among us are living with trauma.

Not one of us has escaped. Not one is unchanged.

Take a moment to be gentle with yourself, and with all whom you encounter. Even the monsters are crying inside.

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The ship and the city 8 Jun 2021, 1:09 pm

I DREAMED I’d boarded a ship that was slowly making its way to an exotic vacation locale, somewhere on the other side of the world. I’d bought a giant new steamer trunk for the voyage. I thought I’d have a cabin to myself, but, below decks, the ship was like a passenger train, with row upon row of seats. Voyagers had to sleep sitting up in these seats, and we had to hunt for a vacant seat. At first, I had a row of seats to myself, but I realized that the remaining seats would soon be filled, and perhaps by a group of noisy, aggressive people who knew each other. I’d be the odd one out. So I moved into an occupied row, next to a Japanese passenger who was already half-asleep, his hat pulled halfway down over his eyes, and was traveling by himself, like me. My arrival woke him, slightly, and he nodded to acknowledge me, then closed his eyes again. I realized, as I settled in beside him, each of us slouching away from the other for privacy, that I did not have my trunk with me, and did not know where it was being held. I couldn’t even be sure that it had made it onto the ship.

The ship docked at an American city for a quick break. It was a quaint old town, with buildings that seemed to date back hundreds of years, including a picturesque ruin or two. The dock was filled with similarly set-up cruise ships; this was obviously a major rest stop for the seaborne travel industry. The dock was infinite, an endless perspective of identical cruise ships, each disgorging thousands of passengers who merged into an oncoming throng. So many were coming that they raised the dust before them. I wondered how the quaint old town could possibly accommodate so many travelers.

I had wandered into the city for many blocks when I realized I didn’t have my wallet with me—it was packed in the trunk, presumably back on the ship. I came to this sudden understanding while trying to complete a trivial purchase at the register of a small store.

“I came on a ship, my wallet’s on board, perhaps we could call the ship and have them read you my credit card number?” I suggested to the frowning cashier.

“Which ship?”

I didn’t know.

“Where’s she headed?”

I suddenly didn’t know that, either.

“Look, I’m on a three-week cruise,” I said. “I don’t remember where I’m going. I don’t know why my family’s not with me.”

The embarrassing admission did little to improve my standing with the cashier.

Cross-fade.

I had given up and was trudging back to the ship when I realized I did not know where it was docked. I asked townspeople where the dock was located, but they frowned at me as if I were mentally ill or horribly disfigured, and scurried quickly away.

So I wandered, through blocks that resembled Dresden after the Allied bombardment, with no adults to be seen—only underfed, half-naked children, who darted past like hurrying ghosts, presumably scouring the bombed-out buildings for scraps of food or dry places to shelter.

Dissolve.

After hours of walking at random, I began to pass buildings that looked vaguely familiar, and thought that I must be approaching the dock again. I could hear distant gulls, their cries half-muted and oddly modulated as they echoed off the broken buildings of the old city.

If I came out upon the dock, would I remember which ship I’d been traveling on?

What was my name? Could my luggage identify me if I knew where the crew had stowed it? Could I describe my luggage to help them search for it? No, it was new and I was unfamiliar with its design. I couldn’t even remember what I’d packed, except for a faint impression that I’d stowed the contents in many small boxes inside the trunk.

But to even reach that impasse of being unable to describe my luggage, I’d have to first identify my ship, and they all looked the same. My ship might already have left. And I didn’t even know its destination.

7 June 2021

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Rediscovering music 23 May 2021, 5:31 pm

Apropos of nothing in particular, I present my all-time listening (first 5.25 rows) and more recent listening:

Drag slider: at left, my all-time listening; at right, more recent listening.

Because I’m weird that way: Sometimes I’ll listen extensively to a particular artist from my collection whom I might not have played in a while, simply to bump them higher in the mosaic or reposition them for a more pleasing composition.

If Spotify exposes you to new music, Last.fm helps remind you of great music in your existing collection that may have slipped your mind. (Not an advertisement. I use last.fm and get great pleasure from how it helps me discover and fuss with my music, as I once spent hours in the old days stacking and rearranging my LPs and tapes.)

And that’s how I stay out of the pool halls.


Public Service P.S: If you do decide to try last.fm, please, by all means, pay the small monthly subscription fee if you can. Doing so supports the under-resourced team that keeps the service going. It also removes the ads, making the site usable (the ads are a nightmare), and gives you the option to view your music as a visual grid, like those shown in my screenshots. The grid-view makes the site. It gives you, not just a visual record collection, but a visual artist collection, if you’ll allow the conceit. I love it.

An earlier version of this post also appears on my Facebook stream.

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Amplifying voices 20 May 2021, 4:42 pm

Some of the interviewees of the Technically Speaking podcast.

New episodes of Harrison Wheeler’s Technically Speaking podcast are coming, and Technically Speaking will run live interviews at San Francisco Design Week June 7–13. 

The podcast amplifies voices of underrepresented leaders who want to inspire the next generation of black and brown designers through authentic, thought-provoking, and immersive storytelling. 

Learn more on the podcast’s homepage, listen to past episodes, and sign up for the newsletter to be notified about upcoming content. 

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A thousand tiny pieces 25 Apr 2021, 5:05 pm

Snow White pushed a stack of ceramic espresso dishes off of the kitchen counter this morning, to see how many of them would smash into a thousand tiny pieces. The answer was most of them. 

I couldn’t find my broom, so I had to clean the scattered ceramic chips by stooping over a dustpan. Which made me wheeze and gasp for breath. 

So the whole thing turned out great, because I’ll be able to tell my doctor, when I see him on Tuesday for my first annual physical in two years, that my COVID long-haul symptoms have not improved one bit. Which I might otherwise have lied to myself about.

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Spring Summit 2021 19 Apr 2021, 2:51 pm

In a few hours, we’ll kick off Day 1 of An Event Apart Online Together: Spring Summit, a three-day web design conference for front-end and UX professionals, starring fifteen extraordinary speakers. If you’ve signed up to join us, I look forward to learning and chatting with you. If you can’t attend, you’re welcome to follow along on Twitter via hashtag #AEAOT.

Speakers at An Event Apart Online Together Spring Summit 2021, a UX and front-end web design conference.

P.S. Be sure to check out our Speaker Resources for attendees (and folks following along).

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