Web Standards and Responsive Typography — an Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman

Dubbed King of Web Standards by Business Week, Jeffrey Zeldman publishes A List Apart, runs a web design conference An Event Apart with Eric Meyer and is the founder and chairman of the digital design studio Happy Cog™ in partnership with Greg Hoy.

The interview was conducted by Nick Sherman at TypeLab on June 13, 2015. The website is part of Typographics TypeLab and is a demonstration of what can be done with web typography within 24 hours. Download the video file of the interview with Jeffrey Zeldman.

How it all began…

I was in advertising, because I failed at a bunch of other things, and advertising seemed like the place where a person that could do a little visual something, a little verbal something, and had ideas to earn a living, which is better than stealing… and it got me to New York. … I had a Creative Director once. He was super tough and he never told you he liked you. If he smiled that meant you didn’t completely sucked. He smiled about once a year — and you lived for that and worked around the clock for that.

I was in
for 10 years
because I didn’t
it Enough

Warner Brothers was a client, it was 1995, there were about to put up Batman Forever. At the time, Netscape 1.1 just come out. They came to the agency and asked us if we could make a website and we basically lied and told them yes.

we were inventing
layout and using
Times New Roman
this was before

Q: When you were making this stuff, did you ever think it would become a business or did you just like making it?

I would say I loved it, and just wanted to keep doing it — like I was into music: making records and being on tour. … I’d always been a freelancer, even before coming to New York. … The first I made as a freelancer was “Jeffrey Zeldman Presents”, which made no sense. I was blogging but I also did whatever I could to entertain.

Web standards

Because I had a blog, because I was used to writing (and wasn’t self-conscious about it), I had a following and started to meet other people that also had a following…

Around 1997, there were this different mailing lists and the people would flame each other (like conservatives and liberals). It was really frustrating when I wanted to learn and wanted share what I was learning (I was already writing tutorials as well).

You gotta
it away to
keep it

If I’m learning I gotta give that away. And in 1997 we started this mailing list called A list apart — a curated mailing list. Everyone can send in their letters and we would look for themes… So it’s kind of a like a crowd-sourced e-mail magazine.

This was silly
we were spending time doing
different versions of this site
rather than using this
to focus on
focus on
and focus on

The standards at the time were very passive and they were basically purely recommendations.

decided to make a

There is this story about Tom Cruise. You’re driving and there’s a crash. You pull over. You see someone hurt, but there’s nobody else, so what do you do? You end up pulling the person out of the car. That’s what we did with web standards. There were so many much better qualified people to write the web standard project… But no one was doing anything or even cared (because they were making money doing websites in four different ways).

Q: What was the turning point when all of the browsers came on board?

There was a lot of resistance, but one thing that happened which was very fortunate for me… Microsoft was on trial for Monopoly and everyone was really excited… Luckily for me, very lazy tech journalist thought my story was part of that story (Microsoft monopoly trial). And the next thing that happened — Microsoft came on board. They said: we want to support web standards.

We started
rather than

… suddenly, the IE on the Mac was a better browser…

Then we needed to get designers on board. (they were into Flash)

I remember a period around 2000 when I felt like an idiot. I was making very lagorious site where I had some control over leading and font size and some control over margins and paddings… and my friends were making this amazing things that got into the Museum of Modern Art. I felt like an idiot, saying HTML guys, HTML guys… But, luckily… [smiles]

Current issues

The problems now are old versions of Android and feature phones (which are still all over the world). We’re in a culture where everyone we know has an iPhone unless they’re a rugged individual that has the latest Android.

The other issue is email. The [e-mail] clients are in the 1790s. … I use Mailchimp a lot and another good company is Campaign Monitor — that has the mail standards right. And they’ve been doing this for four years, and I don’t have time to be in the trenches with them on this.

Q: Why do you think the web standards evolved at a different rate than email standards?

Amazon came along, and people realized — I can sell stuff online. After that crash we got excited about blogging. And after that we got excited into web 2.0 (what ever the hell that means). … A lot of this aren’t as important as if something breaks when someone is making a $1,000 transaction online.

design was a really
response to

We had delusions about users catching the train that just need quick information vs. the browser user at their desktop, who needs to see giant full screen images. This wasn’t working.

Do you ever miss that delusional baseline when you just thought everything was 1024x768 and I’m going to set type in pixels. I have absolute control. I miss that sometimes.

Because it seemed like we finally got the ability to do the layouts like in print and that’s when it was taken away. We fought for 15 years to have the same control as in print and then we realised we can’t do this that way.

Q: It seems like the web standards weren’t a technical thing, they were a political issue?

We were talking about real type on the web about three or four years before Typekit arrived. But only after Typekit was a product the [type] community had to say — OK this is real now.

Promoting web typography

Give talks, write articles, contribute to W3C list and if you find anyone there listening to you — talk to them. Get them thinking about the problem. Be the person thinking about the problem.

Q: What excites you?

I’m trying to understand where my conference is going right now. When we started, it was for people that make websites. They were designers first. But the world is changing around us, and there is this huge army of people being trained now in their early 20s who are learning coding, but I don’t know if they’re learning designing, or progressive enhancement. I don’t know if they’re learning web standards, so how do we reach them? How do we help them make meaningful contributions?

I’m kinda excited about AB testing.

Because for years I’ve always believed — of course you need research, of course you’re trying to solve the user’s problem, but you are a designer, and you know the right solution. And now I’m finding out that I need to test things.

How can we do
and not

How can you be sensitive to architecture and not know anything about type? Or not hire someone? Listen, when I suck at something I hire someone. Designers work so cheap. That’s one of the tragedies of our business. Hire someone with talent that can make something readable. But they don’t.

Q: The main thing you’re talking about is making a readable paragraph on whatever screen you’re reading it on and we don’t have tools to do that. Of all the things — we have fonts to do that. But we’re still at the point of putting ink on paper, that’s the starting point.

There’s this hack (moltenleading.com) with responsive typography, where — as the measure changes the leading changes. Basic stuff like that, but we don’t have that!

Q: Is responsive design an opportunity for advertiser to step back and be more classy?

With A list Apart we have sponsored sections — and it makes perfect sense. But we have been trained not to look at the top, not to look at the sidebar.

Q: What should students in 2015 learning web design be introduced to first?

They need to learn HTML and CSS; they need to learn the basis of design (even if they are not going to do design); they need to learn about typography; about mobile first and responsive design. I publish a series of books (A Book Apart), there are also excellent O'Reilly books, Five Simple Steps; there’s a lot of websites — Smashing Magazine has some great articles, A list Apart, keep up with all of that, blogs. And, go to the meetups! Go to events like this (Typographics), and if you don’t have money go to events like this, go to any events.

You learn from the
you work with
from people that are
than you
and from people that are
than you

You gotta be surrounded by a bunch of different people, the more people you’re surrounded with — the bigger chance you’ll learn something.

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