Trip Report

After much travel chaos, I’m home safe and sound after Web Directions North.

I’ve been to a number of conferences, but I don’t remember the last one that I enjoyed as much as this. There were a lot of great sessions, like Cameron Adams‘ full-day JavaScript workshop, and Brian Fling‘s Mobile Web presentation (did you know more people have access to the web via a mobile than people who have access via a desktop?), but the huge take-away for me was Andy Clarke‘s full-day workshop, “Transcending CSS”.

I wasn’t expecting much out of the CSS workshop, honestly, because there isn’t too much about CSS that I don’t already understand — but Andy’s workshop focused on thinking differently about using CSS, and composing meaningful markup. We spent a lot of time reviewing traditional web design workflow, and why/how to move to more progressive, browser-oriented techniques, and somewhere between the two topics I realized why I’ve had such design ennui when it comes to my own projects.

When I was younger and much more prolific (in my design prime, so to speak), I didn’t know nearly as much about web design, or html/css as I do now. I didn’t really know how difficult a design would be to markup or implement, and I never stopped to consider how I was going to manage the content itself once the code was done. I’d design the site in Photoshop, and I’d start hacking together code to try to get it to look right in a browser. Along the way, I’d run into a problem getting the design to display faithfully — maybe a limitation of HTML or CSS, maybe a gap in my own knowledge, maybe a weird IE rendering bug — and I’d have to find a way around the issue, which generally involved modifications to the design or rewriting most of the code.

This would happen a lot (just how often depended on how complex the site was, but a dozen times or so per site is a safe estimate), and each time this happened, the design and code evolved further away from the original concept. In other words, problem solving had become part of the creative process, and my design was being informed not just by my own ideas, but also by the limitations of browser rendering engines.

This doesn’t happen anymore for my personal sites. When I design a site in Photoshop, I’ve got a solid understanding of what is and is not possible. When I run into implementation problems, my understanding of XHTML/CSS is such that I can almost always solve them, and I end up with a fully validated design that looks exactly like the Photoshop. And that’s a great thing, if you’re a consultant and you have client sign-off on a mockup, but I’ve realized that this has robbed my sites of the things that keep me interested in them. My creative process for personal sites ends at Photoshop, now, and doesn’t carry any further than that.

I believe design is problem solving, not art. When I design a site and there’s no creative problem-solving process involved, I end up with something that I think is very pretty, but completely lifeless and boring, and I abandon it immediately.

The trick is now to translate this new knowledge into a new creative process.

Personal epiphanies aside, it was incredible to spend a week chatting, learning, (and drinking) with so many people whose work I’ve followed (or idolized) over the years, like Dave Shea, Matt Webb, or Jeffrey Zeldman. (It was like a Maschinenfest for web geeks, in that sense.)

Twelve or thirteen years ago (half a lifetime away), when I was a Very Small Jairus, and first trying to learn learn HTML, I didn’t understand how any of it was put together. The markup part was easy (I was a fairly competent C++ programmer, writing System 7 apps), but the design element of it was frustrating and confusing. How come the page didn’t look the same on Windows as it did on MacOS? Why doesn’t this tag do the same thing on two different browsers? I didn’t get it.

There were six or seven big names on the web at the time, and I emailed them all. I told them that I was trying to learn HTML, none of it made any sense to me, and (heh) could I please rip off their websites to build my own so that I could figure out how the fuck any of it worked.

The only person who emailed me back was Jeffrey Zeldman, and he said “Of course you can — go ahead and rip the code off, that’s what it’s there for”. And I did, and I ended up making my first website based off of the code and layout of his site. And honestly, if he had never emailed me back, I don’t know if I would have kept bashing my head against the keyboard until everything started to make sense; so it was very important to me that I had the chance this week to thank him in person for this, and I did.

I’ve been posting a lot of photos from this trip to my Flickr account, but the photo I posted earlier from the top of Blackcomb is the only Whistler photo I’m going to put online. The vastness and scale of the mountains are awe-inspiring, and it’s completely impossible to capture that in film. I took dozens of photos, but on a computer screen they’re just a bunch of snow covered rocks, and not the mountains that I spent two days on.

10 thoughts on “Trip Report

  1. Welcome back, Web Lord.

    Missed you this past week. I actually made it out to Industrial Strength Tuesday and realized at the last minute that you and your infectious grin would not be there.

  2. PS: Since I seem to spend a bunch of time reconnoitering code for our new sites, could you keep me in the loop regarding local web conferences that might be a little n00b friendly? I’m not a n00b, but my skills mostly predate CSS for instance.

  3. This is probably the best place to start — but I will keep my eyes open for you.

    I’ve been thinking about maybe putting a small local conference together, actually.

  4. “My creative process for personal sites ends at Photoshop, now, and doesn’t carry any further than that.”

    I didn’t see the words Flash or Actionscript anywhere in this post, but I have a feeling your version of the web is entirely unproprietary.

  5. True that. I haven’t touched flash in a very long time. XHTML/CSS/JS is where I do most of my presentation-layer work these days. Mostly PHP on the server side.

  6. Jai, I am super excited for you. This trip was exactly the thing you needed after a rough winter. Your pictures of the Van Aquarium were so inspiring. I forwarded the flickr link to a friend who was having the worst time last week. You really moved them.

    And, you have officially added that place to the list of places that I must see.

    Hugs and rest up in inspired land

  7. ok you *nix fu ninja…
    Now I realise that you are in my province~!
    I know that it is unreasonable for you to reach my location, and that is unfortunate. I am about as far as you can get from the lower mainland without going north. In the middle of the mountains. Kootenay style.
    C’mon… you know you have to see Nelson, BC before you die. It’s kind of like Amsterdam, only smaller, and Canadian, and without the legal prostitution.

    Peace and love Jai,
    ~ TeYe.

    ps. Whistler is `leet

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