A List Apart


The ALA Primer: A Guide for New Readers

The ALA Primer: A Guide for New Readers

If you’re going to build a house—or a website—you need the right tools. A List Apart offers hundreds of articles on design, markup, style, accessibility, usability, and more. We’ve selected a few that you might want to start with. (Think of this guide as one of those reassuring brochures from Lowe’s or Home Depot, but about websites instead of ceramic tile.)

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Note: A List Apart publishes intermediate and advanced articles written for web professionals, so we assume familiarity with HTML, CSS, and concepts like usability and accessibility. If you’re looking for introductory articles, hold on for part two of this series, in which we’ll recommend resources for beginners.

Laying the foundation

If your house’s foundation is good, the house will stand for years despite the changing world around it. So, too, with websites. Here are a few of the articles that detail the theories, concepts, and practices on which much of the modern web is built.

Design theory

John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design,” is foundational because it provides an enlightened look at what web design was, what it could be, and how designers and developers could let the web be the web.

Curt Cloninger’s “Usability Experts are from Mars, Graphic Designers are from Venus” addressed the developing rift between usability experts and graphic designers in the early days of the web. This article and others like it blunted the sharp edges of controversy by encouraging visual designers and usability experts to collaborate on beautiful, usable sites.

Standards advocacy

In 2001, ALA publisher Jeffrey Zeldman wrote “From Table Hacks to CSS Layout: A Web Designer’s Journey,” a summation of his (and his friends’) foray into standards-based design. This article was important because it championed the concept of separating style and content with CSS, HTML (and later XHTML) and the DOM. Along with other articles on the subject, it inspired hundreds of designers to consider standards-based design.

In 2001, Zeldman further discussed the importance of standards-based, accessible design in two more articles: “To Hell with Bad Browsers” and “Why Don’t You Code for Netscape?”. Both articles may seem technologically outdated, but their core theories about the importance of web standards and accessibility are still relevant.

Layout and style

Mark Newhouse’s “CSS Design: Taming Lists,” was a visionary article on how to style lists for use as navigation. This topic would be extensively elaborated on and refined by other designers such as Dan Cederholm.

Suckerfish Dropdowns,” by Patrick Griffiths and Dan Webb was one of the first articles to show designers how to create CSS dropdown menu systems, a feat that was previously possible only through the use of extensive JavaScript.

Alternative Style: Working with Alternative Style Sheets,” by Paul Sowden was crucial in the advancement of standards-based design. It introduced and promoted style switching as a tangible practice, while helping to further illuminate (by example) the need for accessibility in our web designs.

Few names in modern web design are more recognizable than Eric Meyer’s. A pioneer in the realm of CSS, Eric has preached from the pulpit about CSS and standards-based design since the pulpit was built. His 2002 article, “CSS Design: Going To Print,” explained how ALA version 2 addressed the need to send a well designed page to the printer.

If walls could talk

Once the foundation is laid, it’s time to frame the walls. A List Apart publishes around 50 new articles per year, so there’s no shortage of articles to help you build the structural walls of your site. Here are a few we think every web designer should read, print, and store in a safe, dry place.

Page layout and design

  • In Search of the Holy Grail,” by Matthew Levine. Three-column fluid layouts within a standards-based design are among the most difficult to achieve. As a result, they have been dubbed the Holy Grail of web design. Numerous methods have been developed to address this design problem, but sacrifices are common in employing it. Matthew Levine produced perhaps the most compact, unobtrusive version of this process to date.
  • Exploring Footers,” by Bobby Van Der Sluis. Primarily geared towards footer positioning, this article outlines methods for improving the positioning and handling of footers and other elements with CSS.
  • Elastic Design,” by Patrick Griffiths. Patrick explores the process of elastic design in one complete package covering type, layout, and image handling.
  • Flash Satay: Embedding Flash While Supporting Standards,” by Drew McLellan. This article showed us how to embed Flash elements and still be able to call ourselves “standards compliant.” For those of us who err on the side of obsessive compulsive, it was a good thing.

Applying style

  • Invasion of the Body Switchers,” by Andy Clarke and James Edwards. This article took the powerful style switching technique introduced by Paul Sowden in 2001 and enhanced it to give the designer and user more control.
  • The Perfect 404,” by Ian Lloyd. This great little piece explored the method of creating custom 404 pages for commonly encountered problems.

Better living through server-side code

  • A Better Image Rotator,” by Dan Benjamin. This 2004 article was a follow up to Dan’s earlier article, “Random Image Rotation.” In this piece, Dan introduced a revised method of image rotation using PHP that allows the use of alt attributes and specific URLs for each image.
  • URLs URLs URLs,” by Bill Humphries. This article shows how to transform CGI-generated URLs into meaningful addresses using Apache.
  • How to Succeed with URLs,” by Till Quack.  This addendum or add-on helped us to accomplish the same process written about in “URLs URLs URLs,” using PHP.
  • Slash Forward (Some URLs are Better Than Others),” by Waferbaby. Another great in the web design world, Waferbaby’s 2002 article helped us consider the structure of our links and the importance of the trailing slash.

Worthy of special mention

A List Apart has been lucky enough to host articles by some of the best designers in the web industry. Here are a few written by designers who went on to change the web.

Douglas Bowman’s “Sliding Doors of CSS Part I and Part II” introduced us to the process of creating elegant navigation and other interface elements with semantic markup. This method has popped up on countless websites, and Doug’s gone on to do too many good things to list.

CSS Sprites: Image Slicing’s Kiss of Death,” by Dave Shea, gave us a whole new way to handle rollovers via CSS, allowing us to ditch image slicing techniques left over from table-based design. I don’t think there’s a standards-based designer out there who isn’t familiar with Dave Shea and his incredible project, the CSS Zen Garden.

Another duo of tremendous articles from Dan Cederholm—creator of Simple Bits and author of several wonderful books—were printed in ALA in 2004. “Faux Columns” breaks down the process of simulating columns through a repeated background image. “Mountaintop Corners” explores the process of creating better-rounded box corners with images and CSS.

Raise the roof

The final major step in the house construction process helps us get in out of the rain. Here are some of the ALA articles that, while they don’t deal with structural and stylistic necessities, do matter in the end.

Graphic design and typography

  • The Bathing Ape Has No Clothes (and other Notes on the Distinction between Style and Design),” by Adam Greenfield. This article is in the running for the longest article name award at ALA. It speaks volumes about the differences between design and styling.
  • Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign,” by Cameron Moll. Another superb article by a well-known designer, this call to realign websites instead of redesigning them is persuasive and to the point.
  • The Trouble with Em n En (and Other Shady Characters),” by Peter K. Sheerin. Minding your P’s and Q’s is one thing, but do you know your ems and ens? Sheerin provides a definitive guide to web typography. This article can help designers to get a little more of a grip on their typography skills.
  • Reading Design,” by Dean Allen. Allen speaks out about the need for designers to understand the material they are designing; to render their ideas clearly based on an in depth knowledge of the product / project they are working on. His list of things a non-illiterate designer must know is insightful.


  • Cheaper Over Better: Why Web Clients Settle for Less,” by Adam Schumacher. Schumacher’s reassuring article helps us understand why clients sometimes settle on cheap over good despite our winning solutions.
  • The Four-Day Week Challenge,” by Ryan Carson. The ultimate dream is to hang out your little design shingle, set your work hours and do it your way. Ryan Carson provided his methods for mastering the four-day workweek.

State of the industry

And from the saving-the-best-for last department, Joe Clark’s 2006 article, “To Hell with WCAG 2,” is a scathing diatribe on the Web Accessibility Initiative’s inability to get out of their own way. The article provides a deep look into the problems facing accessibility standards today and describes Joe’s plans to do something about it.

Home sweet home

We’ve laid the foundation, assembled the walls, and crowned the whole thing with a shiny new roof. Our house is complete… or is it?

With eight years of content on web design best practices stacked up in our archives, we don’t expect this article to serve as the definitive guide to A List Apart, but we hope it helps new readers find their way. While we’re at it, a question to our longtime readers: what articles would you recommend to beginning designers and developers?

And yes…we do know that there are resources outside of our magazine. Stay tuned for part two of this series, in which we’ll recommend a whole slew of starting points and resources that don’t live on our own servers.

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