A List Apart


A List Apart 4.0

From the crown of its cranium to the tips of its Ruby-slippered toes, A List Apart 4.0 is both old and new. Old in its mission to help people who make websites see farther and jump higher. New in its design, structure, publishing system, and brand extensions.

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The magazine has long advocated accessibility and web standards, providing deep and sometimes controversial insights into these areas and not infrequently presenting ideas and methods that change the way you think and work. We will never abandon this subject area, but we are once more widening our gaze to encompass disciplines and themes beyond those that have obsessed us for the past five years.

I say “once more” because A List Apart started as a broad and inclusive explorer of all things web design. Our visual and structural relaunch provides the perfect platform from which to expand our self-definition and broaden our subject matter.

A Look Back

In an interview published this month, Armin Vit is asked what motivated him to create the design blog SpeakUp. His answer, in part: “anger [at] portals like K10k, DiK and Surfstation defining what ‘design’ was.” Now, I adore K10k and the other portals Vit cited, but his motivation struck a chord. Frustration with what already exists has always been the ultimate creative aphrodisiac.

In 1997, web developer Brian M. Platz and I started the A List Apart mailing list because we found the web design mailing lists that were already out there to be too contentious, too careerist, or too scattershot. There was too much noise, too little signal. We figured, if we created something we liked better, maybe other people would like it too. Within months, 16,000 designers, developers, and content specialists had joined our list.

Editing was the key. Many members submitted comments and topics each day; we dumped the dross, published the gold, often selecting pieces for their thematic relevance to one another. Through editorial cultivation, we rapidly grew an intelligent and insightful community.

From mailing list to web magazine

Taking it to the web was the next logical step, and again a Vit-like dissatisfaction helped. I launched the A List Apart website in in 1998 partly because the two leading web design magazines of the time, although brilliant, did not cover “web design” as I was coming to understand the profession.

David Siegel’s now-defunct High Five advocated graphic design; Wired’s Webmonkey taught JavaScript and other technologies. Both magazines were great, both subject areas vital. But to me they were parts of a larger whole, incorporating writing, structure, community, and other bits nobody had quite put together. Then, too, no web design zine of the time seemed to grasp or value web standards the way I and my peeps at The Web Standards Project did.

A List Apart 2.0 (detail).

The Evolution of a Design

A List Apart 1.0 staked out its turf with hubris and punk rock aggression. Its low-bandwidth modern primitive design made no attempt to be cute or friendly. A wide range of subjects, from early CSS advocacy to the notion that designers could become their own clients, debuted within its narrow columns and baleful color schemes.

On 16 February 2001, ALA’s three-chord design abandoned HTML table layout techniques, embracing semantic markup and CSS layout to prove that the separation of structure from presentation was feasible in modern browsers and to encourage designer-developers everywhere to learn it, do it, and sell it to their bosses, colleagues, and clients. A few minor improvements aside, ALA 2.0 looked exactly like ALA 1.0, which was the point. A generation of web designers got it, bought it, and took it to the next level.

Out of the Bronze Age

ALA 3.0 (30 October 2003) brought two key advances:

# Findability was greatly improved, via topic-driven navigation and automated clustering of like kinds of content.
# Making #1 possible, developer extraordinaire Brian Alvey designed a powerful and standards-compliant publishing system that lifted our forward-looking magazine out of its backwards, hand-coding days. (Yes, we really did hand-code the first 159 issues.)

A List Apart 3.0 (detail, size reduced).

Enraptured by our newfound utility, I lost sight of brand, replacing the gaudy design of yore with a conservative look and feel that lacked soul. The design was easy to read, grasp, and navigate, and the original paintings by Fred Gates helped breathe some life into my visual golem, but the overall feeling was uninspired.

If the value of a design can be measured by how often it gets swiped, then ALA 3.0 was genius, for it has been copied, with and without attribution, hundreds of times. But of course it was copied all those times, not because it was lovely, but because it was generic: an adequate template for nearly any content-oriented site. Most of all, it was copied because it was easy to copy.

What’s new in ALA 4.0

For ALA 4.0, Jason Santa Maria created not merely a new logo and layout but an entire branding system, to cover such natural brand extensions as a live conference series (An Event Apart) and an upcoming series of publications (A Book Apart).

Brought to life through Eric Meyer‘s CSS, the design has a classic, almost scholarly feeling, although there is a hint of teasing play behind elements like the laurel wreath—and Kevin Cornell‘s illustrations interject an additional note of fun. Some highlights:

* Each issue will have its own color scheme. Imagine: Red and green for Christmas; blue underlined links for when Jakob Nielsen finally writes for us.
* Legacy articles, i.e. those published in ALA 1.0-3.0, will share a common color scheme as a further means of delineating between then and now.
* Wide, comfortable columns make text a pleasure to read and code easier to parse.
* The numerical bug that sits atop the logo and astride the nav bar makes each issue feel like an important limited edition.

CSS techniques used include:

* Sprite rollovers  for the issue bug.
* Faux columns for the column separators.
* Others devised by Eric Meyer as need arose.

An upcoming article will explore the new layout’s creative and technical aspects in detail.


Topics in ALA 3.0 inhabited a flat landscape: XML was at the same level as Design, CSS at the same level as Business. Topics in ALA 4.0 are more intelligently categorized, I hope. We have broken the art and science of web design into six big areas; granular topics live underneath.

Better discussion (with RSS)

We’ve overhauled the comment structure: editor’s and author’s comments are now highlighted to help anchor discussion while keeping it moving. You can still share HTML, CSS, and JavaScript source code, but you can now also use Textile to style your comments (and watch them dance via a Live Preview).

Best of all, for the first time, you can subscribe to the RSS feed for any article’s discussion. This is a great feature few sites currently offer but many, we think, soon will.

To achieve some of these new features, and in an effort to keep spammers out of our conversations, we now require registration before you can post a comment.

A custom Ruby on Rails platform

ALA’s new publishing system, a carefully crafted Ruby on Rails application custom designed by Dan Benjamin, makes possible the features described in this article and dozens more – too many to list here.

Mr Damon Clinkscales supervised the migration of legacy content from ALA 3.0’s Microsoft SQL database to ALA 4.0’s MySQL, a task that did not run as smoothly as one might fantasize, and about which he never complained. Mr Brian Alvey was perpetually helpful and patient as we toiled and tinkered.

Additional features and changes

For the first time in its eight year history, ALA has advertisers. We chose just a few companies whose products we believe in. Nobody else gets to advertise here.

For the first time, we also have a store, not that it will make us rich (and not that was intended to). We love ALA – now more than ever. We hope you do, too. So we designed some kickass tee shirts and partnered with Threadless to bring them to you.

We are still working out some bugs. (And yes, darlings, that may even include one or two XHTML validation bugs.) A few things that we will soon do suavely, we currently do a bit crudely. Nevertheless, here we are. (Love it? Hate it? Let us know.)

Where we’re going

The magazine will be published on Tuesdays. Not every Tuesday – just when we have something fabulous to share.

Erin and I will continue to edit the magazine, seeking ideas that illuminate, challenge, and change the way we work with this thing called the web. In addition to the cutting-edge implementation techniques and detailed accessibility information we’ve focused on in the last few years, expect more theory, more analysis, and a wider range of perspectives.

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