CSS Talking Points: Selling Clients on Web Standards

It’s been a slow year. With the Internet economy taking a bit of a tumble (perhaps you’ve read about it), new clients just haven’t been calling like they were. So what’s a hapless web designer with a family and a modest mortgage to do? Use the downtime to re-tool, re-learn, and switch over to Standards Compliant Design of course (wild cheers, whistles, deafening applause).

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Done! Ummm, just one small problem. How do I convince my clients to go along with it? They may not be tech savvy, but they are well-versed in the mantra of designing for the least common denominator. Full access for everybody is the battle cry of the small business, and what’s worse, they probably even got some of those crazy ideas from me.


It happened to me last week. I was talking with one of my long-term clients. I was feeling a little heady and intoxicated by the power of standards compliant CSS and all the new design opportunities and challenges presented by it. He asked me what we do next with his site (since it is becoming a little dated). A nibble, just what I wanted. I try to set the hook.

“Doug,” I say, “I’m glad you asked. I just changed my design strategy from old messy table-based HTML to lovely, easy-to-maintain, carefully implemented standards compliant design.” I stretch out “standards compliant design,” allowing him to feel the full weight and majesty of this new approach. “In fact, I’ve almost finished my promotional website. Are you online? Good, let’s take a look.”

“Hmm, it looks funny, Greg.”

“Whaddya mean funny?” (Stress rising.) “What browser are you using?”

“Internet Explorer.”

“Uh, what version?”

“How do I tell which version? These are old University machines.”

“Hit Help, About.”

“Version 4.0.”


Lesson learned. Make damn sure your promotional site is really ready to protect itself from old browsers before you show it off.

Nevertheless, if Doug looks at the site today with IE 4.x he will see a rather plain site – nicely organized, mind you – no images on top of words, etc. But it certainly won’t look like I designed it. He will still be confused about the value of standards, and I will still have to delicately (and persuasively) win him over to my new approach. All while he is looking at a “broken” website.


So here’s the challenge. You are talking with a potential client. They open an older browser to take a gander at your lovely SC (Standards Compliant) website. And what they see at the top is, “This site will look MUCH better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.”

#1 Full Accessibility#section4

Quickly turn that negative into a positive by immediately emphasizing “full accessibility.“ Tell the Potential Client that you’re really glad he looked at your site with an old browser because this demonstrates how every Internet device – from wireless to Braille – can access all the content on your site. And this includes buggy old browsers like IE4 and Navigator 4. Now, let’s move over to a little more recent browser (like IE5.x) and take another look.

The widest accessibility has always been one of the keys to good web design. After all, that’s why we used those dreadful framesets and tables in the first place. SC websites should actually invite more browsers to view them, not less. And once we get over pixel perfect layouts (as a recovering pixel-nazi, I know it is really, REALLY hard) our designs should look lovely in any newer browser.

#2 Price#section5

Standards Compliant sites are cheaper to maintain and develop. Tell the client that SC websites are more affordable than table-based designs. And that much of the content maintenance they can likely handle themselves. If money doesn’t pique their interest, nothing will.

How often have you been asked to update content on a year-old site you built? Isn’t that fun? Trying to relearn the code you used 12 months prior; deciphering old tables and framesets. Spending lots of client hours to make relatively minor (from a user perspective anyhow) changes.

Well designed SC websites should fix most of this hassle. The markup is simple – a few DIVs here a few DIVs there. And they are all nicely labeled! Since the site is no longer pixel precise just make the changes and move on. Change the fonts, change the background, change the colors, create a virtually new site (if you want) in a fraction of the time you spent monkeying around with a table-based layout.

As an aside, from a designer’s point of view, it occurs to me that since there are currently only a few functional SC layouts – one column, two column, three column (see Glish or Blue Robot) we should be able to rapidly prototype a site without spending countless hours measuring pixels and creating obtuse table layouts. Just choose the most appropriate layout and off you go. For me this means I can be more flexible with my price, which is especially important in this rather soft market.

#3 Longevity#section6

Tell your Potential Client how SC websites are built once and used forever. Older table-based designs (like the one they are currently looking to upgrade) are particularly inflexible when it comes to updating them. In fact, that’s probably why they’re talking to you.

Most newer browsers are approaching full Standards Compliance. These are the browsers that the vast majority of people use. So it makes absolutely no strategic or financial sense to build a site that is obsolete the moment it is finished. It only makes sense to build a website that will last into the future.

You can update the content and never risk blowing out your layout. Change the style sheet and never lose your content. Add more upcoming style features (like translucent backgrounds, png alpha transparency, position:fixed – wake up,  Microsoft!) without sacrificing the base design.

#4 And MOST IMPORTANT – Don’t Make a Big Deal About Standards Compliance#section7

The biggest mistake you can make is to broadcast to your clients that you are now doing SC design. Sounds as if you are using them as an experiment. Bad idea. In actuality, assuming you try look out for your clients’ interests, SC design is nothing more than what you’ve been doing all along – namely building the best site you can for your client’s money.

SC websites will last longer, have more accessibility, be easier to maintain, and cheaper to develop. No apologies needed. Of course, you can mention Standards as a selling point, but never sound apologetic. Potential Clients can smell fear.

If this isn’t enough, here are a couple of other (unfinished) ideas that might help support your SC arguments:

  • SC is better for search engines – structured content helps engines index you better.
  • SC works at any resolution and any monitor size (yay!) and still maintains design integrity.
  • You will look different (and better) than your competitors.

To advance Standards it is critical to start building SC sites for real, paying clients, not just for ourselves. A solid Party Line will help us present SC to our clients not as something scary, but as a natural “best practices“ approach to building their website.

About the Author

Greg Kise

Greg Kise runs a small design shop. At various times throughout the day he serves as lead designer, marketer, project manager, and dad.

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