A List Apart


Everything I Need To Know About Web Design I Learned Watching Oz

Running on HBO from the summer of 1997 through early 2003, Oz is everyone’s favorite don’t-drop-the-soap opera. Reflecting on the same years in my web design career, I see considerable parallels. Many of the lessons I learned watching Oz and designing websites are too similar to be coincidental.

Learn to thrive within constraints

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The first thing new web designers usually figure out is that the web is all about compromise.

If they are coming from a print design background, they are handed a box of 216 crayons, a list of a half dozen available typefaces and a 72 dpi limit on image resolution. When the shock wears off and they get used to working within these web limitations, they encounter page weights, arbitrary standards support and CSS hacks.

If they are programmers, they learn that web servers were built to forget browsers after every single page visit and that many of the form controls they know and love — like combo boxes — aren’t available in HTML.

At last year’s GEL conference, Stuart Butterfield gave a fantastic presentation on constraints and their effects on creativity. He launched the 5k competition in 2000, challenging web developers to create the most innovative and stunning web sites — using files that totaled less than 5,120 bytes.

Butterfield explained that constraints can be found everywhere in music, architecture, poetry and design. Adding constraints to a project motivates artists to come up with more creative solutions to the design problem at hand. Extreme constraints like “48-hour filmmaking,” “three-day novel writing,” “Bush in 30 Seconds” and the 5k contest can lead artists to extreme creations.

Every new web design is the solution to a design problem that can be summed up in a series of constraint questions: Who is my audience? What am I trying to get them to do? How do I want them to feel about this site? What browsers and platforms are we targeting? Can I use Flash?

When Jeffrey Zeldman reviewed the 5k competition in an earlier ALA article, he found that “Limitations are the soil from which creativity grows.”

Fear solitary

When you’re already serving a life sentence with no chance of parole, what else can they take away?

They can threaten to throw you into solitary confinement and strip away all human contact.

The Internet is all about being connected. That “plugged-in” feeling is addictive and panic attacks are what fill those empty spaces between opportunities to check email. For many of the people who spend their lives online blogging, chatting, emailing and building websites, the unwired life is not worth living.

The ultimate punishment is being disconnected.

Play to your own strengths

Every week or two I get email from someone asking me how they can get ahead in the web business. I assume it’s because they’ve already written someone else, but they didn’t get a response quickly enough and some college admissions deadline is looming.

So I tell them this: Cheat. Stack the deck in your favor. Use your own unique skills to compete on the web.

If you’re a shoe salesperson and you want to break into the web game, don’t start out as a novice Java developer competing with expert Java developers. Unless you have some latent mutant ability that will help you scale Java’s steep learning curves, you’ll be crushed. Instead, take on a sales role for a small web shop somewhere and pick the brains of the rest of the team to get up to speed on what can and can’t be done on the web.

Don’t start out on the bottom. Start out as high up as you can and make lateral career moves.

I’ll never be the best artist or the best programmer in a room full of web designers, but I’m pretty well rounded. So if I’m competing with creative people, I try to beat them technically. Likewise, if I’m competing with technical people, I do my best to pound them on the creative side.

In Oz, the people who rose to power were the ones who made the best use of their unique talents and attributes.

Give away free samples until your users are hooked

Whether it’s heroin in Oz or a never-ending parade of CD-ROMs offering 61,034.8 free hours of AOL 9.0, nothing lowers a consumer’s resistance to trying something new like getting a free sample. Not surprisingly, canceling your free trial subscription to an online service usually involves completing a 12-step program.

Microsoft converted a good portion of Netscape’s browser customer base by offering Internet Explorer as a free alternative. When things weren’t moving fast enough for them, they sped up Netscape’s demise by making IE an integral part of their dominant Windows operating system and by signing a deal to make IE the default browser for trillions of AOL users.

Because products like software and email newsletter subscriptions don’t have the same fixed costs to the producer as products in the real world like gasoline or clothing, it is much easier to give out free trial offers or otherwise undercut competition online.

Don’t get too attached to anyone because they might not be around next week

I learned this one when I was working as a CTO in the twilight of the dot com years and our vendor contacts were changing almost daily.

When business was good, web developers would jump from company to company getting raise after raise. When business was bad, they would be pushed.

Luckily in Oz — and in real life — there has been a core group of characters that were all considered too important to be killed off.

Sleep with everyone you meet so you have something to talk about at lunch

Oh wait — I learned that one watching Sex and the City and it doesn’t have much to do with web design. My mistake.

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