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.

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Learn to thrive within constraints#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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

83 Reader Comments

  1. What show best describes my web design experience? Twin Peaks (those who saw it, could never forget it!)

    Why? Because everytime I think I have it figured out, the plot changes.

  2. Definately E.R. – because either my employer or my clients always seem to be on life support, and the cast keeps changing too.

    (current employer excepted)

  3. I’d say my experience is less like a particular show and more like any Clint Eastwood movie. Just when you think it’s over and you’re all done, you realize you’re only halfway there.

  4. My boss/designer still doesn’t quite get designing for the web and he has been doing it for years. He still can’t get that an easy change in Photoshop really can break everything.

    Right now it would be closest to Futurama. The boss is mostly incompetent, but what he is good at, he does marvelous things with (marketing strategy mostly). He at least used to think his crew was easily replaced (until everyone but myself quit one day). I am paid to sit around and follow his whims, much like the crew of the Planet Express. However since I am still pursuing school, it is nice, in that it allows me to build more professional experience, pay for tuition, toys and what have you. Also I’ve looked, if I change jobs right now, it will most likely be to a fast food joint and not web development.

  5. The show:
    Every episode something dies, but something new is built (or discovered) from the relationships that remain.

    The job:
    Nearly every project is spawned from the death of an existing web asset and is built (in part) from the relationships and information that remain.

    Of course, a wacky cast of neurotic characters is present in both.

  6. Especially if you advocated Web standards in the early days before the rise of Mac IE5, Mozilla 1 and Safari. (For me this was 1998, after discovering the work of Zeldman.)

    Think about it. You’re this nameless cog trapped in a system that everyone abuses. You keep waiting and searching for your chance to escape and do things the way you’ve always wanted to do them, but by the end of every episode you’re caught and forced to endure more insanity by the start of the next design project.

    Finally your stubborness is vindicated (Perhaps you’ve decided to go into business for yourself to design sites the way you want to design them.) but in confusing and surprising ways. You’ve escaped into this new situation (CSS, XML and XHTML support.) but still find constraints that you didn’t expect.

  7. I know it’s not a TV series, but I think it matches my Webdevelopment career best. Starting off with a casual everyday life, then plunging into the deep, chaos and confusion all over, ignorance until slowly the goal and message starts to become clear to me. Then slowly I improve my skills into all relevant fields until… well, that’s where the similarities end. I’m in no way the Coolest or Strongest guy in this field. But the path that Neo took all the way to that point resembles my web-life very accurately.

    Good article, btw. I like the style with which it was written. ^_^

  8. “What show best describes my web design career?”
    Looney Tunes.

    ’cause it’s chalk full of colorful characters and it’s always changin’.

  9. Just when you get comfortable in a job, you get sucked through a giant wormhole to a completely different place with a completely different bunch of people.

    OR…just when you get comfortable working on a project, you get sucked through a giant wormhole to a completely different project with a completely different client and requirements.

  10. the title says it all. You’re either a Bender or a Dr Zoidberg (hooray I’m useful)

    also The Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi is an awesome read. Might take you 2 full reads though to start to understand its meanings and to put it to real world situations.

  11. …because it’s *always* the little, tiny details that end up being the biggest matters, be it having to use a descendant selector to hide something from IE that corrupts the work, or a colon where a semi-colon should be (my typing is pretty lousy!)…

  12. I just finished LMAO. I remembered a myth from about 8 or 9 years ago that Mountain Dew made women pregnant. Of course I was about 6 (I’m the youngest web developer, I’m 14). This is another lie:
    “ALA is a serious webzine”.
    Comparing Web developing to a TV show makes me doubt that. Nonetheless I thank you for reminding me. My favorite blatant lie:
    “There is a small tribe in Nepal that speeks fluent Welsh”, or maybe “People who die in Nepal have a 70% chance of rising from the dead”…Or lordy lordy…

  13. I was thinking someone would say 24:

    “Because my Web design career takes up all 24 hours of my day and no one is allowed to sleep, eat or take a bathroom break.”

  14. Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit

    And yes, my career has been the disturbingly abused and brutally assaulted victim at the beginning of the show who comes back to testify against the criminal [company] in the last ten minutes even though the criminal’s lawyer [client services representative] get’s them off on an insanity plea.

    Predictably unpleasant, morally horrifying, and on every day of the week. Cheers!

  15. Web Design is like that sea monster, “The Kraken” in Clash of the Titans, because there’s always something monstrous quirk lurking under the surface which you have to battle at the last moment to save the day.

  16. Great article… I think I may still follow the advice about having something to talk about during lunch 🙂 Anyways….

    The show 24 is like my web career. I wait till the last minute to work on a project. It ends up that the project is due tomorrow, and I only have a day to complete it. This means working non stop for what seems like 24 hours straight. Like the show 24, I get other things thrown into the mix which adds to the pressure.

  17. My job is all about “hand”. I do all of the design and then redesign and implementation, but my boss always winds up with his “hand” on top of it telling me to change it…

  18. I’d say CSI because every day there’s at least a few troubleshooting problems (from email config for a client to a buggy piece of code) that make me feel like a super sleuth investigator.

  19. It doesn’t really remind me of web design, but it’s a great movie and this thread reminded me that I should order the DVD. 🙂

    Actually, web development reminds me of MacGyver , because I’m always having to find creative ways to solve problems.

  20. Why?
    Despite all the naughtyness I have been through, good always prevails and Nogbad gets his comeuppance. Graculus has been there to help me and it was because of my involvement in emerging tech that I met my Nooka, Queen of the Nogs.

    Plus I am old, two dimensional and a bit washed out.

    And I walk funny due to excessive time at my PC.

  21. I am a big fan of OZ too! I did not realize violent and brutal Oz can be compared to web design!

    Having a software development background, I like this part the best: “I’ll never be the best artist or the best programmer in a room full of web designers,…” .


  22. >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.

    I prefer to use the term “parameters” instead of “constraints” because it has a neutral connotation. “Sharply focused parameters” feels better than “extreme constraints”. 🙂

  23. Its you, its in you, its always been you, its always been in you.

    Now I just have to rip it out, digitize it and stream it so you can realize your vision.

  24. Especially the episode where Elaine dances infront of her entire office (the realisation that everything you’ve been working on for months now has to make everyone in the office happy) and when she goes to see her boss in Myanmar (er… Burma) – the long and winding road to where you want to be.

  25. “Arli$$” during the dot.bomb. Lots of free agents, greedy mercenaries, lying sleazy recruiters (agents), and corporate owners more interested in cheerleaders (dipping the pen in the company ink) than winning the game (not going broke).

    These days, it’s like “12 monkeys.” There’s nobody else left to do the job, you’re doing heinous things for freakish and twisted clients, and the timelines are always changing on you.

  26. Nobody gives me all the details, so you have to find out who the bad guy is before you can even start.

    You then spend ages building something totally bespoke to overcome a problem, using the bits of wire, chewing gum and oil drums available.

    All the while you have to deal with the same oddball people and the same excuses of how they hate to fly and how much they hate getting their hair messed up. There’s this looming impression of people watching your every move as you struggle to perform miracles and put the world to rights

    When it’s all over, you look back to see that what you actually achieved wasn’t all that much to speak of, and the project gets junked after its first use.

  27. Know your job, know yourself, work your arse off, and don’t give people a chance to even contemplate no being an answer when it comes to hiring you.

    Thats my moto at the moment and its gradually pulling me out of debt after I left my permenant job as a web developer last year.

    I’m mainly doing CSS/XHTML content work these days so its less exciting, but I think like many others in the industry, I really need to get back onto my feet.

  28. It’s been a wacky time from grey pages and times new roman text to video and animation and more grey pages and times new roman text 🙂

    The industry has gone through such heady changes in it’s short life, many people are still stuck getting to grips with standard HTML.

    I made my first web page using windows 3.11 back in 1995 when the web was grey and black with a splash of colour – when good design was impossible and where geeks reigned supreme !

    It still exists to this day – my first website. I won’t disclose where but it lies in a core number group of geocities that they deem the will never erase. I guess it’s for pedigree reasons. So, my first mark on the web, like about a million others, was made in 1995.

    Next year, I will be 10 on the web and I’ll celibrate it on my birthday.

  29. Im always coming with crazy solutions to make deadlines……oh and stuff blows up alot

  30. Working as an in-house web developer at a large beaurocratic government corporation, Brazil is the only choice for me. Perhaps blended in with a bit of The Office, and a bit of MacGyver while we’re at it.

  31. You develop your skills within the rules to win.
    How limitations push creativity.
    A nice article.

  32. The panel represents the clients, the standards… the obstacles and constraints.

    Idea after idea step up and are presents to the panel, just to be slammed. Then when you least expect it, out rolls a jewel that makes everybody smile!:)

  33. because ‘doh!

    I guess if I were to give a real example it would still be the simpsons and other animated cartoons, because just looking at the cartoon you can see how you can develop creative ideas from simple designs that are persistant. Like the yellow skin, or the overbite on all the characters, or the loud colors for the backgrounds. Simple yet effective. I try to make my sites simple and effective too.

  34. I know it’s a movie but if others can do it, then so can I …

    Why you ask?

    If you have ever seen that movie then you know the kind of place I work for. Not to mention the fact thatwe as developers seem to be cannon fodder for lack of a better term.

    ‘Corporate Acconts Receivable, Nina speaking … Just a moment’ … Repeat

  35. We’re isolated from the real world, are barely scraping by, and people keep getting “voted off the island.” Also, I have learned that if I do really well in the challenges we’re faced with, the next one gone is not likely to be me.

  36. Perhaps because – not unlike Richard Chamberlain – sometimes you have to embrace things that are repugnant to you.

  37. …because sometimes I feel like hunting Marlon Brando (the problem) in a hostile place (my office) whit a group of freaks (my co-workers) in a bad boat (my terrible PC). And during the journey to accomplish my mission I become a monster due to stress.


  38. That reminds me of the first time I met Jeffrey Zeldman for lunch.

    We had never met in person so he asked me, “You’re not one of those Web designers who wears all black and has a goatee, are you?”

    I assured him that I wasn’t.

    When I got to the restaurant, I found out that he had a goatee and wore all black.

  39. The article is inspiring and I’d wish I could always get an update on the topic.

  40. Being self employed I’d have to say that it is – The Lone Ranger.

    Where’s Tonto when you need him?

  41. First, I loved the article and the show as well. Second, the web industry may not be as fast paced as it once was but I believe it is making a rebound (I chant that to myself as I try and sleep at night). I think that a real push of creativity and usability in design will get us all the raises we deserve.

  42. I’m new to owning my own web design business and this article was very helpful, especially the part about playing your strenths. Know that you may note be the absolute best but you do have something special. Very inspirational in a weird OZ kind of way. Thanks Brian.

  43. OZ – such a great show and a fine analogy

    I am tempted to list “The Pretender” for various reasons appropos.

    I will instead remain HBO-centric and offer “Deadwood” as befitting annotation of any alleged association entangling myself and development of the web

  44. Wizard of Oz – the Technicolor Horse keeps changing colors, the “Bosses” are evil (but unfortunately DON’T melt w/ a suitable application of hydrogen-hydroxide), the manager hides behind a curtain, depends upon incomprehensible technology to provide him w/ powers he DOESN’T really have, and can’t really help us (it’s all really inside us).
    The Exorcist – er, WE seem to be the priest in this one, and the customer has his/her head spinning ’round, spitting out pea soup. We deal with an age-old evil, and we’re never really quite sure if we’re going to triumph before the end of the movie. Unfortunately, we DON’T have a killer soundtrack.
    Cool World/ Who Framed Roger Rabbit – we have a hard time w/ members slipping into a strangely drawn dark fantasy world, where the bad guys are amazingly elastic and never quite stay… “dead”. Most folks who would BE in a possition to help are ridiculously silly, or reduced to cartoonish Sysiphusian tasks, oblivious to the “real” world around them/us.
    Whew. Now I need coffee.

  45. My web career is like that show because when I first started I was excited and bright eyed and thought I would learn a lot. Reality is I, like Al Bundy, am in a dead end job with no support to learn the new cool things, or get promoted. When I try more advanced designs, they get shot down. Heaven forbid I use Flash. My only option is get out of web design.

  46. A lot of very weird people and just as many weird things happening…but a great show at the same time! The town is in slow motion..just like my company. Also, Joel is stuck in a place where he doesn’t want to be…but just seems to stay there anyways..hmmm…very similar to my career the more I think about it.

  47. I like the comment by na about X-Files. That’s what I think too.
    Regarding Oz, I can only say I like your sense of humour. As it’s mostly humour, isn’t it? Though we all know that there’s no smoke without fire :))

  48. Hi everyone…
    I think web design reminds me of the movie 28 days later, because in that movie a small team is struggling to survive in a world taken over by a malicious virus. This virus turns humans into walking dead – kinda like Resident Evil…

    The paralells are the struggling – the competition for web designers is so hard (the other web designers are the undead guys =)) so you have to put up a really good fight and results in order to survive.

    It’s going ok for me here in Sweden, Malmö right now… Gonna design the whole school’s web site (1300 students =)) hehe… Not too bad! It’ll include server-scripting, design and management. I also teach a small web design group at the school. Have a look at the site, which desperately is in need of server-scripts to include the old-fashioned table layout to every page… (actually I’ve updated it to CSS2 now, but it takes too long to start the FTP client =)) – http://www.henrik-f.tk
    Feel free to send me an email, and hope ya all survive out there…


  49. I guess the video channel. ( The blank blue or black screen also known as AUX or Input ) I tend to blankly sare at things like that letting my wander and find things. Every once in a while the screen will flicker or maybe have some snow and that will spur a new creative hook in my mind.

  50. Let’s see, I started out waxing clipart for camera shoots in a local newspaper and somehow I wound up making clipart for e-zines.

    I rode the wave from 1993 until now. The best description for the e-world… “By the time you take the time to describe what it can do, it’s defunct.”

    I can NEVER learn everything about it. That’s why both love it and hate it. So the show best like it? The Office (Britcom), you hate it but you can’t stop torturing yourself and watch it every weekend. Like a sliver you keep tweaking….

    I have white hair now, but it was red when I started and I’m NOT past 40 yet!! WebDev can be detrimental to your hair!

    Great Article!

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