Redefining Possible

I do not come in peace.

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I come to stir up the quiet, solemn waters of backwards compatibility and lowest-common denominator coding. I come not to praise one-size-fits-all site design, but to demean it. I am here before you today shielded with tomato-proofed Teflon coating, ready for the shouts of indignation and hurled epithets from you in the front row while all you quiet types in the back nod your heads in silent agreement because I want you to go out now and f*ck sh*t up.

What I am tired of hearing are the words that immediately dismiss The New. I no longer want to hear that something different and interesting, regardless of the method of execution, is wrong. What I want from you people, yes even those of you snickering at me waving your archived copies of Netscape version 2, is to reclaim your personal spaces and start using the tools – all the tools – at our disposal. I want to see what happens when you stop decrying the shortcomings of Style Sheets and start exploring what you can do. I want you to use JavaScript 1.3 even though only one browser can interpret the instructions. I want you to use Flash3 like your very survival depends upon it.

Because, dear friends, it do.

Yes, yes, yes, I know you will be alienating some vocal minority out there who refuses to kowtow to every upgrade and improvement, who cannot understand why a Web page should be beautiful as well as functional, who would prefer it if we could grab the hands of the W3 clock and pull them back to 1995. I know that some of you sitting out there in the darkness of this auditorium can feel a rage building inside like a nest of hornets taunted with a sharp stick. Your blood literally boils when I deign to compare the Web and, sharp intake of breath, television. But what I want you to say to that vocal minority, the Web purists, the Fear of Bandwidth Bloat League, the drop-shadow demons, is, in short, our new mantra; Screw the audience.

A moment please! If I could have your… Please, don’t throw the chairs, they’re rented! Hello? Does anyone have a gun they could shoot in the air to help me regain contr… No, in the air! In the air! Not at Jakob!

Thank you. Apparently those of you who felt it necessary to approach this podium and this speaker like some wild pack of outcast extras from the local Community Theatre production of Evita were not paying absolute attention during the earlier portion of my presentation, likely because you were shouting those threats so loudly. Allow me reiterate the most salient point of my dissertation thus far. Ahem; “What I want from you people. . . is to reclaim your personal spaces.”

Your Personal Space. The place where you go on the Web and do what you wish. If you have no such place, how can you call yourself a Web designer? No, I don’t want to hear you say you have no time. I am not advocating that you put aside your valuable movie-going hours and gym-avoidance time in order to spend the remaining hours of your life when you are not in front of a computer monitor in front of a computer monitor. I am speaking of, if nothing else, your online portfolio. And if you’re going to sit there and tell me that you don’t even have one of those, then I truly pity your future chances at gaining further employment at any agency serious about creating this medium.

Here, at last, is my proposal.

You and I both know that we will rarely if ever get a chance to really spread our HTML wings constructing client sites. Clients are, by and large, herd animals. They do not roam the tundra trying to show off their plumage, strutting for the National Geographic documentarians hiding in the brush disguised as baboons. They, instead, lay low and cautious. Mention DHTML to them and they scatter like roaches in the kitchen light. Make an offhand remark about using a Flash interface, embedding streaming media, employing a floating remote navigation scheme, using frames in an interesting way and you’ll clear a room faster than Steve Case trying to be interesting.

You say you can’t use CSS because it isn’t well implemented, even on browsers that “fully support” it? You say Flash is only good for spinning logos and musical comic strips? You say plug-ins equal site death from rampant audience indifference? I say your duty is to explore the potential, expand the horizons and start using everything we have available and not accept the status quo. I say your responsibility is to use your space to redefine Possible.

One big reason clients are afraid of using new technologies is not because they don’t work, but because “no one else is doing it.” Well, okay, sometimes they don’t work. But if everyone continues not doing it, the audience will never accept it because they aren’t aware there’s a difference between a page layout formatted using tables and font tags and a page layout formatted using Cascading Style Sheets. In order to expand audience awareness and redefine Possible, there have to be places where these new capabilities exist; and lacking a client willing to take the chance that the audience will be equipped to do so, we need to provide the environment so the audience equips itself and creates that demand to use newer standards. I propose, therefore, that the environment already exists and it lives in the collective personal sites that don’t give a damn about return on investment.

It’s our only way out of our Catch-22. New capabilities exist but they aren’t being used. They aren’t being used because a lot of visitors don’t have the browsers to interpret them. A lot of visitors don’t have the browsers to interpret them because there isn’t a need to upgrade to take advantage of new capabilities… because the new capabilities aren’t being used.

Lastly, you can argue all you want that these newer capabilities are backwards-compatible, but I’m going to argue right back that they’re not. In particular, I argue that Style Sheets are not backwards compatible because in order to make a Web page behave as if it is using Style Sheets when it isn’t, you have to use tables and font tags and transparent GIFs and whatever else we’ve dredged up from our bag of tricks. Style Sheets, in particular, do nothing to affect the information being presented. They don’t enhance anything other than how the information is presented – although it can also be argued that improving how the information is presented improves the information itself by (theoretically) making it easier to interpret.

If we, as Web designers (and I mean exactly that. We are not designing Web pages, we are designing the Web), retrofit a CSS page with tables, font tags and transparent GIFs we are doing our audience a disservice. Yes, that’s what I said. No one can argue that Style Sheets are a great idea. They will reduce download times, format compatible presentations of pages across any/all browsers and allow designers almost unlimited control not only over how a page looks and where elements are placed, but CSS2 includes instructions for alternate media behavior so a single page can automatically format itself for the Web, for printers, for so-called Pocket Clients like PalmPilots, for audible presentations… I mean, golly, what can’t they do?

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of your visitors they can’t do any of that. And most of them will never know how Style Sheets can improve a page beyond mere appearance because they’ll never upgrade their browser because pages will continue to look “good enough” using bandwidth-sucking GIFs and tables that don’t reveal anything until all contents are loaded and font tags with extremely limited formatting capabilities are sitting on their screens instead of pages using Style Sheets. So there.

I am all for everything. I think Flash is beyond good, it’s great! I think HTML4 with the <iframe> tag needs to be immediately adopted and used. I think using SMIL to embed RealAudio is a fabulous idea. XML, XSL, DHTML… what isn’t to like?

There. My gauntlet is tossed. I’m not asking each and every one of you to start implementing each and every new technology and capability on each and every page. I’m asking you to let the Magellan in you out and start discovering again. It’s always time to redefine Possible. That’s what the Web is for.

About the Author

Lance Arthur

Lance Arthur is the creator of Glassdog and a was a judge in the High Five/A List Apart Web Design Contest.

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