The Doctor Is In

A note from the editors: Way back in the early days of web design—back before, even, A List Apart—there was, where thousands of us spent hour after hour soaking up every bit of web design knowledge we could. Between 1995 and 1999, Jeffrey Zeldman himself even answered your questions—or at least, his alter ego Dr. Web did.

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The days where one column can cover “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About HTML, CSS, Graphics, & Multimedia” are long gone (except on the Internet Archive), but Dr. Web is back. This time, our fearless leader is here to help you find your place and build a satisfying career in this big, weird, changing industry we call the web.

Read on for Dr. Web’s advice, and don’t forget to submit a question of your own.

An Ask Dr. Web logo from the 1990s

Dear Dr. Web,

I’m a print designer trying to transition into the web world, but the resources out there seem to be endless. It’s overwhelming trying to figure out where to start. Do you have any suggestions for what to read, who to listen to, or how to otherwise take careful sips from the firehose?

Just Getting Started

Dear Just,

Funny you should ask. Four score and 13 years ago, I wrote a book for designers transitioning to the web. That book is now available free of charge, and while some of the sites it references are no longer with us, and more than a few of its browser references and front-end techniques are amusingly dated, the basic premises are as true today as they were in 2001. Enjoy Taking Your Talent To The Web, Dale Cruse’s HTML rendition of the book, or download the PDF version, containing the original layout, typography, and artwork. (Thanks to New Riders, my original publishers, for believing in the book, and for allowing me to give it away online after its best-used-by date expired.)

If you are willing to learn HTML and CSS—and, at least until Macaw is in its 5.0 version, every web designer should learn those things, at least well enough to understand the principles behind them—read Designing With Web Standards followed by Bulletproof Web Design and HTML5 for Web Designers.

Then dive into Aaron Gustafson’s modern classic, Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement. Though compact and approachable, it is jam-packed with the collective wisdom of literally thousands of modern web designers, developers, and consultants, all filtered through Aaron’s expertise, practicality, and friendly style. Nobody has ever done a better job of explaining progressive enhancement and why it is the basis of universal web design.

Of course, web designers do not live by code alone. So next, or simultaneously, I recommend getting your mitts on Steve Krug’s classic, Don’t Make Me Think, which is the quickest and friendliest way I know for a print designer to grasp all those things about usability and interaction design that you’d never, ever pick up in a traditional graphic design curriculum or career. In print for 13 years, it’s been translated into 20 languages and sold over 400,000 copies—and now it’s available in a fully revised edition.

As a print designer, you’re familiar with type—and on the web, interfaces consisting almost entirely of type are used to present content consisting almost entirely of type. Bone up on what type means for the screen with Ellen Lupton’s newly released Type on Screen, and Jason Santa Maria’s upcoming On Web Typography.

While you’re reading these books, you should also be visiting websites, viewing source, selecting all, and copying into a text editor. The more you study other people’s HTML markup and CSS, the better you will begin to understand how to structure web content so people and search engines can find it, and browsers and devices can display it. Short of working as part of a front-end development team with experienced colleagues, viewing source is the best front-end web development education you can have. (“Front-end” is what we call it to distinguish from the heavier kinds of coding that go into the “back-end” of most sites today.)

Of course, it helps if the sites whose source code you’re viewing are well-made. Besides viewing source on A List Apart (cough), you’ll find fine source code on Chris Coyier’s CSS Tricks. (You’ll also learn a lot about CSS, the visual language of web design.) You’ll learn loads more about CSS, and get more great source code to boot, in the articles section of Sara Soueidan’s website.

Other great resources—for education, inspiration, great source code, and just plain good reading—include:

This is barely a distracted start; readers, please list your favorite sites in the comments section.

Don’t study or work in isolation. If you’re freelancing or working remotely, Twitter can be your best friend (or can help you find your new best friends). After a week of working at home, make time for a meetup in your hometown, and if your city offers free or inexpensive design, development, or user experience (UX) events, take advantage of those offerings and get out there. This is a warm community full of passionate practitioners who love to share tips and make connections.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, take the time to become deeply familiar with a few websites that you love and use all the time. Analyze what design decisions and special touches (whether of interactivity, or visual hierarchy, or copy, or whatever) make the experience of using the site so special. Likewise, when you encounter an unpleasant-to-use site (online banking, anyone?), instead of fleeing in frustration, force yourself to spend extra time on that site, to discover which particular interaction design decisions are responsible for your bad experience. And then never, ever make decisions like that on the sites you design.

Design on the web is a combination of aesthetics and usability, control and surrender, constraint and endless creativity. Designing books is wonderful, but designing for the web is a whole ’nother thing. Welcome, friend!

Have a question about professional development, industry culture, or the state of the web? This is your chance to pick Jeffrey Zeldman’s brain. Send your question to Dr. Web via Twitter (#askdrweb), Facebook, or email.

9 Reader Comments

  1. I’m a big fan of, it helped me so much when I was first starting.

    Writing good syntax for basic on-page SEO is important too. I got a lot of help from

  2. The Mozilla Developer Network might be the best resource. It has a few examples, some tutorials, and nearly exhaustive documentation of HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

    The WebPlatform Docs are similar, but I haven’t used them enough to be able to compare them to the Mozilla Docs.

    Most professionals probably already know about these resources, but it didn’t seem right to leave them unmentioned.

  3. Seems to me that there’s a little more utility in that A List Apart site you were talking about than just viewing the source 😉

    I’d also add and, not as learning resources, but as a modicum of restraint and/or sober second thought — it’s very easy to get a little too bleeding-edge for your own good, and the more you can do without having to have hacks for every single browser out there, the better for your sanity. (For some of us, who had to deal with IE5-6, Mozilla/NS6 and NS4.x all at the same time, it’s too late for sane.)

  4. I would highly recommend Design is a Job to new web professionals (as well as industry vets too). So much of our job is communication and interacting with clients. I would also recommend following some people that you admire on Twitter for daily inspiration.

  5. It’s really hard being new to web design in 2014. There is so much to learn that one can get overwhelmed if there’s no one to count on for professional advices and guidance.

    Luckily, there is you.

    Once you said on a podcast that the web saved you. Now I say you saved me.

    Thank you.

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