The Ways We’ve Changed—and Stayed the Same

In 2005, my husband and business partner Drew McLellan had an idea for a website. He emailed friends and colleagues, we filled in the gaps, and 24 ways was launched: 24 articles in the run-up to Christmas, advent-calendar style. As I write this article, we are on day six of season 10 of that project. By 24 December, there will be 240 articles by 140 authors—many of them well-known names in web design and development. As a fun holiday season retrospective, I thought I would take a look at what 10 seasons of 24 ways can tell us about how our industry has changed—and what hasn’t changed.

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Hacking our way to CSS complexity#section2

The first season of 24 ways, prior to Christmas 2005, brought us techniques such as using JavaScript to stripe table rows, image techniques for rounded corners, and an article on Avoiding CSS Hacks for IE due to the imminent arrival of Internet Explorer 7. In that first season, we were still very much working around the limitations of browsers that didn’t have full support for CSS2.1.

By 2006, Andy Budd was teasing us with the rounded corner possibilities brought to us in CSS3 and in 2007, Drew McLellan helped us to get transparent PNG images to work in Internet Explorer 6. The article titles from those early years show how much of our time as designers and developers was spent dealing with browser bugs and lack of CSS to deal with the visual designs we wanted to create. The things we wanted to do were relatively simple—we wanted rounded corners, nice quote marks, and transparency. The hoops we had to jump through were plentiful.

The introduction to the 2013 archive of 24 ways notes that 2013 was the year that the Web Standards Project “buzzed its last.” By 2013, browsers had converged on web standards. They were doing standard things in standard ways. We were even seeing innovation by browser vendors via the established standards process. My article for the 2013 season described the new CSS Grid Layout specification, initially developed by Microsoft.

Since 2005, the CSS that we can consider usable in production has grown. We have far more CSS available to us through browser support for the new modules that make up CSS3. The things that CSS can do are also far more complex, expressive, and far reaching. We’ve moved on from spending our time trying to come up with tricks to achieve visual effects, and are spending a lot of time working out what to do with all of this CSS. How do we manage websites and web applications that are becoming more like complex pieces of software than the simple styled HTML documents of days gone by? Topics in recent years include new approaches to using CSS selectors, front-end style guides, Git, and Grunt. The web has changed, and the ways in which we spend our time have changed too.

We all got mobile#section3

In the 2006 edition of 24 ways, Cameron Moll explained that,

The mobile web is rapidly becoming an XHTML environment, and thus you and I can apply our existing “desktop web” skills to understand how to develop content for it. With WML on the decline, the learning curve is much smaller today than it was several years ago. I’m generalizing things gratuitously, but the point remains: Get off yo’ lazy butt and begin to take mobile seriously.

The Mobile Web Simplified

The iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007, a move by Apple that forced us all to get off our lazy butts and think about mobile! In December 2007, Brian Fling explained the state of the mobile landscape half a year after the launch of the iPhone. It wasn’t until responsive design was brought to life by Ethan Marcotte on A List Apart in May 2010, however, that articles about mobile really became numerous on 24 ways. The 2011 season had four articles with the words “responsive design” in the title!

By 2012, we were thinking through the implications of designing for mobile, and for mobile data. Paul Lloyd took a look back at the two approaches for responsive images discussed in the 2011 season and the emerging proposals for picture and srcset in Responsive Images: What We Thought We Needed. Tim Kadlec reminded us that,

… there’s one part of the web’s inherent flexibility that seems to be increasingly overlooked: the ability for the web to be interacted with on any number of networks, with a gradient of bandwidth constraints and latency costs, on devices with varying degrees of hardware power.

Responsive Responsive Design

As we rushed to implement responsive sites and take advantage of new platforms, we had to take care that we weren’t excluding people by way of bandwidth limitations. Whether it is IE6 or mobile data, some things never change. We get excited about new technologies, then come back to earth with a bump as the reality of using them without excluding a chunk of our audience kicks in!

The work of change#section4

In these 10 seasons, we can see how much the web has changed and we have changed, too. Every year, 24 ways picks up a new audience and new authors, many of whom would have still been in school in 2005.

Always, 24 ways has tried to highlight the new, the experimental, and the technically interesting. However, it has also addressed more challenging aspects. Whether an old hand or a newcomer to the industry, we can all feel overwhelmed at times, as if we are constantly running to keep up with the latest new thing. In 2013, Christopher Murphy wrote Managing a Mind, a piece that starkly illustrated the challenges that constantly keeping up can bring. This year, we are given a reminder that we need to take care of our bodies while performing the repetitive tasks that design and programming require.

The business of web development#section5

Often, 24 ways has featured articles that deal with the business of being a web designer, developer, or agency owner. In 2007, Paul Boag gave us 10 tips for getting designs signed off by the client. As the recession hit in 2008, Jeffrey Zeldman wrote up his Recession Tips for Web Designers. We’ve seen articles on subjects ranging from side projects to contracts and everything in-between.

The business archive contains some of the most evergreen content on the site, demonstrating that good business knowledge can serve you well throughout a career.

The industry that shares#section6

Another thing that hasn’t changed over these 10 seasons is the enthusiasm of each 24 ways contributor for their subject, and their generosity in writing and sharing their thoughts. This reflects our industry, an industry where people share their thoughts, research, and hard-earned experience for the benefit of their peers.

On that note, I’ll close my final A List Apart column of 2014. Best wishes to all of you who are celebrating at this time of year. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the business side of our industry throughout 2015.

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