The unpushed envelope

Roger points to a survey by Sean Fraser that tests entries from the CSS Reboot for validation errors. The results (including exclamation marks) are:

71.8% of the websites failed validation for HTML Markup! for CSS! or, for both!

That is somewhat disheartening but at least it provides some grist for the mill for Joe’s failed redesigns.

Personally, I’m not as concerned about validation errors in CSS-based redesigns as I am by the prevalent mindset. Most reboots and redesigns invariably involve ripping all the markup out and rebuilding everything from scratch. So much for separating structure and presentation.

The CSS Zen Garden has been around for years now. It has succeeded in showing that CSS-based designs don’t need to be ugly. It’s also a testament to the fact that you can style the same markup document in completely different ways. But very few people seem to be making the most of this freedom.

In fact, the trend that I see in the myriad CSS galleries out there is a move towards more print-like designs that are very fixed and constrained. Even as, on the server side, the general shift seems to be towards a more open, user-defined flow of data, the front end attitude seems to be going in the opposite direction. Designers seem less willing to hand over more control to the user. How very Web 1.0.

Yes, I am talking about liquid layouts to a certain extent and yes, they are harder to implement well. Still, shouldn’t redesigns of personal sites (the bulk of CSS Reboot) be just the kind of place where we can embrace design challenges?

But this is about more than the hoary old fixed vs. liquid chestnut. It’s about recognising the potential of the tools we have at our disposal. CSS is perhaps the most remarkable tool of all. The ability to alter the presentation of a website without altering its structure should have opened up the floodgates of design creativity.

I’m not talking about subtle realignments either. I want to see sites that look different depending on the time of day, the location of the designer, or even the weather. Never mind device-independence, CSS provides everything-independence.

CSS hasn’t revolutionised web design. The reason lies not with the technology (which is revolutionary), but with the designers using it. Most designers have simply swapped the old technology (tables and font tags) for the new technology, without fully exploring what’s so completely new.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Having a web site that offers a choice of a handful of (mostly liquid) designs skins was a nice start when I first implemented it. Four years on, I was hoping for it be a passé idea. I don’t think that’s the case, sadly. But that’s no reason for me not to be exploring other avenues opened up by the power of CSS.

It’s almost as if CSS provides too much power. Maybe it makes designers uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why the focus is on rounded corners, drop-shadows, wet-floor reflections and other graphical trends (bevel and emboss, anyone?) instead of seeing the bigger picture.

It’s a tired old cliché, but it’s true: design is about communication. It seems to me that a lot of web designers have conflated communication with control (in much the same way that marketeers confuse branding with perception).

I hope that things will change. I hope that some young guns will take up the challenge, stop following the crowd, and really push CSS to its fullest potential. I hope that the publication of a book like Transcending CSS will help inspire a new spirit of exploration. Don’t let me down, Malarkey.

Have you published a response to this? :