Note: The following article was written in the year 2000, when designing for the web was either usable and accessible or graphically precise. Each operating system and browser varied wildly from the next in terms of its display of any given web page, and there were no mobile devices to speak of. Although Cascading Style Sheets existed and were already useful for fonts, colors, and layout, many organizations, like Company X, were still coding in HTML 3.2, using tables for layout, font tags for fonts, and HTML attributes to specify colors. Because of these variables, there was often a disconnect between bosses who wanted web pages to look like print brochures, and web designers who knew that it was better to be flexible and accessible.
A great deal has changed since then, both in terms of the world-at-large understanding how the web is different from print, and greater consistency and control in how web pages are displayed by browsers.
August 29, 2000
Tired of my two-horse town, I finally packed up the pieces of my life and headed north along the I-5 corridor to a place where the "new economy" was more than media hype.
In this bustling city I found jobs! jobs! jobs! and a variety of recruiting agencies eager to find stars to shine in these jobs. And if a star weren't available, a warm body would do.
A few of these agencies were honest, sincere, and pro-active in their attempts to find a good place for me. But since my skills and interests lie in the more ethereal realms of information design, front-end design, and content, my opportunities were limited. "No problem," I thought, "I bet I can find a job writing HTML."
I soon found myself downtown, taking an elevator up to the tony offices of a well-known web temp agency which shall be henceforth known as Company-X.
Company-X was staffed by hip-yet-professional 20-somethings. Office desks were dotted with candy-colored iMacs, and walls were painted black so the staff could draw amusing pictures with colored chalk.
Making sure my hair was brushed and my blouse tucked in, I walked to the front desk and greeted Kyle, the friendly and enthusiastic receptionist."I'm here to talk to Debbie," I said.
"Awesome!" Kyle replied. "And I'm supposed to give you an HTML test, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"Awesome! PC or Mac?"
"Mac," I said.
After leading me to a grape-flavored, RAM-deprived iMac, Kyle handed me the test booklet. "Your images and text are located in folders on the desktop," he said. "You have one hour. Okay?"
In that hour I was to build a two-page website using HTML 3.2. There were to be links, internal anchors, and email links. There were to be graphical bars and dingbats. There were to be tables: fixed width and fluid. There was to be an image map. I was to do it all in BBEdit and Image Mapper, with Netscape 4.6 and IE 4.5 for viewing.
I knew it would be a challenge to finish all the tasks in an hour, but I'd had my coffee, I had the tools, and I was ready.
I jammed through the test, leaving the image map for last. The layout was relatively complex, but I was able to create it with three consecutive tables and avoid nesting. And luckily, I remembered how to use <FONT> tags.
I made sure my links worked properly. I made sure the code was solid and the look and feel very close to what was presented on paper.
I was almost to the middle of the second page when the agent walked in, introducing herself: "Hi Erika, I'm Debbie. How are you?"
"I'm fine. But I didn't finish the test."
"I was just getting ready to add the image."
"Would you like to add it now?"
I added the final image as she watched, then sat back so she could check my work. She scrutinized the page through IE 4.5, then she took the mouse and ran it over my graphical drop-cap a few times.
"Did you add the alt text for the letter 'I'?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "I always try to add alt text when an information is conveyed through an image."
"That's funny," she said. "Usually it pops up when you run the mouse over it."
"Not on a Mac," I said.
"No, it should pop up."
I showed her the alt text in my source code.
"Did you use tables?" she said, looking at the layout which could only be accomplished with multiple tables.
"Yes," I said.
"My only other concern is," she said, "this text here. You see how on the picture it fills up this area and matches with the bottom of the image? And on your layout, it doesn't reach the bottom of the image."
"That's because this is Mac IE 4.5," I said. "A Mac renders text smaller than a PC. If this were a PC, the text would fill the cell. If this were Mac IE 5, the text would fill the cell. The size of the font is also influenced by browser preferences."
"But," she countered, "our clients like their web pages to be exact."
"The web," I said, "is not print."
She looked me as if I had just told her that I was a space alien and Elvis was my invisible friend.
"Let's go into the other room," she said, "and talk."
So I followed Debbie into the conference room. She shut the door behind us and proceeded to explain that successful Company-X consultants take a "customer service" approach to web design. She said people like me, people who have had more control over site-building in the past, sometimes have a hard time with the concept of "teamwork." When I asked her what the normal process for site building was, she spoke of producers, art directors, back-end programmers ("that's where the big money is," she added), and HTML production people (me). I would be given a design created by the "art director" and my job would be to reproduce it, exactly, in HTML. The word "customer service" came up several more times.
Now, with fifteen years in the service industry behind me, I am familiar with the concept of customer service. And customer service is something I've always been good at. You don't last long in the service industry unless you understand the concept of teamwork. And you won't make money unless you understand the concept of service. For example, when I was a bartender, I kept the ashtrays clean and the drinks full. When a customer had a cigarette but no light, I lit it. When a customer asked for a dry martini, I made it. When a customer told a joke, I laughed at it. If you like people, customer service comes easy.
But was the customer always right? No, the customer was not.
Real service also includes looking out for your customers, and not being afraid to let them know when they are going astray. For example, when a customer staggers into a bar, flops on to the stool, and lights the wrong end of a cigarette, there might be a question about whether to serve this person another alcoholic beverage. One might offer alternatives: coffee, a soft drink, a cab.
Clearly, it takes a greater intelligence and power of judgment to tend bar than it does to code HTML. Yet too often, the web is like a bar full of drunks.
I then lapsed into a dream, envisioning the professional life of "Company-X customer service" Erika.
She was showing me papers now... zipping past the non-compete contract, and giving detailed instructions on how to fill out a W-4 and I-9.
As for my HTML test, my code was neither closely checked nor validated.
"Before I sign these papers," I said, "I have to think about it."
"That is a very good idea," she said, packing the papers neatly into the royal blue and lime green company folder, and handing the bundle to me.
"Thank you for your time," I said, and Elvis and I left the building.
"Elvis," I said, as we travelled down in the elevator, "if only you weren't invisible. Then YOU could create the perfect gif text and the flaming piranha hit counters and help pay the bills."
Elvis just sneered.