The Cult of the Complex
’Tis a gift to be simple. Increasingly, in our line of work, ’tis a rare gift indeed.
In an industry that extols innovation over customer satisfaction, and prefers algorithm to human judgement (forgetting that every algorithm has human bias in its DNA), perhaps it should not surprise us that toolchains have replaced know-how.
Likewise, in a field where young straight white dudes take an overwhelming majority of the jobs (including most of the management jobs) it’s perhaps to be expected that web making has lately become something of a dick measuring competition.
It was not always this way, and it needn’t stay this way. If we wish to get back to the business of quietly improving people’s lives, one thoughtful interaction at a time, we must rid ourselves of the cult of the complex. Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.
And the div cries Mary
In 2001, more and more of us began using CSS to replace the non-semantic HTML table layouts with which we’d designed the web’s earliest sites. I soon noticed something about many of our new CSS-built sites. I especially noticed it in sites built by the era’s expert backend coders, many of whom viewed HTML and CSS as baby languages for non-developers.
In those days, whether from contempt for the deliberate, intentional (designed) limitations of HTML and CSS, or ignorance of the HTML and CSS framers’ intentions, many code jockeys who switched from table layouts to CSS wrote markup consisting chiefly of divs and spans. Where they meant list item, they wrote span. Where they meant paragraph, they wrote div. Where they meant level two headline, they wrote div or span with a classname of h2, or, avoiding even that tragicomic gesture toward document structure, wrote a div or span with verbose inline styling. Said div was followed by another, and another. They bred like locusts, stripping our content of structural meaning.
As an early adopter and promoter of CSS via my work in The Web Standards Project (kids, ask your parents), I rejoiced to see our people using the new language. But as a designer who understood, at least on a basic level, how HTML and CSS were supposed to work together, I chafed.
Cry, the beloved font tag
Everyone who wrote the kind of code I just described thought they were advancing the web merely by walking away from table layouts. They had good intentions, but their executions were flawed. My colleagues and I here at A List Apart were thus compelled to explain a few things.
Mainly, we argued that HTML consisting mostly of divs and spans and classnames was in no way better than table layouts for content discovery, accessibility, portability, reusability, or the web’s future. If you wanted to build for people and the long term, we said, then simple, structural, semantic HTML was best—each element deployed for its intended purpose. Don’t use a div when you mean a p.
This basic idea, and I use the adjective advisedly, along with other equally rudimentary and self-evident concepts, formed the basis of my 2003 book Designing With Web Standards, which the industry treated as a revelation, when it was merely common sense.
The message messes up the medium
When we divorce ideas from the conditions under which they arise, the result is dogma and misinformation—two things the internet is great at amplifying. Somehow, over the years, in front-end design conversations, the premise “don’t use a div when you mean a p” got corrupted into “divs are bad.”
A backlash in defense of divs followed this meaningless running-down of them—as if the W3C had created the div as a forbidden fruit. So, let’s be clear. No HTML element is bad. No HTML element is good. A screwdriver is neither good nor bad, unless you try to use it as a hammer. Good usage is all about appropriateness.
Divs are not bad. If no HTML5 element is better suited to an element’s purpose, divs are the best and most appropriate choice. Common sense, right? And yet.
Somehow, the two preceding simple sentences are never the takeaway from these discussions. Somehow, over the years, a vigorous defense of divs led to a defiant (or ignorant) overuse of them. In some strange way, stepping back from a meaningless rejection of divs opened the door to gaseous frameworks that abuse them.
Note: We don’t mind so much about the abuse of divs. After all, they are not living things. We are not purists. It’s the people who use the stuff we design who suffer from our uninformed or lazy over-reliance on these div-ridden gassy tools. And that suffering is what we protest. div-ridden, overbuilt frameworks stuffed with mystery meat offer the developer tremendous power—especially the power to build things quickly. But that power comes at a price your users pay: a hundred tons of stuff your project likely doesn’t need, but you force your users to download anyway. And that bloat is not the only problem. For who knows what evil lurks in someone else’s code?
Two cheers for frameworks
There’s nothing wrong with using frameworks to quickly whip up and test product prototypes, especially if you do that testing in a non-public space. And theoretically, if you know what you’re doing, and are willing to edit out the bits your product doesn’t need, there’s nothing wrong with using a framework to launch a public site. Notice the operative phrases: if you know what you’re doing, and are willing to edit out the bits your product doesn’t need.
Alas, many new designers and developers (and even many experienced ones) feel like they can’t launch a new project without dragging in packages from NPM, or Composer, or whatever, with no sure idea what the code therein is doing. The results can be dangerous. Yet here we are, training an entire generation of developers to build and launch projects with untrusted code.
CSS is not broken, and it’s not too hard
Folks, CSS is not broken, and it’s not too hard. (You know what’s hard? Chasing the ever-receding taillights of the next shiny thing.) But don’t take my word for it. Check these out:
- Getting Started with CSS Layout—Rachel Andrew, Smashing Magazine
- Learn CSS Grid—Jen Simmons
- CSS Grid Layout—MDN web docs
- Grid by Example—Rachel Andrew
- A Complete Guide to Grid—Chris House, CSS-Tricks
- Practical CSS Grid: Adding Grid to an Existing Design—Eric Meyer, A List Apart
- Jen Simmons Labs
- Layout Land—YouTube
- A Book Apart: The New CSS Layout, by Rachel Andrew
- The Story of CSS Grid, from its Creators—Aaron Gustafson, A List Apart
- Transcript: Intrinsic Web Design with Jen Simmons (The Big Web Show)
Keep it simple, smarty
Good communication strives for clarity. Design is its most brilliant when it appears most obvious—most simple. The question for web designers should never be how complex can we make it. But that’s what it has become. Just as, in pursuit of “delight,” we forget the true joy reliable, invisible interfaces can bring, so too, in chasing job security, do we pile on the platform requirements, forgetting that design is about solving business and customer problems … and that baseline skills never go out of fashion. As ALA’s Brandon Gregory, writing elsewhere, explains:
There’s a lot of complexity to good design. Technical complexity. UX complexity. Challenges of content and microcopy. Performance challenges. This has never been and never will be an easy job.
Simplicity is not easy—not for us, anyway. Simplicity means doing the hard work that makes experiences appear seamless—the sweat and torture-testing and failure that eventually, with enough effort, yields experiences that seem to “just work.”
Nor, in lamenting our industry’s turn away from basic principles and resilient technologies, am I suggesting that CDNs and Git are useless. Or wishing that we could go back to FTP—although I did enjoy the early days of web design, when one designer could do it all. I’m glad I got to experience those simpler times.
But I like these times just fine. And I think you do, too. Our medium is growing up, and it remains our great privilege to help shape its future while creating great experiences for our users. Let us never forget how lucky we are, nor, in chasing the ever-shinier, lose sight of the people and purpose we serve.
Recently by Jeffrey Zeldman
Further reading about Code
We think of our job as controlling the user’s experience. But the reality is, we control far less than we imagine.
Web development has changed over the past 20 years, but when it comes to writing CSS, we’re still stuck in the 1990s.
About the Author
Designing and blogging since 1995, Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) founded A List Apart in 1998; cofounded the web design conference An Event Apart; cofounded and publishes A Book Apart—brief books for people who make websites; wrote the industry-changing front-end bible Designing With Web Standards, now in a third edition coauthored by Ethan Marcotte; is a founding faculty member of the MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts NYC; and hosts The Big Web Show, an internet radio talk show featuring special guests on “everything web that matters.” His newest thing is studio.zeldman, a web and interaction design studio and strategic consultancy in NYC. More.
More from this Author
- Another 10k Apart: Create a Website in 10 KB, Win Prizes!
- New A List Apart wants you!
- A List Apart volunteer update
Also from this author
“A web designer without a copy of Designing with Web Standards is like a carpenter without a level. With this third edition, Zeldman continues to be the voice of clarity; explaining the complex in plain English for the rest of us.” — Dan Cederholm, author, Bulletproof Web Design and Handcrafted CSS
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