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Ten questions for Andy Budd

18-May-04

Andy Budd

Andy Budd works as senior web designer for Message Digital Design Ltd. In his spare time he runs SkillSwap.org, a project that provides free training for his local new media community. He is most widely know for his blog, where he writes about a wide range of subjects including web design and web standards.

[1] Russ: How did you get started in web design/development?

Andy: I started using the web as a means of researching destinations and keeping in touch with people, while backpacking around Asia. During these travels, I met a number of web designers and became interested in pursuing web design as a career. It was just at the start of the dot com boom, and even basic HTML skills were in high demand. I had this naive idea that I'd be able to work as a freelance web designer during the summer and then go travelling during the winter.

On my return to England, I bought a cheap computer, and with the help of sites like webmonkey and ask doctor web, I taught myself basic web design skills. I set to work building up a bit of a portfolio of sites and was very soon working as a freelance web designer.

[2] Russ: What is it about the Web design and development that interests you?

Andy: I've been interested in computers and technology since my first Sinclair 48k. I liked the idea of pursuing a career in IT, but realised I didn't have the patience or dedication to be a hard core programmer. I've always been a very inquisitive person and am never happier than when I'm learning new skills and then putting them into practice. Variety being the spice of life, it's the breadth of my work that keeps me interested. I also like the feeling of seeing something evolve before your eyes and the feeling of accomplishment when the jobs finished and the clients are happy.

[3] Russ: What does the term "Web Standards" mean to you?

Andy: Building a site to a set of known standards, rather than to a particular browser or set of proprietor tags.

[4] Russ: What made you move towards developing using web standards?

Andy: I guess reading sites like Webmonkey and ALA got me interested in the potential of CSS, namely lower files sizes and search engine friendliness. At the same time I came across a local developer called Jeremy Keith via his site Adactio. Jeremy was a keen standards advocate and his site was one of the few pure CSS sites around at the time. After a number of conversations with Jeremy about CSS and web standards, I decided to have a go at building my first pure CSS site.

I found the process much more logical than the old table based, browser specific approach. Rather than coding to a browser, you would now code to a standard. If your design broke in a particular browser, you'd know it was the browser to blame, rather than your code. Obviously you'd still needed to take into account browser issues, but coding to a standard allowed you to remove one variable from the equation.

[5] Russ: What were the hardest aspects of web standards development to get a grip on for you?

Andy: I guess the most difficult concepts for me were CSS positioning and floating. However, by far the most difficult aspect of web standards development is buggy, inconsistent browsers.

[6] Russ: Do you think that developing sites using Web Standards is an achievable goal for web developers today?

Andy: Absolutely. Remember that HTML 4.01 has been around since 1998 and despite what some people may have you believe, tables have not been deprecated. Most designers could start creating standards compliant sites tomorrow, just by adding the correct doctype to their pages.

However, when most people talk about web standards, they are actually talking about tableless CSS based layouts and xhtml. Creating sites in this manner is complicated by a couple of issue. The most obvious problem is browser support. There are still quite a few buggy browsers kicking around and a large proportion of my development time is spent dealing with unruly user agents.

The biggest problem however, is inertia. We all spent years learning how to build sites using tables, and most of us are now pretty good at it. Tableless design is a completely new skill with (in my experience) a 6 to 9 month learning curve. As such, it's much easier for most developers to continue building sites the way they have always done. The thing is, web standards are definitely the future, and there will come a time when these old techniques become redundant.

[7] Russ: Can you tell us a bit about the Web Standards Awards. How did it start, what are its aims and do you feel it is successful so far?

Andy: I'd been meaning to put together a site highlighting well designed CSS sites for some time. I'd discussed the idea with a number of people but never got round to doing anything about it. Then a web designer named Johan Edlund contacted me to ask my opinion of a site he was working on. That site was the Web Standards Awards. I thought the site was great, and kept bugging him every few weeks to see if it was finished. The site was about 90% complete. All it needed was an admin system and some content.

At the same time, I noticed a post on CSS-Discuss from Cameron Adams about the need for some kind of award/showcase site (this was all prior to the daily standard and the CSS Vault). I told Cameron about the WSA and, to cut a long story short, we both offered to help Johan finish the site off. I set up MT and contacted potential judges, while Cameron wrote the copy and set up a submissions admin system.

The purpose of the WSA is to highlight and reward well designed, standards based sites. It's to act as design inspiration to the many standards based designers out there and to prove that good design and standards are not mutually exclusive.

[8] Russ: Do you think there is an element of web standards fascism in the web development community?

Andy: Oh definitely, as you can probably tell by my replies to some of the comments on the WSA site and also my blog. It's extremely easy to cry foul if a site doesn't validate because of a couple of unencoded ampersands, or if the display isn't 100% perfect on an outdated or minority browser. However I think this attitude shows a lack of understanding about the pressures professional web designers are under, as well as a deep misunderstanding about web standards.

Time is in huge demand in our industry, and despite peoples best intentions, bugs and anomalies are unavoidable. However it's the very fact that people are trying to produce standards compliant sites on such limited budgets and tight deadlines, that needs to be commended. After all, web standards are meant to help us, not to act as a cross to crucify people on. Unfortunately, the "all or nothing" approach of some standards Zealots just give people another reason not to adopt web standards.

[9] Russ: SkillSwap - what it is all about and how it is going?

Andy: The idea behind SkillSwap arose from my local web design mailing list. I realised that within the local community there were a huge range of skills available. Rather than pay for expensive training courses, I though people may be willing to swap some of their time and knowledge in return for the chance to learn things from other members of the community.

So I started organising regular SkillSwap events. Basically, around once a month, somebody from the local new media community volunteers to teach a small group of peers about a subject of their choice. These sessions usually last for around three hours and are held in a local training centre. The response so far has been excellent. We've had a great selection of talks, all of which have been heavily over subscribed, and we generally don't have problems finding speakers.

SkillSwap is currently a small, local project that I run by myself in my own time. However It's something that could easily work in other locations, something I'm interested in exploring in the future.

[10] Russ: Finally, You have posted some excellent information on your blog including Crib Sheet 1, 2 and 3, the extremely popular The Business Case for Web Accessibility and No Margin for Error - to name a few. Do you enjoy writing for the web and do you find it rewarding?

Andy: Thanks. As you can probably tell, I'm really into web design, and can talk about it endlessly. When I've been struggling with a problem or concept, I find writing about it on my blog can be very cathartic. This simple act of putting things in your own words can be extremely helpful. It makes you think things through in a much more structured way and helps give a different perspective on the issue.

I've learnt so much from the web community, I appreciate the chance to put something back. If I figure out a problem, come across a useful resource or have an opinion on something, rather than keep it to myself, I'll post it to my blog. If somebody comes across one of these posts and finds it useful, that's my reward.

Russ: Thank you for your time, Andy!
Andy: It was my pleasure.

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