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Ten Questions for Cameron Adams

22-Nov-04

Cameron Adams

Cameron Adams, aka the Man in Blue, has been designing things on and off the Web since 1997. Based in Melbourne, Australia, a university background in Computer Science and over 7 years experience in graphic design have made the Internet his home away from home - where he revels in making usable, accessible and likeable interfaces.

In addition to the projects he's currently tinkering with, Cameron hones his writing skills by posting musings about the Internet and design in general to his respected weblog. He is also one of the founders and judges of the Web Standards Awards, a site devoted to the promotion of the best sites on the Standards-compliant Internet.

[1] Russ: First of all, when did you first start developing with web standards?

Cameron: Before mid-2003 the only thing that I used CSS for was to get some awesome hover effects on anchor tags. After discovering JZ's "The Daily Report" I was really excited about this new way of coding web sites, but I'm not sure that I fully understood *why* it was a better way of doing things. Of course, the amount of time that has been put into Standards advocacy by people from all over the globe -- through weblogs, articles and books -- has now clarified that for me.

Irrespective, at the time all the cool people were using Standards, so as a true lemming I stopped the development of my personal site in deformed tables and gave this XHTML/CSS thing a shot; pretty much a baptism of fire. Since then -- November 27, 2003 -- I don't think I've included a presentational table in any site I've done.

[2] Russ: You became an overnight success with the launch of your site - Man in Blue. Did you have any idea that it would be so well received?

Cameron: At the time I developed it, I wasn't aware of many eye-catching Standards-based sites, apart from maybe Stopdesign (and anything else out of the Bowman House of Style), so I was trying to see what my years of K10K browsing could bring to the table. From that perspective I hoped it would make a splash, but the magnitude of that splash -- and the longevity of its ripples -- have truly surprised me.

For the initial impression I can probably thank Doug Bowman who, after being sent several unmarked bills in small denominations, gave it a glowing writeup on his weblog. For its continued success ... I suppose I can only thank the patience of the people who wade through my prose.

[3] Russ: You are one of the rare individuals that straddles the fence between serious coding and design. Do you run the risk of losing a testicle in the process?

Cameron: Though the future of the Adams clan may be at risk, I wouldn't have it any other way.

The alluring essence of web development, as opposed to print design or application programming (the two established areas from which I feel web development can best draw comparisons), is that it allows me to exercise both my logical and creative tendencies. Not to say that print design doesn't include logicality or that programming isn't creative, but they both have distinctive processes that prevent immediate translation between the two. By combining these two previously disparate areas, the Internet has the ability to create something new -- interactive beauty; elegant systems.

Although many people preach a specialisation of skills on the Web -- usability, information architecture, visual design, programming -- I think that to truly grasp the potential of the medium you have to be able to straddle that divide, and that's what we're seeing the new breed of web developers doing. A great example of this is the usage of programming languages to create digital art, such as at Processing.

[4] Russ: You recently said "A design should be based on usability, accessibility, aesthetics, but never on floats, lists or background images". What did you mean by this?

Cameron: What I meant was "Doug Bowman, please use this for a presentation at Web Essentials 04".

No, Doug gave a great talk which neatly coincided with my own views: Web Standards are merely one way of doing something that has been around for a while, and will be around for much longer. Architects don't let a hammer dictate what they should build, so Web Standards shouldn't dictate the way that a web page is developed.

We're already seeing Standards practices change -- a lot of that brought about by experimentation. Without that experimentation there would be no innovation; without innovation, no improvement. If you continue to circumvent your design process by thinking in terms of what you *know* you can already implement, then you will never be confronted with problems you have to solve. Truly a boring life, and not a way in which to better yourself or your designs.

[5] Russ: In January you created an online XHTML/CSS based Scrabble. Was it hard to build?

Cameron: The HTML code and visual design were fairly trivial to come up with. (Scrabble isn't exactly the best looking board game to hit the shelves) It was the behaviour layer -- the JavaScript -- that was the hardest part.

From my initial plans to CSS style one individual Scrabble tile, it turned into a mini software engineering project. When you start something at 10PM that you thought would take an hour, and you end up modularising code at 5AM, it's kind of hard to optimise your functions. Needless to say, the code isn't the neatest, but Olly Betts managed to extend it and add some functionality, so it can't be that illegible.

[6] Russ: In February, along with Johan Edlund and Andy Budd, you launched the Web Standards Awards. How are the Awards going?

Cameron: The awards are motoring along quite nicely. There's been quite a flood of XHTML/CSS galleries around the Web, but I get the feeling that we're the only one that really looks at the big picture -- design, validation, usability, semantic code -- whereas most of the others seem to be happy to put up a good looking site if it simply uses no tables. You might think that finding well designed sites that have quality code amidst all this Standards fervour would be easy, but more often than not good looking sites don't match that quality under the hood. That's why you'll find less sites up at the Web Standards Awards than elsewhere ... and why it makes it such an honour to win one ;o]

Of course, as Mike Davidson controversially stated, how far do you want to take Standards? We're fairly strict on code quality and validation, but we like to take a holistic approach. If there are other mitigating factors which have influenced validation, etc. then we'll take those into account when making a decision to give out an award.

[7] Russ: In March you introduced "Accessible, stylish form layout". Did you learn much about browser support during the process?

Cameron: I would have to say that forms are probably the least standardised objects across browsers. All other elements are pretty much an invisible square box with standard decoration applied to it, but if you're using semantic and accessible form structures -- fieldsets, legends, labels and inputs -- then you'll probably have no chance of getting a form to display consistently across browsers, let alone operating systems.

Aside from differences between the way padding and margin are handled inside form elements by browsers, I think perhaps their unique relationship with the OS is what makes them such a difficult beast to handle on a web page. You're using widgets that Micrsofot or Linux or Apple have pre-determined, and sometimes it's just not possible to mesh their ideas with the ideas on your web page. This can be a good thing -- forms are about extracting data from a user who has better things to do, so the more standardised and easier this process is for them then the better it is all around. But if you're a pixel-retentive designer then it's probably not your idea of perfection.

[8] Russ: You recently launched Energy Express. The navigation is visually amazing, yet it uses a basic list for structure. How was it achieved?

Cameron: Ummmm ... just let me remind myself about the code ... oh yes.

It's all bare bones HTML, except for some special classes/IDs. IDs are needed for the first and last items in the main menu because they are visually different from the "generic" items and require different background images. If there was cross-browser support for the :first-child CSS selector and a couple of others, then these would probably be redundant.

The classes allow the CSS to know when a menu item is on i.e. highlighted, and when it is extended i.e. has visible child items. If I was coding this now I would probably remove the inline classes from the list and use body classes to modify styles using the stylesheet cascade.

For the background images themselves it's all about careful tiling ... and drop shadows of course :o]

[9] Russ: In June you launched your new portfolio site. What sort of obstacles did you have to overcome during development?

Cameron: The biggest obstacle was designing something which I liked (you're your own worst client) and which was cutting-edge enough for me to warrant putting time into.

The second biggest obstacle was cross-browser floats. There's four main floats on the site, each with about four other floats contained within them, and they all had to be pixel perfect. The only solution to this is hacks. Hacks for IE 5.x, hacks for IE 5.0, hacks for IE 5.5, hacks for IE 6.0, hacks for Firefox, hacks for Opera. I think I spent about four days on Position Is Everything trying to figure out ways not to use them, but even Big John came up empty, so there was nothing to do but h***.

Third obstacle? Image slicing. If I ever tell you that I'm going to design another site with 8 alternate stylesheets (originally 16), please slap me.

Still, I think it was worth it.

[10] Russ: Finally, you have tackled scrabble, forms, online colour tools and more. What's next?

Cameron: Well, at the moment I have a little collaborative art project going, so I could be hanging in the Museum of Modern Art any day now.

I'm drawn to anything that allows me to explore new areas and ideas. That's what originally drew me to Web Standards, and what will draw me to my next area of interest (Web or not).

Web Standards aside, I don't think I've proven myself on a commercial design level, but there are two projects which will be launching in the new year which I'm really proud of and -- if they don't do it for anyone else -- will at least prove to myself that I can put together the full package.

In 2005 I'm also becoming a fully free agent, so I'll be desperately schmoozing for work and unemptied pizza boxes. If anyone has any interesting projects/jobs/food barter systems *anywhere* in the world, drop me a line -- I'm keen to jump out of my rut. </plug>

Russ: Thanks for the interview, Cameron
Cameron: It's always an honour to talk to someone who remembers 8-track tape players, Russ.
Russ: What the hell is an 8-track tape player?

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