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Ten questions for Molly Holzschlag



An author, instructor, and Web designer, Molly Holzschlag has authored over 30 books related to Web design and development. She's been coined "one of the greatest digerati" and deemed one of the Top 25 Most Influential Women on the Web. Molly is an active and passionate member of the Web Standards Project who is dedicated to providing easy-to-access information about Web markup and design via her books, articles, courses, conference events and website.

[1] Russ: You've written over 30 Books - enough to fill a library wing, according to Eric Meyer. How have you managed to write so many books and stay so passionate?

Molly: There is a certain pathology in some book authors that drives them to write more and more books. Eric is nearing the middle stages of this particular ailment, and should be careful lest he fall prey to the same fate!

Honestly, for me, writing is what I always wanted to do. I view book authoring as a significant part of my career as an educator - it allows me to simultaneously create resources for fellow designers and developers while doing work that I love. So the numbers really aren't relevant, especially because as we all know, web development is a complex and ever-changing subject.

[2] Russ: Your new book, '250 HTML and Web Design Secrets', is about to hit the stands. Who is this book aimed at and what sort of web design issues does it address?

Molly: I love this book! I rarely say that about my own books, but this book is particularly important because it serves the intermediate-level audience with a comprehensive look at client-side Web design issues from a very contemporary slant.

If you're reading this interview, following standards organizations and weblogs, and have a few years of serious design and development under your belt, this book will be a nice addition to your shelf, but you're not the main audience. I see this book as particularly useful to those designers, educators, and implementers who are looking for a guide to (yes, I'm going to use the term) best practices, with an ample helping of standards.

From tools to process to project management to nuances in HTML, XHTML and CSS that might be otherwise missed, this book will really help fill in the gaps for those folks moving from conventional web design into a more sophisticated, professional realm. The book's format is such that each chapter is filled with "secrets" - practical tips that make doing our jobs easier.

[3] Russ: You recently co-wrote a book with Porter Glendinning called 'Teach Yourself Movable Type in 24 Hours'. Is there any reason you chose Movable Type over other blogging applications?

Molly: It boils down to market share and growth potential. Book writing is as much a business as it is a labor of love so there's strategy involved. Not only were Porter and I enamoured of the product, but we saw that it was taking off and that there would be a real need to create a helpful guide for early adopters. The book is a beginning level book, meant for folks wanting to implement a very richly featured tool for web logs and web sites.

Movable Type is proving itself to be more of a CMS than anything, and its many plug-ins and customizable features make it extremely attractive for professionals as well as hobbyists. While managing installation and enhancements might be easy for anyone who's ever done a little work with Perl, CGI, and servers, it can be totally frustrating for those individuals who haven't, yet who understand the role of a blogging/CMS tool and want to implement one.

The book is step-by-step, which helps reduce errors and guide readers as they learn Movable Type. An invaluable part of the book for all MT users is the template tag reference, which was one of Porter's portions of the book, and is something I find myself reaching for on an almost daily basis.

[4] Russ: Many of your books focus on aspects of web standards. Why do you think web standards are important for developers?

Molly: I believe that in order to do something well, we must learn as much about that something as possible. This way, when we decide to break rules or conventions, we know what we're doing and why we're doing it.

Standards help us achieve that knowledge. They guide us toward a deep understanding of the languages with which we work. I learned HTML and CSS the same way as everyone did at first - View Source. But I quickly found that I had huge gaps in my understanding of these languages and why certain problems were appearing. I turned to standards as a means of understanding more deeply not only the syntax of language, but the significance of language goals and ideals. In turn, I'm able to produce more complete information for my readers and attendees at trainings and conference sessions, helping fellow designers and developers fill in the gaps that learning the web the way we have has inevitably left us with.

Beyond the educational value, the practical value of standards is being proven out so consistently it's difficult to imagine doing things any other way. Finally, but perhaps most seminal to the issue is that the real vision of the Web - to be a platform, vendor, and user agent neutral means of sharing information - is a beautiful vision. Implementing standards allows us much more opportunity to reach into the future with a solid footing beneath us, and keep the web both technically clean as well as enhancing society's ability to communicate in myriad ways without the need for much more than connectivity and a user agent of some sort.

[5] Russ: You have spent a lot of time teaching people about structural markup and CSS. In your experience, what are the hardest concepts for people to come to terms with?

Molly: This goes back to the "gap" problem I was describing earlier. W3C specifications are written in complex and often confusing or vague language. When I first began studying the specs seriously, I found myself having to actually translate portions of what I was reading from this arcane academic language into human terms. Most people do not have the time or inclination to dig that deeply into the specs themselves, so I think we miss a lot of details along the way. Some examples are the importance of DOCTYPE declarations, understanding the nuances between different DTDs, and a lingering belief that markup is about presentation. When I ask folks in classes what 'h1' means, I often will hear "big bold and ugly" rather than "the most important heading on the page" Obviously the two perceptions are at odds with one another.

In CSS, I often see confusion with such issues as the difference between class and ID, relative and absolute positioning, over-reliance on classes rather than elegant use of selectors, and - perhaps most challenging - understanding the critical relationship between the document's structure and how CSS integrates with that structure. People often misunderstand or simply are not yet aware of the importance of the Cascade, how inheritance works, and what specificity is. These issues go to the heart of how CSS integrates with an HTML or XHTML document. Without that awareness, it becomes far too easy to get frustrated with CSS, thinking that CSS is bad, or browsers don't really have much support for CSS when the problem may actually be related to a conflict resolution or inheritance issue. Again, the more we know something, the more empowered we are.

[6] Russ: Every now and then the 'CSS vs tables' debate starts up again. Where do you stand? Is there still a place for table-based layouts?

Molly: The debate becomes nullified in the face of education. When a designer or developer really understands his or her options, that person is more empowered to find the solution that best suits the needs of the audience he or she is serving. Instead of arguing for or against tables, the well-educated developer will look at the target audience, required browser support, and any requirements from administration or clients, such as "Must work in Netscape 4.x" or if you're very lucky, "I don't care about IE 6.0" (has that ever happened to anyone?).

Bottom line is this: When you find you must use a table to manage browser consistency, you can go ahead and use that table, just keep that table very simple and always rely on CSS for as much of the presentational needs as possible.

A great example of this is the Jeffrey Zeldman - Hillman Curtis redesign of Fox Searchlight. Here, we have a case where the needs of the audience and client dictated a simple table for the layout, a few presentational and even proprietary elements, and intelligent use of CSS to come up with the right solution to the specific scenario they were facing.

[7] Russ: How do you deal with the 'IE factor' when building layouts in CSS?

Molly: I start drinking earlier and earlier in the day!

Seriously, my preferred method is to design to the ideal. I develop in Mozilla first, and then determine how to re-fit for IE 6.0 and other browsers. This might not be the best solution for everyone, but I find that it helps me because I can create really solid CSS and then study which workarounds and hacks I have to employ to achieve results for IE. Then, using strategies such as placing hacks in individual CSS files and then importing the hacks into my primary CSS document allows me to remove the hack the moment it's no longer needed. I simply remove one line of CSS from the main CSS document and delete the CSS document containing the hack, moving ever closer to the original clean, idealistic CSS.

[8] Russ: We apparently have a long wait till the next version of IE comes out, so we are stuck with the current version for a while. As a member of WaSP, are you concerned about the browser situation?

Molly: To say that I'm angry at Microsoft would be an understatement, because we forget that they were the early implementer of CSS - I was using CSS in IE 3.0 regularly while working for MSN. Their current argument seems to be that fixing the standards problems within their technology is far less important than fixing security flaws, which of course is true because those flaws are out and out devastating to all people using Microsoft products, not just the web browser. As much as we need the standards implemented, we need those security fixes and enhancements in browsers for more user control over pop-ups and adware and so forth. But, I simply don't see how a company as wealthy and powerful as Microsoft cannot find the resources to address all these things, particularly with the delays we're expecting.

As an optimist, I find that a challenge is also an opportunity. So, I say we forge solidly ahead, working around Microsoft's seeming lack of interest or concern. The more large-scale and prominent web sites such as AOL and Yahoo! that become standards-compliant in the waiting period will cause Microsoft no end of embarassment and serious pain if they find themselves distributing software that breaks the web experience for their users. So now's the time to move ahead with the good work, pay attention but not be disgusted to the point of depression by the politics, and keep holding the vision high.

[9] Russ: You recently said "Over the next months the public face of WaSP is going to be changing". Where do you see WaSP heading, and do you see a place for other groups like the Web Standards Group and the Guild of Accessible Web Designers?

Molly: My personal hope is that our current survey will prove out my theory that WaSP is challenged by its own infrastructure more than anything else. We have a one-way relationship with our audience, which I believe is a critical mistake. I want to see open discussions and I want to see us be able to facilitate more developer-to-developer, educator-to-educator, implementer-to-implementer relationships. This is how we will effectively educate and support our peers, not by lecturing from the mountaintop.

I have always felt that the playing field is wide open and any advocacy project that encourages education, support, and resources has a significant place. In fact, it's necessary - WaSP can't do it all, nor should it try. The Web itself needs diverse organizations to assist in its growth and progress, particularly because the world's a big place, and standards is but one of the many issues involved in creating great web sites. The more effective resources, the better.

[10] Russ: Finally, what sort of exciting projects have you got lined up in the near future?

Molly: This year seems to have found me traveling more than ever, despite the fact I said I would be backing off the travel. There is great demand for on-site education in corporate, government, and education sectors. I've been hopping from one event or on-site training to the next, all at impressive institutions who are finally seeing the light when it comes to standards implementation and are opening up their budgets for real training and education. So that's particularly exciting because it means that these past years of evangelism that to some seem to be a hopeless and frustrating task is actually gaining us awesome results.

I think I'm very fortunate to be an educator, because I get to talk to so many people on a daily basis who 'get' it that are not in the evangelical choir, but certainly part of the flock. This is significant, because it directly contradicts the claim made by some standards evangelists who are tired of carrying the torch that we're really preaching to the choir and the rest of those developers out there are lazy or don't care to get it so never will. Bullshit. We all know that the designer or developer who refuses to become more aware of contemporary practices will get left behind mighty quick! There are vast audiences outside the 'inner circle' of standards evangelists that are listening, are interested, and are moving forward in very real terms toward the ideal. I get to see that on the front lines all the time. That's really quite magical and re-invigorates my own passion for the field.

Book-wise, I expect you'll see a few titles with my name on it in coming months. One project is especially exciting, but it's early days into the book yet so I'm not really able to discuss it. But I promise you'll be hearing about it very soon.

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Molly: Thanks Russ, it's my pleasure. Keep up the fantastic work!

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