An interview with Dave Shea, the CSS Zen Gardener

You might not recognize the name, but if you're a serious web professional, you'll know the site: CSS Zen Garden. It's a simple idea; provide the mark-up and allow people to submit various CSS designs to style the page. It immediately mirrored the zeitgeist, and has attracted some top graphic designers and inspired hundreds of web professionals to learn CSS. Why? Now we can see what artists and graphic designers can do with CSS, rather than the early, rather boxy designs that the mark-up freaks were using.

Thus, The ZenGarden is both gallery and manifesto. Dave writes, "There is clearly a need for CSS to be taken seriously by graphic artists. The Zen Garden aims to excite, inspire, and encourage participation." So, who is Dave Shea? DMXzone's Bruce Lawson caught up with him over the weekend..

An interview with Dave Shea, CSS Zen gardener.

You  might not recognize the name, but if you're a serious web professional, you'll know the site: CSS Zen Garden. It's a simple idea; provide the mark-up and allow people to submit various CSS designs to style the page.  It immediately mirrored the zeitgeist, and has attracted some top graphic designers and inspired hundreds of web professionals to learn CSS. Why?  now we can see what artists and graphic designers can do with CSS, rather than the early, rather boxy designs that the mark-up freaks were using. Thus, The ZenGarden is both gallery and manifesto. Dave writes, "There is clearly a need for CSS to be taken seriously by graphic artists. The Zen Garden aims to excite, inspire, and encourage participation."

So, who is Dave Shea? DMXzone's Bruce Lawson caught up with him over the weekend..

It's uncommon for CSS freaks to be designers. Why are you a 'CSS evangelist'?

Like Doug, Todd, Kris, and Paul, I recognize that CSS-based design is not inherently ugly. It's just that the right people don't understand it yet.

Look at the fundamental difference between creating a prepress file (or vector illustration or Quicktime movie or whatever) and creating CSS. Everything a designer does on a computer is GUI-driven; we need WYSIWYG to function. But CSS is code. It's a whole different world, and that's why it isn't catching on: you have to be half-geek to get it.

I've seen discussion recently about coding vs. design. Some argue that being intimately familiar with the underlying code is the only way to problem-solve when issues arise. I suppose this is a fair claim given today's state of support for CSS. But my view remains that, simply, it's the wrong methodology if traditional designers are expected to learn this stuff.

Somewhere along the way, we're going to have to start seeing visual CSS editors for that to change. Table-based tools exist; using a combination of Dreamweaver and Fireworks I can build a reasonably good-looking site without learning much HTML. The code won't be pretty, but it will work well enough to please most clients. Until we have CSS editors that can match these tools in functionality and ease of use, you'll always see resistance from designers who can't be bothered to learn the code. We need InDesign for CSS. Who's working on it?

But I'm not a designer like that. I'm discontent to wait for the tools to catch up, so I've taken a few giant steps ahead and looked into where the web is going. I see that with the pursuit of XML comes the complete and total separation of presentation and content. Locking myself in to late-90's design methods would be foolish with this on the horizon, and sooner or later unprofitable. I am planning for the future: my own.

Oh, and it's fun. There's not much that's more satisfying than running a new site through the validators for the first time and hitting XHTML, CSS, and 508 without a single change necessary.

Is there a difference in these post-boom days between a web designer and a web developer? Which are you?

Sort of. I consider a web designer predominantly front-end: they do design, Flash, XHTML/CSS coding, a bit of JavaScript, and maybe they'll dabble in server-side coding every now and then. I consider a web developer predominantly back-end: they do PHP, Perl, MySQL, ASP, XML, with the odd bit of JavaScript and XHTML/CSS/XSLT coding. There's overlap, and I see a sub-group thriving right dead in the center of these two that I have no name for. Throw in the Information Architects, Usability gurus, and Accessibility experts and the definitions get really hazy, really fast.

I am a web designer. I don't like that term, and usually bill myself out as a 'Graphic Designer' despite it, but my design focus happens to be the web.

What is about the Web a medium that fascinates/ drives you?

The order from chaos, the power of independent voices, and the equal footing that everyone is given, for starters. I take traditional media no more seriously than I take the average weblog these days. With sensationalistic journalism at all-time highs, I find myself placing as much (or more) trust in personalities as I do corporations. I can't be alone

But beyond that, there's the universality of it. I can access the same information as someone in Kyrgyzstan at the click of a mouse. I was taking frequent trips down the west coast of North America last year, and every time I looked out the window of the plane I couldn't help but visualize the vast distance the web encompasses. It's easy to take for granted, but it's truly incredible.

What's the first website you ever made? What's your favourite site you've ever worked on?

Well, the first that actually made it to a live server was a 'digital gallery' of some really bad 3D-rendered JPGs back in 1997. I was just coming down off a long QuickBasic programming kick and realizing that I was more interested in the graphics than I was in the actual programming, so I needed a medium. The web was brand new to my world at the time, and after picking up a copy of Molly Holzschlag's 'Sizzling Web Site Design I figured it was something new to play with. I even got a job from that one. 6 years later I'm still having fun with it, so I guess it was the right medium.

As far as favourite sites, I'm still getting a thrill out of every new design submitted to the Garden, and I love having absolutely no one to report to when working on mezzoblue.com. But for actual projects, I keep coming back every few years to a chocolate company called 'Over the Moon' here in Vancouver. I did their first site in 1999, and the current design was put together in late 2001/early 2002. Looking at the code you'll see that I was still in the table mindset back then. But it was the start of my dabbling with CSS/XHTML hybrid layouts, as you can see by the validator links in the footer. Why's it my favourite? Free chocolate.

Bruce Lawson

I'm the brand manager of glasshaus, a publishing company specialising in books for web professionals. We've a series for dreamweaver professionals - the dreamweaver pro series.

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