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An interview with Dave Shea, the CSS Zen Gardener
August 18, 2003 by Bruce Lawson

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..

What's your personal favourite design up there?

The diplomatic answer, of course, is that they're all wonderful. But since you've got the Magnum against my temple, Bruce, I'd say that Didier Hilhorst's Release One, Radu Darvas' Zunflower, Doug Bowman's Golden Mean, and Mike Pick's What Lies Beneath went way past my expectations of what the Zen Garden could become. Each one offers something totally unique CSS-wise, but they're also Damn Good Design.

But those are the obvious choices. I am really fond of the set from design #24 (Dan Rubin's Not So Minimal) to design #31 (Kev Mears' Hedges) inclusive; each one of those is unique, well-designed, and an incredible addition to the project.

Just between you and me, Bruce, I never expected the quality of work that we've been seeing. Personally, it's been humbling, inspiring, and an honour to work with the various Garden submitters.

You also run mezzoblue. Why blue?

Blue is the expression of my quiet sorrow within.

Actually, I'm a pretty happy guy right now. I did some brainstorming in fall '01 to come up with a domain name that wasn't long taken, and I ran through a bunch of variants on a 'cold' theme ? PixelBlue, MezzoFrost, and a few others. It felt right at the time, but I regret having locked myself into a specific palette. On the bright side, I got a really interesting colour scheme out of my latest re-design.

What's your favourite film/ piece of music/ building / pizza flavour/ foreign word?

At the moment: Amélie / Itzhak Perlman violin solos / Rockefeller Center / California Pizza Kitchen's Peking Duck / merde. List subject to change within seconds of publication.

Who do you think are the cutting-edge designers at the moment?

I was browsing through Doug Bowman's portfolio the other night, and I said to my wife, "you know, it's good to be intimidated by other people's work. It gives you something to shoot for." The work of Todd Dominey and the Cuban Council/K10k crew always make me smile. I wasn't familiar with Mike Pick until he submitted his two Zen Garden designs, but I've quickly become a fan of his portfolio.

I love browsing the design portals (surfstation.lu, pixelsurgeon.com, designiskinky.com) now and then for inspiration and some good, clean link-lovin'? but I can't commit myself to much more than the casual encounter. It's nothing personal, darlings, I just can't keep up with your shiny rocks and flashy cars.

The end of IE standalone, and the death of Netscape ? a fillip or setback for adoption of modern mark-up techniques?

Depends on the day of the week. I go back and forth a lot.

The optimist in me says that Mozilla/Opera/Safari will quickly fill the giant hole left behind, the rise of alternative devices like wireless makes standards support more important than ever, and dealing with IE6 for the next six years will be a minor inconvenience at best.

The pessimist in me says that Microsoft never did like the web, and as they shift their focus away from it, we can bet whatever their strategy is from here on out will be proprietary. And given their incredible market share, we're just going to have to support it. The optimist in me interjects that there's no way in the world Microsoft can win that game; the public likes the web way too much to let them yank the carpet out beneath us.

The optimist wins out most days, but it's not a great situation.

On a scale of 1 (=Amish) to 10 (=Star Trek Convention attendee), how geeky are you?

My wife would claim a 12 for me, but I haven't seen Star Trek in years so it can't be all bad. It's a sliding scale at any rate, and compared to those who are liable to read this, I'm probably a 6. Compared to average Joe on the street? Definitely a 9.

Are Standards preventing people from publishing on the Web by placing barriers to entry (CSS, XHTML etc etc)?

An excellent question, and one that has started popping up in my personal e-mails from the Garden. My answer is no way, but I'm looking forward to the discussion that saying that will generate.

XHTML and CSS is a combination that no amateur should be forced to learn. 1996-era HTML was okay for them because a simple document consisted of a few presentational tags, and that was it - none of this abstract 'separation of presentation from content' nonsense. Most amateurs never get beyond the single-letter tags, and we shouldn't expect them to.

But as the web moves toward XML and the aforementioned abstraction, the barrier for entry is unquestionably raised. CSS is vital for the future, but picture your less-than-computer-literate family members trying to wrap their minds around inheritance and the box model. Yeah, right.

So if the web is for everyone, but the issues involved in creating for it require a stack of textbooks six feet high, then how does the average amateur publish their family photo album?

Services have been filling this gap for years. What we can't lose sight of is in publishing HTML, you first have to grasp FTP and directory structures. This in itself has been a significant barrier to entry, and most amateurs never bother. Web sites like Fotki and Kodak's Picture Playground offer a solution for photo storage. Now that weblogs are the Big Thing, all-in-one services like BlogSpot, TypePad, and AOL Journals will continue the trend.

Amateurs never need know we're changing the underlying code the web is built on. And while the technology doesn't matter to them, it sure is nice for me to see TypePad standards-compliant from the bottom up. Hopefully more services will follow suit.

You're a designer. I'm not. I wholeheartedly support the aims of www.bancomicsans.com in vanquishing the comic sans typeface from the earth. Do you?

Oh, absolutely. At first I thought it was just a pedantic in-joke for typography geeks, but then I started noticing the guy has a point. It's everywhere. I don't think it's fair to hold Vincent Connare (the designer of Comic Sans MS) responsible for the ubiquity, but I guess that's a lesson for designers everywhere: your work represents you, whether you want it to or not.

Assume you were tyrant of the world for a day. What else would you ban?

Vietnamese coffee and the big four: Nestle, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, and Kraft.

Whoops, I'll get down off my soapbox.

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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