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..
Why start the css Zen Garden?
The idea that sparked the whole thing occurred to me about September of 2002. I was working for a company that still coded for Netscape 4.x, and I wanted to show them what was possible if they would just drop that albatross and look to the future. I started building it back then too, but it didn't develop any further than this[this is an exclusive for this interview, no one has seen this before].
March rolled around, and Lycos decided to run the "Hack Hotbot" contest which involved building a CSS 'skin' for the search engine. Long story short, I didn't like the conditions of the contest, their code was horrible, and my winning entry was rejected because I was Canadian.
But their incredibly inept mishandling of the contest turned out to be a good thing for the web design community in general. After I was done with my entries, I knew what NOT to do. With the idea from September still in the back of my head, it was time for me to put something together that got it right.
I saw a gulf. On one side, you have K10k and PixelSurgeon and DiK and their brethren; the high-end design-centric orgasmic eye-candy. On the other, there's the CSS freaks who were, as a collective, somewhat.. less.. than design-oriented.
Somebody had to bridge the gap. I don't think I've achieved that yet, but I see the resistance to CSS from the high-design community waning. People on the CSS side are actually starting to win in the CSS vs. tables war, and the Zen Garden is a huge arguing point in their favour.
Not that I'm advocating this battle or anything. Hybrid table-based layouts still have their place, and it's a matter of choosing the right technology for the job. Leave religion to the pros; make the best choice for your client.
It's now in the Google top 10 for 'css' searches; what accounts for its popularity?
I may be too familiar with CSS to answer this question properly. To me, the idea was a logical evolution of other projects, but to a lot of people it was a revolution. Some of us knew all along that CSS could do this, but very few had actually done it. Chris Casciano and Jeremy Keith were among the earliest.
But to everyone else, it was an eye-opener. A lot of people say they had no idea CSS was capable of doing what we're doing, so I guess the novelty factor worked in our favour. More, though, it's a centralized resource with an easy-to-remember name. It's something that people are eager to show others.
And with other designers submitting their own work, it's constantly being updated with new and surprising design work. No one is reading the text anymore, instead we keep checking back to see the amazing new interpretations of a now-familiar XHTML document.
Novelty was the spark, familiarity is what keeps it alive.