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Wolfville, Nova Scotia


Remembering the Web That Was

Chris Campbell

About a week ago my son asked me for some help with redoing his Web site. He's seven years old and he likes to do things that everyone else in the family does and since most of us make Web sites that's what he wants to do. He already has some locally hosted stuff. He wanted to blog so I set him up with Movable Type which he used a bit and then he saw me working on this site and he wanted to use what I used, which is Blosxom, so I set him up with Blosxom which kept him for a while longer. Then he wanted to change the look of the site and he asked me how I did it. He wanted to use HTML, like me, but I didn't have time to teach him so I started thinking about the books in the computer bookcase and thought of Jennifer Niederst's Learning Web Design. I gave it to my son and he started reading and coding with BBEdit. Then he wanted more control over the look and layout of the site and asked me how I did that. I told him about CSS and then he wanted to learn about that and I discovered the CSS palette in BBEdit that makes things a bit simpler.

This got me thinking about how things were when I started making Web pages and how wonderful it was when I found out how to do things. The first book that made things easy and understandable was the now out-of-print Designing for the Web. I still have the book and it actually holds up pretty well. It was my constant companion when I first started teaching Web design to people. Then I moved on to Web Design in a Nutshell which is still my favourite printed reference.

Now I don't read a lot of books about basic stuff since I'm trying to do more with CSS and focussing on the content and less on the presentation since sometimes working on the look is a great way to delay writing. It was neat in the old days because there weren't as many Web sites and many of the questions weren't "how" to do something, but "if" something was possible to do. It was fun because everyone was learning and trying things out. There was the constant push to cut things down and to wrap your head around a different way of thinking to code stuff. Now I code stuff by hand with BBEdit's help and I really like it. I'm closer to the code and by trying to code stuff cleanly and to standards it isn't as big a deal to do a redesign in terms of needing to redo lots of pages.

I'm also realizing how many design and coding principles that I've assimilated into my own practice. I don't look a lot of stuff up and firmly separate out the content from the presentation. In a funny way I think that many of the practices that I follow are all aligning... the same for thinking about teaching, editing, writing and creating almost anything. I think about what to say, how to say it and then playing around with the presentation. The simple version is "think, plan, make it work, and make it pretty." When I don't follow that process is when I get off topic and spend more time exploring a technique and less time exploring ideas.

Seeing my son build his pages made me remember how wonderful it is to see something appear in a browser after you code it. The sense of wonder that made the Web so special. The amazing feeling of seeing a new page and figuring out how it was done and checking out the code to confirm what you thought. In some ways it is a bit of magic - seeing behind the curtain at the machinery inside. I'd forgotten about a lot of that and now I've got a little bit of it back thanks to my son asking a few questions.