Graphic designers misunderstanding Web standards

Andy Rutledge has crafted a couple of beautiful articles in which he attempts to explain why using Web standards does not stifle the creativity of or impose artificial barriers on graphic designers.

In the first post, Web Standards: it’s about quality, not compliance, Andy states what is quite obvious to any standardista: Web standards are there to ensure that your site is a high quality site, not to force you to make your site look like every other site.

Since, unsurprisingly, some people wilfully misinterpret or misunderstand what he is saying (trust me, I know what that is like…), Andy posted a followup article called Web Misunderstandards to address some of the misconceptions commonly held by visually oriented designers who do not understand the Web.

The bottom line is, if there is something you cannot do with design online it’s because of your ignorance or lack of skill, not because of Web standards.

Excellent reading.

Posted on March 6, 2007 in Quicklinks, Web Standards


  1. Man. People still think using HTML, CSS, JavaScript and images properly is limiting?

    It’s as if CSS Zen Garden never happened.

    Then again, having just read the second article (featuring a response from a designer who reckons standards are evil), I guess I always underestimate just how dumb people can be :)

  2. …and somehow, Flash comes to mind. Not the technology per se, but the morons misusing it. I’m certain that Roger knows all to well what I’m talking about. :D

  3. You could call people shunning standards dumb or ignorant, maybe. But for the sake of the future of the web I’d like to call them uneducated. Maybe these people just haven’t seen what can be done with CSS and XHTML.

    A while back, Simon Collison posted something about people moaning that too many CSS-based tutorials were being repeated on people’s blogs. He said something about as long as people are still learning from these repetitions, who cares?

    I agree with him. As long as pro-standards designers keep telling people what can be done design-wise with CSS (no matter how ‘old’ the technique), people will still learn.

  4. I am just a beginner but I can not really imagine how could I design without web standards?! How can somebody be against accessible web site? Are there any customers who would say: I am OK if the site is not accessible over my PDA… or …it is fine if search engines will have problems index my page.. I can not even see the connection between web safe colours and web standards anyway. My job is not web designer yet so maybe that is why I do not understand it. May be the real world out there is different. Can someone describe it to me?

  5. March 6, 2007 by Carolina

    You could call people shunning standards dumb or ignorant, maybe. But for the sake of the future of the web I’d like to call them uneducated.

    But they are not very willing to learn, because the information is widely available. They are professionals, they should have known it already. We are in 2007!

  6. I really dig Greg’s comment. I think the only way we can progress is keep on educating.

    However, this is hard sometimes, when we run into stuff that Andy describes. Some graphic designers are just as stubborn as they are ignorant. I have had formal training as a graphic designer myself before I took the path into webdesign - and for sometime I thought I’d be able to relate to my (former) colleagues. But I really cannot understand how some designers can be so arrogant as to render all kinds of essential text as bitmaps, only because they ‘cannot bear to look at a standard font’. Or that they create sites in Flash because ‘all that coding is rubbish’.

  7. lewro: some web designers are against web standards or accessibility because they are just plain lazy. They’d rather ship you an unprofessional and just plain broken site because it saves them a bit of effort, since they don’t have to bother doing things right (nor learn how to do things right, for that matter).

    Of course, such unprofessional actions will cost the client in the long-run, and hurt the users too.

    These unprofessional web people never bothered to learn how to make valid, semantic and accessible websites. Nowadays there is a huge amount of learning material available for free on the Web, so there is absolutely no excuse.

    The tragedy is that, in classrooms around the world, incompetent instructors are still teaching students to use tables and spacer GIFs, and to create webpages with ImageReady and FrontPage. This is exactly what is happening in the web design class for my sister’s graphic design diploma course.

  8. March 7, 2007 by Justin

    I certainly understand building with Web Standards for new develoment, one-off or custom sites, but what are your thoughts in regards to using a CMS system that does not render pages with valid XHTML?

    I ask because we’re utilizing a commercial CMS product that runs on .NET 1.2 and there are a myriad of non standard tags (runat=server, id tags on invalid elements) and “legacy” pieces of code for various parts of the CMS. Our initial template was XHTML/CSS compliant, but once it is churned through the CMS parser, the rendered code is embarrassingly non-compliant. The pages still render, and they work (most of the time) in all of our visitors browsers.

    The CMS is great, it provides a ton of features we could never code in-house, but it probably won’t be 100% XHTML/CSS compliant for some time. I wonder if the Web Standards argument becomes a philosophical one when things Just Work™.


  9. March 7, 2007 by John

    “The bottom line is, if there is something you cannot do with design online it’s because of your ignorance or lack of skill, not because of Web standards.”

    That line kind of scares me. The other day a designer handed me a design in which they used a custom look for a submit button. I advised that its best not to do that and leave the default look of the button.

    So, by the quote above, wouldn’t my telling the designer the button shouldn’t be styled mean I lack the skill to implement the custom button?

    Maybe I’m taking it too literal, but if a designer comes to me saying “yeah, but you preach this web standards stuff, so you should be able to do whatever I throw at you” and know how to properly respond.

  10. March 7, 2007 by Injoe

    Recently I began an in-house position as a Web Designer and I’ve been working with standards for several years. One day my boss is looking at a design and mentioned an alignment issue. He says to me “you could just use a <pre> tag or something” and I laughed. After I was done I went on to explain how outdated that practice was, and why. He was impressed.

    See, the thing is, you, the one who cares, has to talk about it. You can’t just grumble under your breath, feel sorry for yourself, or be surprised at the ignorance of others. You have to take a light hearted, confident and proactive approach to standards in order to make a difference. And that difference can be in your own paycheck because you demonstrate just how valuable you are. To yourself, your employers, and the community at large.

  11. March 7, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)


    I certainly understand building with Web Standards for new develoment, one-off or custom sites, but what are your thoughts in regards to using a CMS system that does not render pages with valid XHTML?

    Do everything you can to beat the crappy CMS into submission. We always do that, whether the CMS is based on ASP.NET, PHP, Zope or whatever. If it can’t be done, we won’t use the CMS if the choice is up to us, or strongly recommend the client to get a better CMS. CMS vendors need to wake up. A few have, but most are still living in the nineties.


    So, by the quote above, wouldn’t my telling the designer the button shouldn’t be styled mean I lack the skill to implement the custom button?

    I see your point, but styling or not styling a submit button is not about Web standards - it’s about usability and accessibility. And depending on the situation it may be acceptable to change the look of the button. Using JavaScript to replace the button with a fully stylable link is an approach I would consider.

    Besides, it is part of a web designer’s required skills to know how their design choices affect usability and accessibility, and avoid solutions that reduce either of them. If a web designer can’t handle that, well, in my eyes he or she is just a hack.

  12. March 7, 2007 by Johan

    The article was decent enough, but it feels a bit quixotic. Maybe I’ve only worked with good ones, but I’ve never had to fight designers over standards issues - they usually know what can and can’t be done on the web, and most design issues are actually up to me as a coder to solve in elegant ways. I’d say lousy coders are a FAR bigger problem than lousy designers.

    Also, this sentence from the article is hilarious:

    “If we’re irresponsible in our approach and concepts we will fail ourselves and our decedents in ways we may scarcely imagine right now.”

    Decedents? :)

  13. March 7, 2007 by Niels

    Not that I don’t agree with the article above, but let’s be reasonable here. Is it that strange that designers are a bit reluctant when it comes to web standards ?

    Just “look” at the site mentioned above. It’s a downright eyesore. Like many blogs and sites that are pushing standards (and accessibility/usability - because let’s face it, they’re all in the same corner). Designers might be wrong when only directing their anger at standards, but that’s just a communication issue. Nobody takes the time to look at what they mean and people serve them down on a simple communication error. Following standards, accessibility and usability norms doesn’t mean you have to have ugly sites, but where are the sites that can be given as proof ? Certainly not in the standards / usability / accessibility corner.

    A second point is probably the fact that they had to deal with a real purist at one time or another. The ones that don’t allow that extra div to get that border there.

    I don’t agree with designers, as a web front-end man I know attracting websites can be made, using standards and minding accessibility and usability norms. But when I have to give examples … hmmm.

  14. I’d recommend getting anyone with doubts about whether standards can be used for beautiful sites to check out Andy Clarke’s book:

    Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design

  15. I think part of the problem for some designers is that the tools for the job such as Dreamweaver etc have not worked well as Wysiwyg tools in regards to web standards. That’s why so many designers seem to jump to using Flash in order to simply place things where they want them to be, or just to see it as an impossible task to use Web standards.

    Dealing with intricacies of CSS layout in contrast to DTP / wysiwyg layout methods is a bit of a challenge. But it’s a challenge that designers (if their job involves coding the actual pages) have to take up as it’s how things need to be done. Many designers are guilty of only looking at a design only from the perspective of it’s visual appearance, but the web involves more than that for a successful design.

  16. March 7, 2007 by Maaike

    Altough I agree with the bottom line of this article, I really don’t like the smug and patronizing tone of voice in it (and in some of the above comments). Graphic designers are also people, you know. And if you start by telling them they’re lazy, stupid and ignorant, than why would they even want to listen to you? It’s exactly this behaviour that makes some designers turn away from web standards.

  17. “they’re lazy, stupid and ignorant”

    Lazy and stupid they are not but ignorant they are. It cost so much time to force the “artist” even to reduce a size of the webpages(optimizing images), never mind making them more usable. And to the standards things could never come.

  18. Same thing about accessibility. Some people think that accessible sites can’t be anything but plain, non-functional, and boring. Of course that’s what the goal of Accessites is: To change that misconception.

  19. The first time I created a tableless site, probably around 2002, I was ecstatic that I could finally build something that was quite artistic without having to chop it up into little table cells. I became a standards advocate over the course of completing that project.

    I am acquainted with many designers that totally ignore web standards and aren’t interested in upgrading their coding skills - period. What’s important is for me to share with my own clients why standards matter, and what makes standards-based sites better for them, in terms that make sense (SEO results, accessibility, ease of editing and redesign). I think those things speak for themselves.

  20. March 9, 2007 by Ben Clarke

    Hmmm, I see he is still designing entire sites with a palette of 255 colours.

    No seriously, this is a very interesting article which addresses the attitudes of some designers towards designing for the web (or any media other than print perhaps).

    My opinion is this. A good graphic designer for the web has to understand how the web works (which usually results in them becomming a standardista on some level!) in much the same way as a graphic designer for print benefits from good knowledge of the print process.

  21. Lazy and stupid they are not but ignorant they are.

    I disagree. I have an experience base in Graphic Design. I prefer to call myself a Web Designer, but I am also a Graphic Designer.

    I and other Graphic Designers can take the time and expend the energy to learn Web Standards and how to work WITH them (not around them).

    The other Graphic Designers that decided they didn’t need to learn these things ARE lazy and stupid.

    Lazy, because it doesn’t take that much time and energy to realize that Web Standards don’t inhibit you, but rather help you.

    Stupid, because they refuse to expend that time and energy.

    I have a feeling that these Graphic Designers calling Web Standards “evil” or refusing to learn what they need to are going to end up working in the Print Industry for the rest of their life.

    They will also find their salaries will not be as large as us Designers who realize the potential that standards and accessibility extend towards making the virtual world a better place.

  22. March 13, 2007 by Johan

    What now is called communication design used to be referred to as graphic design, and because of that the article looses strength because graphic design is ancient and lost its initial meaning with the introduction of new media. And communication design deals with a far greater scope than the traditional graphic design concept because of that.

    When we talk about designing for the web, and more specic web standards which is a subset of accessibility, it is clearly that semantics glues design and web standards together. It is that simple!

  23. March 13, 2007 by Johan

    Now after reading (read: scanning) the mentioned articles I have problems with this phrase:

    If traditional graphic design is 2–dimensional, Web design is 4 or 5–dimensional.

    Both can be as dimensional as the quality of design put in.

    A poster is only 1 to 2mm thick and is consumed only by human eyes, but web design and the content that the design presents is very deep and multi–dimensional.

    Actually better would be to say that a webpage can offer multi-media content and a poster is the printed media. The visual message of a poster or a designed webpage can both be deep and multi-dimensional, just depending on the strength of the visual message. The author should better have said that the processing of the message is different in form but interpretation remains just the same.

  24. I would say that the use of web standards should not limit anyone’s creativity in design. There’s a certain web 2.0 pressure but there’s room for individuality.

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