Today I’m bringing you my interview with author, speaker and CSS Guru Christopher Schmitt. I met Christopher last year at An Event Apart Boston. The morning of the last day, I came down to breakfast tired, hung over, pissed off and looking like hell. When I sat down at a table by myself, I was clearly trying to emit vibes that would drive all other attendees to other tables. Then this excessively tall, kinda geeky looking guy came over, clearly ignoring the vibes, and sat down. Even though I own one of his books and use it often, I had no clue who he was. He put up with my less than stellar company and chatted with me until he said something that made me laugh. I slickly googled him after breakfast and realized that I really should pay more attention to the names of the authors of books I own!
Christopher has his hand in a lot of areas - in addition to authoring numerous books, he’s the Co-Lead of the Adobe Task Force for The Web Standards Project, Digital Communications Director, AIGA Cincinnati and Faculty at Sessions Online School of Art and Design. His most recent project is organizing the In Control Web Design Workshop Conference. As a special bonus to .eduGuru readers, he’s offered a $100 discount off the early bird price - enter the discount code INCEDUG when registering. The discount is good through April 3.
Q. You’ve literally written the book on CSS. Several books, as it turns out. How did you become interested in writing about that topic? What sets your books apart from the other CSS books out there?
My first passion is about design. I started out learning about print graphic design in college. When I made the transition to Web design, I just fell in love with the medium. Web design has so many moving parts, utilizing both parts of the brain. I get just as excited learning about setting up Google Analytics to run better email marketing campaigns as I am with learning how to recreate the latest design trends on my own. So, documenting these passions in a book is perfectly normal thing for me to do.
What separates my books apart from others is my approach to each book project. I try to be as practical as I can in these types of projects. I’m somewhat cynical about books about the theory of Web design or theories about what could happen if browsers implemented a certain technology. That’s all well and good, but let’s throw down some practical demonstrations of those ideas.
The CSS Cookbook, 2nd edition by O’Reilly is a great example of this. It’s about 600 pages-all filled up with problem-solutions to the common problems Web designers will face with CSS.
Another book I steered was Professional CSS, 2nd Edition by Wrox. In that book I asked some of the best people in the industry to deconstruct some of their well-known, highly-visible projects. For example, Mark Trammell, who worked for University of Florida Web division at the time, dissected the often duplicated design of UFL.edu.
Q. Right now you’re working on the third edition of CSS Cookbook. What new stuff can we expect to see in it?
In simplest terms, it’s going to be a natural evolution of the previous edition. Time has passed and a lot of new things have happened since the last edition in terms of Web design trends. So in addition to weeding out the older material, I’ll be documenting how to recreate some of the recent popular Web design techniques and graphical touches.
I’m eyeing covering CSS frameworks in more detail. It seems like the puzzle of building CSS-driven layouts without that much of a hassle has pretty much solved, especially for people who don’t want to be CSS ninjas. The current edition of the book already talks about the building blocks of how most CSS frameworks works.
I’m also looking at including information about HTML5 and letting people know if and how HTML5 can replace some of the CSS techniques they know.
And, of course, a lot more about CSS3. In the second edition, I covered some tidbits of CSS3 in more of a “well, if browsers supported CSS3, this solution would be as easy as adding this line of code.” Like I mentioned before, I don’t like books that talk about what-if’s. I want the practical stuff. But I felt in the CSS Cookbook-to be fair to the readers and also give the book some legs, if you will-it only made sense to sprinkle talk about CSS3 in the second edition.
Now with modern browsers implementing CSS3 or their own proprietary versions of CSS3, it only makes to expand upon the it and review what’s out there that people can use now in their work, not years off into the future.
Q. In teaching beginning web students through Sessions.edu, what are the most common mistakes you see them make?
Students also make a lot of great successes-which are highlighted in the student gallery showcase. But yeah, students can make mistakes like a lot of us when we start out learning about anything new.
Q. You were the lead author on Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites. I think this book is particularly relevant to those of us in higher ed, who work on large websites with a distributed management model. What are some key tips that higher ed web professionals can take away from this book?
The book takes a look at how to approach Web standards for building large sites. The first half is about the theory and the second half contains deconstruction of sites that got it right like AOL.com and even Tori Amos’s Web site.
But I think the most practical, immediate take-aways is Kimberly Blessing’s wonderful chapter on the circle of standards. In the chapter she talks about how to create, grown and maintain standards for Web sites where you have different people and potentially different departments helping to publish a Web presence. For more information about it, you check out her blog at https://www.thecircleofstandards.com/
Q. You’ll be moderating the panel Designing Our Way Through Web Forms at SXSW this month. Why should people attend your panel over the other ones offered at the same time?
It’s somewhat depressing, but a common fact that when I speak at conferences-I’m usually slotted against colleagues or sessions I find interesting and can’t see myself. For example, Erik Hersman is on a panel called “Appfrica: How Web Applications Are Helping Emerging Markets Grow” at the same time. And then there’s a panel called “Post Standards: Creating Open Source Specs” with people from Yahoo!, Six Apart and Microsoft. If anything, I think this makes a strong case for SXSW having tremendous amount of quality panels that it’s hard to pick.
But if I had to make the case as to why people should people pick my panel over the others is that we are going to be talking about practical, nuts-and-bolts material that you can use after the session ends. Who doesn’t have to build a Web form? And who hasn’t had a tough as nails time to get those things to look right in browsers?
Q. As a SXSW veteran, what advice would you give to newcomers to get the most out of their experience?
I would do as much planning as possible. Fill up your schedule with panels and parties as much as possible. Then throw it into iCal or Outlook or whatever calendar system and only use it as a guide.
When you show up at the conference, go with the flow. You will run into a lot of people in the hallways, sessions, parties and so on. Conversations will lead to one group of people to another. Refer back to your schedule only when you find yourself not having anything else to do.
Otherwise you will go wear yourself out ragged trying to keep up with everything that’s going on.
Q. Care to share your craziest SXSW story?
Not really crazy, per se. I tend to prefer sleep more than some of the other SXSW attendees so I miss out on the lot of the hi-jinx. Last year, I almost didn’t make SXSW. I was on the end of a month long trip that had me going from Ohio to Florida then to Tel Aviv to Arizona and then to Las Vegas. So, towards the end of the trip I had a strong desire to go home as one might imagine. But I decided to go since I’ve been going to SXSW for about 5 years straight and I was relatively nearby.
On my last day there, I went to this great venue called Stubb’s and watched R.E.M. take the stage at midnight play till about 2am in the morning. Then I went to my room, which was a fair amount of time to get back to since all the hotel rooms near the convention centered were sold out. I packed my bags and then got a ride to the airport without catching any sleep. It was probably the most rock and roll I’ve been.
Q. You’re chairing the In Control Web Design Workshop Conference. How is this conference different from others out there? What were your goals in putting it together?
In Control is a Web Design Workshop Conference that’s being put together through AIGA via the Cincinnati chapter. In Control is different and beneficial in many ways than your typical conference. First, it’s relatively low-cost. We researched a dozen of similar conferences looking at their cost-not just in terms of the cost of a ticket, but also the hotel. Considering both the hotel and the number of quality speakers at the event, it’s a lot of bang for your buck.
And it’s just not the number of speakers, too, but the amount of time you spend with them. Each session is about 2 hours long, which is longer than the usual session at a conference. Those typically run about 40-50 minutes long with some time for questions. That’s barely enough time to get deep into the material. These aren’t your typical sessions at In Control. These are focused mini-workshops.
Let’s face it. In this day and edge, you can get the slides of people’s presentations fairly easy. Sometimes the audio and maybe the video of the speaker giving the presentation on their own blog. So, the content is easy to get. However, I think the reason people go to conferences is the conversations that they have with people-these gurus or experts-that can literally solve their own specific questions or mental roadblocks to understanding.
So, with In Control we’ve set up longer sessions with these awesome speakers, but also conclude both days of the conference with a Wrap Up panel, which we invite the speakers of that day to a question and answer session. That’s a perfect time to ask questions that maybe you couldn’t ask during the session or maybe you came up with a question for a speaker based of a presentation from another speaker’s workshop.
I very much enjoy the wide variety of panels at SXSW, but sometimes you have to choose which session you go to. And it’s always the case that you feel somehow you should have been in the other person’s session. And on top of that, if you are with a friend or you’ve made a new friend at a conference that did go to that other session, they are going to come up to you and say, “you should have been in that session-it was excellent!” At that point you have these series of different, broken conversations going on with your attendees and even speakers.
For In Control, I wanted to have a one-track conference. Everyone will have the same experiences, the same exposure to the same concepts allowing attendees to follow the discussion and not be left out.
It’s an order that makes the most sense for people who are somewhat new to Web design as well as those who may feel that are experts, but may want to refine their skill sets and could benefit from being re-exposed to the content they know, but maybe understand better the rationale behind what they do.
So, it comes down to how much money would you spend to have this much time with industry experts talking about content in such a logical progression? Well, that goes back to my first point: In Control is a great bang for your buck.
Q. You were discouraged from putting this conference together by others in the industry who claimed the market was saturated. What made you go forward with it? What advice would you give others who find themselves in a similar situation with a project they’re passionate about?
This is something I might be talking about in my keynote presentation-not so much being discouraged about this particular conference, but the courage to follow your passion.
So, when you are faced with roadblocks that confound you, it’s an opportunity to ask yourself, “how much do you want to do it?” If you give up, then it wasn’t worth your time or their attention. I’m very passionate about Web design and I believe putting in this unique conference could be a great experience to those that attend.
Like I mention in my blog, this is the type of conference I would not only like to go to, but I would put down my own hard earned cash to go to because it’s going to be about learning the practical material, first and foremost. No matter what the naysayers tell me. I gotta believe that there are 100 other people out there that are passionate about it as I am.
Q. Do you have a favorite conference?
I have the privilege of speaking at a lot of conferences and enjoy it immensely. They all are different and have their own character. So, in some ways, it’s like picking your favorite child or memory. But if I had to pick, I would put In Control in the rocket ship as Krypton exploded around me.
Q. If you weren’t working on the web, what would you be doing?
I started out in print graphic design. So, I would probably be doing that, but I’m glad the Web came along when it did. I do realize that I work in an industry that didn’t exist a generation ago. I believe we are very lucky, thankful for that. I know I am.
Q. Where can people find you online?
I’m at ChristopherSchmitt.com where I earnestly try to blog often. I’m also on Twitter @teleject where I earnestly try to stop twittering often. Unrelated: Please follow me!
The last few questions have been submitted from users on Twitter.
Ah, Twitter. The great fertile bastion of questions like, “when is Google going to buy it so people can stop asking how they are going to monetize it?” Fire away with those questions!
Q. What’s the most exciting thing you’re anticipating in CSS3?
My flippant answer is “I’ll be excited when the entire spec being implemented consistently across the major browsers.”
I’ve written some about CSS3 over at dev.opera.com covering some cool things like background sizing, text shadows, opacity and cooler CSS selectors. CSS3 is going to bring a lot of tools and solutions to Web designers. And if you are into the approach of progressive designs-the adding of advanced CSS techniques to browsers that can support them-then you can start using CSS3 now.
Q. What are your thoughts on CSS frameworks and do you have suggestions for web programmers (non-designers) on using them to improve UI?
I’m actually in favor of frameworks for non-programmers or non-CSS ninjas. It’s going to be a while before a decent method for laying out content for Web documents comes out as a standard from either the W3C or independently from the browser vendors. It might take someone working in their garage or home office right now to come up with the idea that gets us away from using floats for layout.
But right now, if you don’t have the time to cobble together your custom framework for your pages then I say go for it. However, that’s not to say to just use CSS framework out of the box. If you do end up using frameworks, you should rapidly find out that you will need to be able to adjust a framework to suit your own needs-be it type, spacing, color, print stylesheet issues, etc.
Q. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
Ouch. Are you asking one of the top mistakes an interviewer can make? (See Katharine Hepburn with Barbara Walters.) Like I said, Twitter is some kind of fertile ground for questions!