Web design can make you a better person

Posted on 06/10/2011

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3 generations of reading on the Tube

Commuting into central London every day, you notice some weird behaviours. Like the way people apologise when someone else bumps into them, regardless of whether it’s their fault. Of course they don’t really mean it (they’re probably cursing in their head), but it’s some sort of politeness-reflex that comes with being British.

Another quirk is the way people read books on a train. Most people zone out completely and wouldn’t notice if a unicorn rode past; others are simply keen for other people to know their intellectual/ cultural prowess and practically shove the book in your face.

I’m probably the opposite of these because I have terrible choice in train literature. I’ve tried reading a Mills and Boon and received dirty looks from Grannies on the same train. I once tried reading Lolita into work, but decided I was too self-conscious when group of school kids boarded the train and I had to put the book away. More recently I picked up an old classic: HTML 5 for web designers. It hardly helps my street cred, but at least it doesn’t make me look like a sex offender.

As you can guess it’s up there in my top 10 geekiest reads of all time. It not so much the pages of code, but the nerdy humour that sets it apart. Subheadings like “XHTML 2: Oh, we’re not gonna take it!” make the book feel like the CCP revision guides I had for my GCSE’s: very concise, very geeky, and full of bad jokes.

All that aside, it’s a really good book. In very few words it fills you in on the past 20 years of web development and begins to hint at the amazing power of the new HTML5 language. Bit by bit, developers are beginning to rewrite the entire  web and as they do so they’re also having to make it work but making it backwards compatible. It’s not just about future website design; it’s about how we browse the internet and the software (browsers) we use to do this.

Even the geekiest of reads can offer something to the un-initiated. HTML5 for beginners have given me three little gems of insight, which can be applied to anything, anywhere (not just the internet). They can give you an open mind, teach you to save you time, and help you improve yourself.

1. The need to design and build for every eventuality requires an open mind.

In internet terms this means building something that works across almost every web browser, mobile device and visual/ hearing handicap there. It’s the same challenge we’ve faced for years in the pre-digital world making buildings and information accessible to children, adults and the disabled. Now we’re going through it again online.

Why it’s important: like people, internet browsers are both unique and imperfect (yes, even Chrome). What works for one, might not work for another and the only way to find out is to test it. By trying different things you start to understand the personality of each browser, learning what they’re good at and not so good at. Keeping an open mind, trying things out and learning from first hand experience are all things that make you a better person. Don’t assume; try and then learn from experience.

2. Knowing how the nature of “work” has changed.

Once again, technology is stepping in to save us all time. Thirty years ago it was the user who had to enter code into computers and run commands to get it to work. Then we developed software which did this for us, replacing typed commands (like the scary sounding “execute”) with buttons or a menu. You still had to learn to use it, but it replaced learning computer language with learning a series of actions. Now this role has moved from computer-based software to cloud hosted web apps. What HTML5 does is take on some of the responsibility for making websites backwards compatible.

Why it’s important: you clearly can’t learn everything. However, sometimes it’s useful to learn about why things are how they are. A passion for history and background knowledge are indispensable if you’re trying to explain something to someone else. Those who can, do; those who know why and how, teach.

3. Speed learning.

In less than a few years, the Internet community has learnt a new language, and begun pushing it to new levels. Even the act of reading the book made me realise how much the rate of learning has increased. The internet grants us access to an incredible amount of information, and assuming it’s not all cat videos and novelty Facebook groups, we’re learning a huge amount every day. Whether or not we’re in full-time education we now essentially have free access to lessons and experts on any topic imaginable. And we’re picking things up extremely quickly because we have to.

Why it’s important: As long as you  have internet access, you can no longer complain about lack of opportunities. Economic slumps demand broad skill sets (fewer people having to do a wider range of work); growth encourages people to specialise. Either way, we’re having to learn new skills in life and in work to get by. Thanks to the internet, education and up-skilling are getting quicker. With the exchange of knowledge and ideas accelerating it’s as if we’ve entered the digital enlightenment.

Final thought:

If “HTML5 for beginners” can contain all that then maybe it’s not such a bad read after all. There’s probably another lesson in there somewhere. Something about books and covers…

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Posted in: Digital, Technology