Blog of Appliness

Denise Jacobs


Denise is a true Renaissance Woman who has successfully created a niche role for herself by bringing creativity and inspiration to the world of technology geeks. She can teach you all about soap-making or get into the inner workings of CSS and web standards all while inspiring others in the process. Catch a glimpse of this Creativity Evangelist who writes books and articles, teaches others and speaks around the world.

APPLINESS: Hello Denise! It is a big honor to have you in our next issue of Appliness. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?Denise1

Denise Jacobs: As for my company, I am an independent consultant, I work mainly by myself, sometimes I will pull people to work on projects. At this point though, I have been mainly working by myself on projects such consulting people on web design or web development. I just finished doing a big CSS optimization project trying to help a company that had 7500 lines of crazy CSS and figure out a way they could make it scalable, modular and easier to maintain and build upon.

I also build websites and do CSS3 trainings, I was doing that for a company whose main client was Intuit. I was teaching developers at Intuit how to use CSS and CSS3. I also speak at conferences, write articles and books and things like that. So, it’s kind of a standard range of what most consultants in the industry do. That’s what I do for work.

That said, in actuality, I’m a bit of a creative person in a technical person’s clothing. I’m seeing now that, intrinsically, I have always been a creative person, but the technical stuff was my “way in the door”. It was my way into somehow giving my creative outlet validity because I see myself, especially now, much more as a creative person, whereas before I used to identify myself as a technical person. Working in the web and tech industry are what I have used to get to seeing myself as a creative, but it’s not necessarily “the thing” for me anymore at this point in my life. Ten years ago, however, it totally was.

Beyond that, I really think of myself as a teacher, that’s the essence of who I am. I love to teach people ways to do what they do better. One of the reasons I liked teaching CSS3, is because people get into a bind with CSS and there are a lot of old, outdated methods of achieving things that you can achieve easily in CSS3. I like to help people figure out how to do things in a way that’s easier, better and more enjoyable.

How did you get into teaching?

I used to teach soapmaking classes way back in 1998. I started that business when people kept asking me what was in soap and so I said “Oh, it’s really easy, come over to my house and I’ll show you how to make it.” I did that a couple of times and I thought that I could teach 20 people at a time instead of 5 and still have a good time and actually make a profit [laughs].

So that’s how I discovered I really loved teaching. And I thought “if I can teach this, then I can teach other things.” At the same time I was doing that, I was working in the web/tech industry doing project management and I hated it. So, I thought if I could teach web concepts and how to make websites, that would be phenomenal. I ended up getting a job teaching Web Design and Development at the Seattle Community College, and I taught there for almost 5 years.

So for me the speaking, writing, trainings all boil down to teaching and trying to help people access information they wouldn’t have had before that will potentially better their lives.

Denise2The role of “Creativity Evangelist” sounds very intriguing and cool. Is that a term you coined? How did you come to be in that role?

Yes, I made it up! One of my favorite stories about my life, ever, happened during the process of writing the CSS Detective Guide. At the beginning of writing the book, I freaked out. I got the book contract, I spent the first day I was supposed to spend writing in tears. I kept thinking “Why am I writing a book? Should I be writing a book? I don’t know if I can write a book!”

I finally pulled myself together, and then spent the next 9 months writing my book and managing my anxieties. Incidentally, the initial idea for the Inner Critic article came from that period of time – even though it wasn’t until 2 years later that I wrote it. When I finished the book and everything was done and at the publisher to get printed, I finally had the time to design the website I was planning to build for the book. I had sketched it out several weeks earlier. As I was building the comp for it in Photoshop, I realized I was having such a good time designing it that I didn’t want to go to sleep. I was up until 5 in the morning finalizing the design and having such an awesome time doing it — it was all coming together. I went to sleep because I had to, not because I really wanted to. When I finally woke up a little bit later, I had this huge realization. For so long in my life, I had been wanting to be a creative person. Over the years, I’d dabbled in all kinds of projects: soapmaking, papermaking, making stationery sets, edible garden design, etc. to prove it to myself or to practice being creative. That day, I finally got it: I AM creative! I had just finished writing a book where I wrote the content, designed websites for it, built the websites, broke them and rebuilt them. Then I wrote about that process and did most of it through storytelling format. I thought, “if that doesn’t make me creative, I don’t know what does!”

With this epiphany, I felt this amazing sense of power and a huge rush of energy. And at that moment, everything became clear: I figured out what it is I wanted to do – to help people feel like this: empowered and powerful. I want to help people feel like they are creative and to be the creative person they’ve always wanted to be. I want my life to be about helping people get in touch with their creativity and expressing it and putting it out in the world and transforming the world by having people get in touch with their creativity. Take it how you will, but it’s almost spiritual thing where I want people to be able have that feeling that they can do anything.

I realized I wanted to “preach the gospel” of creativity. And so basically, from that point on, I thought, “I’m like an evangelist: a Creativity Evangelist”. I loved the Denise3sound of it and looked it up and nobody owned the domain, and nobody else was calling themselves a Creativity Evangelist so I was like “awww yeah! It’s all mine!”

I feel quite fortunate — a lot of people search a long time for their life’s work. Even though it may go in different permutations, forms and whatnot, I feel that at this moment, it’s clear that this is what I’m most passionate about. Even during the time when I was teaching the soapmaking classes way back from 1998-2003 and then teaching web design and development at Seattle Central from 2000-2005, I had been helping people be creative. Back then, I sometimes thought of myself a “creativity midwife” — as I felt I helped people give birth to their ideas. Through my eclectic craft classes, I was already providing an excuse or permission for people to explore their creativity. A lot of my students were folks who were working at Microsoft when Microsoft was really starting to boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, because that’s where their jobs were and they could make lots of money. But it seems like a lot of them were stifled creatives. They would come to my class and would just let their hair down and start getting conversant with their playful creative sides. I developed new courses to keep giving people that opportunity.

What does the role of Creativity Evangelist entail?

Currently, my message is almost a subversive rework / unwork type of manifesto because the way people work is very much at odds with being highly creatively productive. We are asked to come up with this idea, do this new thing in this amount of time — everything we do actually calls upon us to be creative in some way shape or form. Yet, so many of us don’t really have the tools or the space to be able to do it. So instead of giving people craft classes to attend, now it’s the content that I speak about at conferences, write about, and will soon teach where I’m trying to encourage people to approach work differently so they can create more.

I’m hoping to get people to that spark where they are encouraged and are doing the work they are really brilliant at. I believe that everyone has got this piece of brilliance they can tap into. Sir Ken Robinson wrote a book called The Element that speaks to this concept fairly well, although I think he could have gone into more detail (which why I’m planning to write more books, so I can share my ideas as well). But, he talks about that in a lot of ways and I think that is really important and critical and that’s one of the skills that is needed right now.

The tech industry is such a hotbed of innovation and wonderful ideas, but it’s also a place where a lot of crazy work practices are still being done which are completely at odds with with what people need to succeed in moving forward in the industry. With the economy the way it is, and the way work is, (and especially in the tech industry), I feel like this is a really good place to start helping — changing the way people approach work. Back in October, I had a tour of the Google office in Zurich. It was amazing: all of the different rooms had things like fireman poles, vintage Swiss cable cars set up in ways that people could use them as mini meeting rooms, and all kinds of wonderful things to spark your creativity and imagination. They did a great job of setting up an environment that stimulates and promotes creativity and playful thinking. There are some businesses that do that, but there are so many more businesses that will get on to you for being there 2 minutes after 9 o’clock and other practices that essentially stifle creativity and innovation.

Part of my vision moving forward is to be able to start affecting change on both a larger, corporate scale but also on an individual scale so people start realizing they can ask for different things. Then people can look at their work days differently and start asking for different things from their managers. From a top down perspective, I’d influence and teach more managers and corporate VPs and show them that this is the way to go if you want your company to be forward-thinking and moving – you really have to have this top-down approach that gives people the environment in which they can create well because this is going to be an economic advantage.

How important is storytelling in a good web design? How should one go about telling a good story through their site?

I contributed a chapter to The Smashing Book about how storytelling in web design actually comes from several different aspects. With the web, there is a visual layer you can work with, but you also have interactivity. The difference between a flat book story and a website is that you can move through a website in different ways – much like in a game book (or a create your own adventure book) but even better. You also have the content itself, the actual words or imagery. So you’ve got this kind of multi-tiered way in which you actually need to create the story you want to tell.

I think part of what is most important in storytelling in web design is what happens beforehand: figuring out what story you want to tell first. They say you can’t design a website, or pretty much do anything, without knowing the content ahead of time, so storytelling is a good framework in which to get answers about the business, the vision and a brand in general. Or, after doing it, that helps clarify the process so that you can take the information and put it into a story and that actually writing the story may help clarify what some of the business questions are.

When you ask people clarify their brand, they may say “Our brand is…uh… we do stuff!” So, that’s great, you do stuff. Let’s say this is a story and tell me what the story is. What kind of story do you want it to be or what’s the outcome of the story? What’s the happily ever after? You can reverse engineer it to help put things in context, or visualize it in a certain way to come up with the information. So, once they have that then you can have all of those pieces and get the visual imagery to do the visual storytelling part of it. To figure out what the interactivity, the UX, aspects are going to be, and then obviously also the content. So it’s a nice holistic process. To me, it’s an easier process than sitting around and writing a bunch of lists. It’s easier to visualize rich imagery, like that of a great fairytale as opposed to sitting around a conference table with a white board.


About Responsive Design

In responsive web design, do you think, then, that coming up with the story is the first thing that you do?

I think it’s important because it seems that people see web design as a sort of panacea — a solution for everything. As with any new technology or fresh approach to solving a problem, sometimes it begs more questions than it answers; such as making companies, businesses or whoever is the decision maker, think about what they want to know about their audience. With responsive design, you have to ask: who are you being responsive to and why?

With a CSS optimization project I did this year, one of the reasons the customer wanted to do it is because they wanted to retrofit it to be responsive. So I had to take a step back for a bit to see, first of all, they don’t have a grid at all. Their site visually looks like it’s built on a grid, but when you look at the stylesheet, there is no actual CSS grid. The widths of some of their main elements varied between 432 pixels here and 435 pixels there and so on… all for the elements that looked the same visually. So first of all you need to address this. Then you say, okay, so what are we changing it to? If we’re changing it to a different orientation and device, find out how many people in your audience are using which device and which orientation. Then, which information are those people looking for on those devices?

If you look at any of Luke Wrobleski’s stuff on Mobile First, it’s great for responsive design, because a lot of times people don’t want the whole website on mobile devices. And because they’ve got a very limited timeframe, they are probably not going to be sitting there scrolling across the entire website on their phone or tablet. They often have different things they are looking for and different tasks they are trying to accomplish than when on a desktop computer or laptop. It may mean they want different content.

Frequently, it seems like people just want to start somewhere: go ahead and make the site responsive and then figure out the business questions and the strategy Denise6later. However, I like a “measure twice cut once” type of approach. I would rather think about the strategy and get that clear before I have people change code that is probably going to have to change again because you later figured out x or y or z. So, yeah, while story is a good place to start for thinking through the end goal, but I also think for going responsive, being very user-centric and audience-centric is key. Why are you doing this and who are you doing it for? You have to know your audience to know what story you’re telling.

I was talking to Carl Smith, who is in charge of a company called NGen Works about stories and projects. One of the things they do when they meet with clients is find out what story they want to tell about the project at the end of the project – which I think is brilliant. For example, you want to say you solved x, y and z problem for the client. So, from knowing what they want the outcome to be, they create a story based on that outcome which gives them the outline on how they are going to begin structuring the project.

I think that this approach is important when people want to publish websites as well. What story do we want to tell the end user? What’s the story that we want to have? What’s the story that we want the end users to tell other people?  Because they are going to be promoting our company if we tell them the right story and they will tell the story to someone else. Also, taking it a step further, what story does the user want to be told? In other words, what is going to fulfill their needs and what are they looking for and how can we fit into that or make them understand that what we have is something that they need? It’s kind of circuitous, but it still works as a method to help get your story or stories for your website (and company) straight.

It’s an interesting way to start approaching projects, because everybody loves stories, everybody knows how to tell stories, how to put stories into context and how to make sense out of a story. Stories stick with people way more than just hard data does. So, when you have a compelling story, you engage people’s sense of imagination, you engage their creativity — you engage them period. You make them more invested in the information and then if people are able to add their little bits to the story as well, then they become more invested in the story overall. And I think it’s really just an interesting approach in dealing with projects and getting things done as well, because it provides a structure so that products can conceivably get built better, faster and more effectively — and also so that people behind the product are more invested in it. That means that quality of the output is higher when people are more invested in it. Interestingly, I hadn’t really thought of it on that level before just talking about it now, but it’s a solid line of reasoning.

So when you get to the point where you figure out the story you are going to tell and the audience you are telling it to, and if you are one of the enlightened ones who figure out the end story, how do you then, as a developer, go about making that site scalable, modular and responsive?

First, to back up a little bit, one of the things I’ve been doing with storytelling in general is changing my presentation style to be more of a storytelling one rather than just free information giving. Even changing straight anecdotal which, of course, is storytelling, but then telling the whole of the content in the context of the story rather than just with anecdotes. I’ve gotten good feedback about this, number 1.

Number 2, for making a site scalable and modular it is good to review and analyze major scalable and modular CSS architectures that are out there right now. For example, OOCSS, SMACSS, CSS for Grownups and Drive for CSS. There are more, but that’s a good start.

The key to that is having a really good naming convention to help make things scalable and modular. Another important factor is to modularize things to figure out what the patterns are and figure out how to distill things into their simplest form and how you can take those distilled modules and build upon them.

With technology moving as quickly as it is and customer demands being what they are, they have told their story and they want to get their site up quickly…how do you go about keeping up with the new technologies to use and still keep the site responsive?

I find other people who are smarter than me [laughs]. I have to say that one of the things that has been a blessing and a curse with the whole responsive explosion is that it has really pushed development into a new place and it’s spurred innovation in the respect that there are all of these new tools. Honestly, I can’t keep up with it.  I wrote an article for .net magazine last year in August about the top 20 tools for responsive design. They asked me to update it but I wasn’t able to at the time. So Peter Gasston updated the article and added 30 more tools. I’m sure that all of the research that Peter has done to add to the stuff I did last year is already — well, maybe not obsolete, but there are probably another good 20-30 recently-released tools to add to that that are just as relevant and wonderful.

At this point, I feel like I can’t keep up with everything, it’s almost impossible — especially because so much of my focus is now on creativity and changing the work life and style and work approach, and also because the responsive stuff is changing so fast. So I follow people on Twitter who are deeply immersed in everything responsive like Brad Frost, Tim Kadlec and, of course, Ethan Marcotte to find out what they are working on and try to make assessments based on what they are tweeting, writing, and speaking about.

I also try to keep track of people I admire in the industry and what their interests are so that I can figure out who to follow for what things and who I can send people to. If I can’t be a resource for something, then I’ll send them on to someone who can be, because I like giving people the good resources for information they’re looking for. I’m really happy just to find people who do are all responsive all the time so I can point folks onto them.

When you plan for responsive web design, what kind of questions do you ask your audience?  E.g., will they view it on the web, cellular devices, tablets, orientations? Once you get those answers, how do you plan for the different devices out there?

I think you can’t plan for all of the different devices. But you have to know baselines for groups. I think of devices in groups. Bryan and Stephanie Rieger of have done a lot of amazing work in this area. I follow them to find out what’s the best thinking for that and what the best approaches are for managing different devices. My impressions are from the information you get from analytics and whatnot. Also, Peter-Paul Koch is a good resource for knowing about different devices and mobile, etc. So, I find out from other people what the acceptable ranges are and I make recommendations based on those ranges. Using information about the devices and sizes, etc., I take that information and put that together with the client’s analytics of what their users are doing, what their users are on, what are the most popular pages, etc. I’ll take the two together and make acceptable ranges are and we figure out what the breaking points are for the different orientations on the different devices.

When you mention ‘range’, what is that a range of? 

I’m thinking about it more of terms of display sizes and what the different elements are going to be. Which elements are going to be displayed and where on the page – are they going to be higher up, etc. For example, Ethan Marcotte’s Boston Globe work was very helpful on how to deal with the different content on the different sizes on the different devices, so I would go and look at something on my computer, then look at it on the iPad and change the orientation, then look at it on a phone and change the orientation and would be able to make judgements about what kind of choices they made. So they thought this, this and this was important so I can see how that was important and make similar sorts of choices for my clients.

At this point, there is so much, I think “what are the really smart people who live and breathe this stuff all day long doing?” It may not be a very imaginative thing to do, but it works. When I look at their solutions, it helps me put some of my own questions into a context to be able to come up with more questions, but it gives me a basis to start from.

My strength is gathering information and putting it together in a way that’s easy for people to learn and assemble. I also like making connections between things to make them easier to understand and turn into new concepts. Other people come up with things like how to make responsive design and I think that’s great – I may never have come up with something like that or I may have, but I’m glad they did that and whatever they are doing, I will leverage that.

You mentioned at some point that there were new alternatives to using floats for layouts. I wanted to ask you about this?

There’s a great article called Give Floats the Flick on SitePoint and I base a lot on that. This article really outlines how you can work with things other than floats.I played a little bit with some of the techniques mentioned in it. But one of the things I loved about the article was not the solutions themselves as much as the idea that there is another way to do something that’s different from this very established way that we’ve grown used to doing. I tried one of the suggestions: display:inline-block. There were some issues with controlling the margins, but I really liked it alot. There is also display: table which can work as well. Even more importantly, the idea that there’s something other than floats is enough of a spur to nudge people to start looking for what other ways we can do it. It’s not just that we have display: inline-block and display: table – what other way is there to do this as well as floats or even better? So I think it’s a great thing.

I also liked Louis Lazaris’ article in the Appliness issue #9  about using floats, because I’ve been talking to people about the new clearfix Nicholas Gallagher developed that’s in HTML5 Boilerplate. I’ve been putting in my presentations about changing the clearfix that you use because a lot of people say they just use overflow:hidden. Louis’s article has a really great explanation of why overflow:hidden isn’t always the best answer.

What I really I love about all of this is the fact that there are new things coming out that challenge old, established methods that came out when tableless layouts started back in the early 2000s. When we look back at those days, at everything people were wrestling and struggling with, it’s amazing to see how much we’ve progressed…but also how much we haven’t.


About Open Standards

How much did the creation and adoption of web standards affect your career?

The beginning days of tableless design is when I started teaching web design. When I started teaching in 2000, table-based layouts were the way to teach. Then, around the end of 2001/beginning of 2002 – around the time the CSS became more popular – is when the web standards and using CSS for layout designs started to become popular and became a sea change in the industry. I was really excited about that and I was teaching that to my students.

For me, the creation and adoption of web standards in a lot of ways tremendously shaped my career because I was so excited about this prospect of doing things differently – namely the separation of presentation and content – because I was teaching HTML. I literally memorized all the HTML tags and their attributes and that’s what I taught my students. I knew all of the attributes for FONT, all of the attributes for TABLE and BODY…everything – I knew that stuff backwards and forwards. So then it was really nice to be able to teach the alternative way of CSS.

For a while I, up until I stopped teaching in early 2005, I was still teaching attributes and their values because I felt like once you understood those, then CSS was easier to understand – you understood exactly which HTML attributes the  CSS properties were replacing. That makes it easier to know what to take away and what to put in when we know why it’s not there. Nowadays, most good teachers don’t even teach that stuff, they just teach CSS. For me, it was a really big part of how I shaped myself and how I thought about myself in the industry because I was one of these people who was a “Standardista” – I was very stringent and behind supporting web standards. It was a really big part of my professional trajectory.

What improvements to web design and development did you see as a result?

Think of how crazy responsive design would be if we were still using tables. It would just be horrific — I don’t even think it responsive design could have been conceived of with tables.

In regards to the improvements to web designs, I mostly see standards as a way to spur innovations, a way to encourage people to see things differently and go about things differently and using these tools that they have been given and using them in different ways, that’s the best thing about it. What comes out of it are all of the amazing things such as mobile development. The industry has changed so much since I started doing HTML in 1996.

What roadblocks did it create?

I mainly see this open field of innovation. The only thing I see as a roadblock is how quickly the standards are adapted now. But we still have all of this browser/vendor stuff we have to deal with. For example, with the adoption of CSS3 and HTML5 properties, it’s probably a good thing they are slowed by the browser vendors trying to deal with them. They are incorporating them as quickly as possible. We have one notable exception of a browser that doesn’t seem to be incorporating them as quickly as possible — I won’t name names or anything. Browsers can’t adopt the specifications immediately and then there’s a lot of interpretation — have you ever read the CSS specifications and know how hard they are to read? They are written for and by standards geeks, not for general consumption. They are also open to wide interpretation. So whoever is working on developing Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc. has to interpret the meanings and figure out how to turn that meaning into code that creates a certain outcome and behavior that’s understandable.

I also feel, to some degree, the industry is sometimes so rabid about trying to push the standards forward that we’re not being compassionate about how much time it takes to interpret things and translate them into something that’s actionable. With some browsers, updates are automatic while others don’t update very often so then you are kind of stuck.

I don’t know what the answer is in regards to the browser wars or differences between them. I think differences are good, but sometimes it seems like it’d be easier if there was one, but we can’t have that because we have to have differences. But it’s an interesting conundrum.

Do you give the creation and adoption of web standards a lot of credit for opening the door for a lot of innovation? Denise8

Most definitely.  Without the widespread adoption of CSS, imagine how crazy it would be if we were still working with just HTML. In 1999, I was working at a company where we did both a refresh and redesign of the website within 6 months of each other. Back then, the website was flat HTML before dynamically-driven websites and content management systems. I was in charge of managing both projects. So, I managed the refresh where we changed the color palette a little bit. We swapped out some images but didn’t change the structure of the HTML at all. The outward-facing website was flat HTML pages and, in order to just change the font colors, we had to do a search and replace on over a thousand HTML pages and then we had to QA almost every page. Then we decided to get really fancy and use Dreamweaver as the tool to control all of the pages and have libraries and stuff like that which mimics server-side includes and the like. Later on, the company actually chose a content management system called Broadvision for their intranet which, at the time, cost around $250,000 to implement. It was crazy times. That was how we did it back in the “ole days” of the web.

It seems ludicrous that we had to search and replace font and color tags and stuff like that. Now, you change it in one place in the stylesheet and you’re done. With the advent of blogging tools and content management systems and making them open source and available for people so they don’t have to get something like Broadvision which cost umpteen thousands of dollars and only available to enterprise-based teams was a huge change in the right direction. Along with that, what was happening in web standards was the separation of presentation and content, the rise of using CSS and CSS-based layouts, JavaScript and the beginning of JavaScript libraries and so on. Everything just tumbled together and grew together. Now we the complexity just keeps growing.

I look at the progress and applaud it because that is innovation at its finest. Everyday we get on the web we are actually seeing the product of innovation and innovative ideas – apps on our phone and tablets and all kinds of things. So, it’s great. I’m all for it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m clear that I personally am not going to be innovating these products or apps — I will be innovating other things. But the people I talk to and the audiences I talk to are some of those people are going to be creating the next big innovations. So, I always try to encourage them by saying, “Look, this is a problem and one of you here can probably solve this problem.” If someone’s got the tools and the drive and the interest, passion and creativity – then they should do it: go out there and solve a problem!

Nobody saw people like Harry Roberts, Nicholas Gallagher, Lea Verou, Paul Irish — or any of the other people who are developing phenomenal things — coming out of the woodwork. But, all of a sudden here they are building HTML5 awesomeness and whatnot. So I say, go and build and start solving problems. Whatever is annoying to you, figure out a way to fix it. I’m sure that you’re one of a few people, but release the information and put it on Github, fork it, play with it and keep spurring and sparking other people.

What has been your involvement/contributions in the Web Standards Project and InterAct?

I did some work with them in 2009 and partnered with a woman named Stephanie Troeth who is a badass UX Designer who also currently does some consulting work for MailChimp. Stephanie and I developed the Project Management curriculum together. The InterAct group built that and then basically stopped. Since then, here hasn’t really been a lot more activity with InterAct — it’s been somewhat dormant since everyone who was part of it has been doing a lot of other work. So, that was my contribution and that’s up on the site and I think that’s becoming part of the W3C’s curriculum which is very cool. For everybody who wants to do project management or a number of things such as web design and development can get that information and get it for free. Then they can either use it in a class or teach themselves, or whatever they want.

How did you become involved with this project?

My love of web standards is what got me involved in the Web Standards Project. I had been watching their work and wanting to be involved with it from 2002 – 2003. So imagine how delighted I was to be at South by Southwest in 2009 and have them approach me about getting involved in the Web Standards Project!

I was at a party and talking to Glenda Sims who is one of the people who was in charge of the Web Standards Project. I told her that I used to teach web design and web development and she suggested I get involved in the education branch of WASP called InterACT. She made the connections and it just worked out. It was great to be a part of it and to get to work with the people that I worked with on the project and making the curriculum. It was really enjoyable. I kept being able to do the kind of work that I do – instructional design, so it’s great to be able to do this and contribute to the greater good.


About CSS and Performance

How much does well or poorly designed CSS impact site performance?

I don’t necessarily think it impacts the site performance much. I think the more telling impact it has is on the people who are working on the site and how easy it is to add, modify and find styles. Almost everybody I have talked to has shared the sentiment that looking at someone else’s CSS code is almost as painful as being poked in the eye with a stick. So, the easier it is to access your code, look at it, sandbox stuff so that when multiple people have their hands in it, they can read it easier, the better.

In terms of the performances – Steve Souders at Google is a web performance/web optimization guru. He talks a lot about HTTP requests and speed, especially speed and velocity. In terms of speed itself, the more CSS you have and the more you have crazy selectors that are built on elements very high up in the DOM, like a body tag with a class or a body class with an ID or something like that, then the longer it takes to resolve that style. It’s not necessarily perceivable to us since we humans don’t perceive time well. But, certainly it is something that is measurable. Also, I think it affects the backend in terms of what the development team is dealing with and what they have to do and it makes the whole process inefficient.

When you code CSS, how much do you do by scratch vs. using tools such as CSS Generators?

I usually do it by scratch. I don’t usually use tools like CSS generators unless I’m doing gradients. I’ll use a gradient generator because gradients are painful. I use the ColorZilla CSS Gradient Editor because it has all of the different permutations and it keeps up with the syntax between the different browsers and has the vendor prefixes and has them in the right order and all of that good stuff. It’s a pretty powerful tool, pretty awesome.

What are some tools or techniques we can use to develop more efficient CSS? 

I’m not developing much any more but I still like text editors. I’ve been using TextWrangler on the Mac, but I used Notepad ++ on a PC. I know a lot of people use Coda, there’s such a long list of editors. If I were coding more, I would be more into them, but because I’ve been spending so much time speaking and writing etc, I’m not in that world any more. But some things I think are helpful tools and techniques are scalable and modular CSS like OCSS, SMACSS CSS for Grownups.

Denise10Testing and troubleshooting?

For testing and troubleshooting, I am a strong believer in Firebug, Chrome Developer, Inspector and still the W3C Validator – the HTML and CSS validator – I know it’s old school, but it’s true. It still works. I had a project that I was working on earlier this year that had some craziness in IE8 and I found the problem with the W3C Validator. CSS Lint is still good to learn about CSS redundancy and how redundant your styles are.

Any other tools we should be using?

There are a lot of people getting into the preprocessors such as LESS and SASS who don’t know how they things before these tools. I haven’t gotten into them, I am aware of them, I think they do lovely things. But, I have also talked to people who just like to know what their code is and what it’s doing instead of looking at it interpreted and interpolated. I think it’s really whatever works for you.

What are some of your favorite improvements to CSS? What would you like to see included?

I love CSS3, I think it’s phenomenal. I’m excited for when the specification gets more established for things like columns, that’s going to be cool. Also, there is a layout module still in the works which I think could end up being very cool and change things a lot. The gradients and rounded corners are great, but that’s pretty old news now in terms of front end development, that’s about 2 or 3 years old now.

The new stuff that’s coming out looks really exciting. Richard Rutter did a really great presentation at South by Southwest in 2011 about the upcoming typography additions to the CSS3 specification. I am really looking forward that to when that comes out.

In terms of what I would like to see included… with CSS3 we’ve now got great selectors – e.g., nth of type, nth child and last of type and ways to select attributes, etc. However, I would love to see entity selectors for HTML entities that start with the ampersand and end with the semicolon. I would love to see a way to target entities in your HTML. I think that would be so cool.

Have you heard anyone talking about that yet?

I haven’t read anything about it, I have decided after watching a presentation by Chris Coyier last year at Converge SE in which he was talking about things he would like to see in the new specification and I thought “Dude, why hasn’t anyone thought of this?” It would be really great to have something like this.

What is a good high level methodology for developing CSS for your site? For incorporating differences in browsers?

I talked about the scalable stuff and some of the differences in browsers in one of my presentations about normalize.css – which “normalizes” the css as opposed to a standard CSS reset. Different people have told me they have different opinions about it. Some people like to start off with HTML5Boilerplate. I looked at HTML5Boilerplate and it has a lot of stuff in it — a lot of stuff that isn’t always necessary. So I think it’s important to understand what’s in it and understand what you can take out that you don’t use so you can personalize it.

Do we still need to plan for “Progressful Degrahancement”?

I feel like because IE6 and IE7 aren’t the key players as they were a few years ago, you don’t necessarily need to adopt an approach like that. IE8 is still probably has a large user base. For example, my old computer I just replaced with this computer had XP still on it because I never upgraded to Windows 7 — don’t judge me [laughs]. So I couldn’t use IE9 even if I wanted to. I’m sure there are quite a number of people who are still in that boat.

So, it’s kind of choose your battles or have a progressive enhancement approach in the first place and build the site as if you were building it for something really low – which you would have to have if you were to have a mobile first approach anyway. So yes, that’s it: the high-level methodology for developing CSS, or developing a site, is to already be approaching a site from a mobile first or responsive perspective even if you’re not going to necessarily going to do it. If you have the thinking behind it so that anything you do is just building on that base.


Other Projects

Can you tell us about Rawk the Web (e.g., mission, goals, status, success stories, etc.)?

It’s a brainchild that I have not been able to put out into the world to the degree that I want to yet. I have a lot of ideas on how to expand it and make it more of how I see it.

Basically I hear a lot of “I don’t know that many women who do things in the technical industry or I don’t know many people of color who do it either”. I speak at a lot of conferences and, I have to say, that when I go to conferences and if there are any brown people there, I am surprised. Usually I can count on my fingers and toes out of a conference of thousands of people the numbers of people of color.

And there still aren’t that many women at these conferences either! I met a woman at the Oredev conference in Sweden – I loved that conference – she was with her husband and they brought their baby. It was awesome. She said, “We’re both developers and we both wanted to be here and we both wanted to come and neither of us wanted to stay home.” I saw a couple of women there who were pregnant which was great, but it’s very rare.

Part of the problem is conference organizers not knowing how to find people. But part of the other problem is that there are a lot of great, accomplished folks who aren’t visible for one reason or another. They are not making themselves visible on the web, they don’t know that part of being considered an expert or an industry “rock star” is just letting other people know about you and what you are doing. So, I wanted to start something that was a resource for people who were potential rock stars but are currently invisible.

A lot of people say “I see you speak at conferences, I want to speak at conferences too, what can I do?” and I’ll talk to them about speaking.  Or they say “I’m writing a book and it’s not finished” and I give them the low-down on writing. I tell them, “if you want to write a book, this is what you have to do….don’t do the same thing I did!” because I made a lot of mistakes when it came to self-promotion.

With Rawk The Web, I wanted to have a resources in a one-stop shop for people who want to be seen in the web industry (or any industry for that matter) but who don’t know how to go about it. I mostly wanted to do interviews with other women and other people of color in the industry who have done it — become rock stars — so that people can get inspired and see themselves in those roles. A lot of times people said “It’s so nice to see you here: I feel better being here by seeing you here”. I’ve even had white men and women write me afterwards and say “I was really happy to see you on the stage because I see guys who look like me all the time and I don’t get to see a diversity of opinions and experiences and I was really happy to see you there speaking.” How cool is that?!

I would like to go to more conferences and not say oh there’s 20 women and 180 men. I’d like to go to conferences and start seeing more diversity on speaker lineups, I would like to see more diverse attendees, I would like to see more web experts, industry experts like Lea Verou and Dan Mall who you don’t look at them and automatically expect them to be a white guy. Not that I have a problem with white guys — my boyfriend was a white guy [laughs]. They’re great, but they’re not the only ones.

I think that even with getting more diverse attendees that knowing that there are more people that you want to see at these conferences. One my “secret” nefarious plans with Rawk the Web is to put together a Rawk the Web conference and have the whole lineup be women and people of color. Just to have a lineup like that where it’s all totally industry experts, all rockstars, all people who are badasses – it just happens to be as opposed to other conferences where it’s all white guys and one woman and one brown person, instead it’s all women and all people of color. I just think it would be cool. These people are all around everywhere and they are amazing, they do amazing work and I just brought them all in one place. For all the people who put conferences together and say they “couldn’t find anybody”, I would say “I have a whole conference of them. I found them and they’re all friends of mine.” Not hard.

It would be such a great case in point and the epitome and case in point of what I’m trying to do in the world. What I am trying to do as a person. Part of what I do is what I do because I love it and it’s who I am and it’s in the fiber of my being. But part of what I do is also to show other people that they can do it too. I want people to see me on stage and think, “Hey that’s a woman, I’m a woman, I can do that” or have them say “Wait, she’s brown, I’m brown, I can do that!”.


Success stories?

One of my followers on twitter, Senongo Akem is half Nigerian and half American and we’d had a few exchanges on Twitter. At one point, he contacted me about how he could do more public speaking at conferences. We got on Skype and I told him I was speaking at the Future of Web Design in New York and, since he lives in New York, that I would put him in touch with the right people to take part in a track called “Rising Stars” where there were several spots still unfilled. So, I put him in touch with the conference organizer and made an introduction.

The other reason I wanted him to speak there is because he was talking about multicultural considerations in web design. Not just localizing with language, but localizing through visuals, colors, cardinal directions and all kinds of things. I knew this was a really important presentation for people in web design to see. It was very timely and important information. Not only had he grown up in both Nigeria and the US, but he lived in Japan for 7 years and his wife is Japanese. He has experiences that the average web designer in the U.S. is probably not going to think about and they are not going to have the range of experiences he has. If he wasn’t the right messenger for this content information, I don’t know who is.

He was nervous and hesitant at first, but he did an awesome job and got good feedback. I was so proud! So, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s so important that I want to continue to proliferate this level of opportunity and I want to be the one who helps people make that change in their lives.

Can we look forward to more books from you in the future?

Yes. I have several ideas for books. Most of them are around creativity and the creative process. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m going to try to publish them through a standard publisher or try to publish them myself, so we’ll see how it all shakes down.

Also, through Rawk the Web, I was looking through all of my ideas that I would love to implement if I had the time and resources. That’s always the conundrum – Have the money but don’t have the time; or have the time but don’t have the money. I’d like to do an eBook series through Rawk the Web on a lot of the things I’ve been talking about like speaking, self-publishing, self-branding, and things like that. Applying the visibility, teaming up and collaborating to be able to create great ideas. I have several ideas in the works.

I have a feeling next year is going to be a much more prolific year for me in regards to the things I am writing and putting out into the world. This year was kind of a retreat year and next year will be and advance year.

In what ways do you practice being the change you want to see in the world?

I call it “the transformative power of creativity” because I feel like embracing and expressing my creativity has changed my life in a really positive way. So I plan to continue to do this and hopefully encourage other people to do it as well. Through my actions and the way I am in the world I hope to help people see that those things are possible. Things that were big goals and dreams of mine that I have accomplished that when I look at them – I can’t believe what I’ve been able to accomplish – this was my dream to be a published author. The potency of it came from the desire to be a published author and then realizing that I am. I’ve been wanting to be a creative person – and I am.

Then I have these moments when I going to a conference to speak and I think, “I’m on another airplane…wait, I’m on another airplane!” It’s amazing — I wanted to be an international speaker and I am! So when I think about things like that, I think I have experienced having a really important goal or dream and then realizing it and I would like to give back to other people and have them feel that.

Several years back, I had moments where I was sitting in the office crying after a team meeting because my manager decided that was the time he was going to dress me down in front of everybody and telling me “you need to be in the office by 9 in the morning at the latest!” when no one else on the team needed to be. Or when I was working and doing painful project management and thinking “I just want to do something creative with somebody, please!”

And now, 4 years later, I am doing the thing that I’ve been saying I’ve been wanting to do for years. I’ve been saying that I want to be an evangelist and telling this to people for years. I thought “well, if no one is going to hire me to be an evangelist then I’m just going to be an evangelist on my own until someone realizes that I’m awesome and wants to hire me to do it.” But I went ahead and just start evangelizing on my own.

So, it’s amazing and I think that by my example, without even talking to people that people can see that and say “wow I am really inspired by that”. There are a lot of other people who inspire me and I have goals that I’m still moving towards and hoping to achieve because of how other people have inspired me. So, I just hope that I can inspire other people to make changes that help their lives and help them move forward as well. Ultimately, I just hope that I can continue to inspire people and help them do what they do better. That’s kind of all I can ask for.

As a Sagittarius, where will you shoot your arrow next?

The thing that is that I have been doing all of this stuff independently. So, my next goal is to team up with people — I don’t want to keep being a lone wolf. Ideally, I’d like to be part of a team of people who are evangelizing, who I can work with and have more firepower behind me to make a lot of these ideas I have for events and content that I want to put out in the world happen. That way, I can have a really good foundation to move from and put things forth. I’d like to have a home or a team of folks that I work with that do this. That’s my next main thing because I have so many ideas and so many things I want to write about and so many pieces of information and workshops I want to develop and create and put out. I’m ready! It’s been hard to do it on my own to try to manage that, plus client work, plus the speaking, plus the travel, etc. It’d be nice to have it all in one complete, coherent package. That’s where my focus is going to be for the next little while: discover who I can team up with and then go out and kick some butt!




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