“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
– Lau Tzu
I was recently given the opportunity to demonstrate my graphic design skills by submitting to CSS Zen Garden. At first, I considered this a good way to demonstrate design ability – working with a known quantity, designing for a well known and relatively respected institution in the web-design sphere.
But something – a quiet voice – kept nagging at me. Something about this was wrong. It wasn’t that the whole procedure felt like working on spec, because it most certainly didn’t feel like that – I never would work on spec. It was a deeper flaw, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and as time passed, I became more and more bothered by it until suddenly I wrapped my head around it.
CSS Zen Garden isn’t about design. It never has been, and never will be.
Design is about message. It is about presenting information in a way that maximizes its meaning and impact. It is about content, first and foremost. Yes, design has a strong aesthetic component – it taps into communal cultural references to strengthen and focus message. But this aesthetic component – style – is too often mistaken for design.
Content cannot be separated from design. The two are intertwined, woven together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Style plays a part, but style must be subordinate to design. Style must be subordinate to meaning and clarity
It is style that CSS Zen Garden is all about. It is about the look of the message, not the message. The entire purpose of the site is to educated web developers that style can be separated from content. That the meaning of the content is irrelevant to the meaning of design. CSS Zen Garden mistakes style is for design, and a whole generation of web designers has “grown up” worshipping at the altar of the false gods of style.
When it was introduced, the CSS Zen Garden was conceived of to help educate those who build the web about new techniques for crafting websites. It was created to evangelize standards-complaint web site creation. And as a vehicle for demonstrating to less savvy decision makers how style and content can be separated – how web site style can be updated without changing underlying HTML construction – it has been wildly successful.
But CSS Zen Garden is not about design. It demonstrates the styling abilities of those who submit stylistic interpretations of the site to its creator, but it does nothing to demonstrate design skill or knowledge. While it has been a valuable ally in the fight to make the web standards compliant, it has not promoted good design, and may have blurred the understanding between good style and good design.
HTML and CSS are our clay, web sites and applications are the pots we form. It is what is inside – the content, the message – that truly matters.