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Zoe Gillenwater: The Future of CSS Layout


Zoe Gillenwater is a web designer, accessibility specialist, and author of Stunning CSS3: A Project Based Guide to the Latest in CSS and Flexible Web Design: Creating Liquid and Elastic Layouts with CSS. Her talk at FOWD NY is about the future of CSS layout. We caught up with Zoe this week to hear more about it.

We're excited to have you on board for FOWD NY! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current job?

I'm really excited to be speaking at FOWD NY! I'm a web designer who's really into CSS, responsive web design, and accessibility. I currently work for AT&T as a web accessibility specialist to ensure our sites are accessible to people with disabilities and teach other people involved in the web development process how to make their work accessible too. Other than being a web nerd, I'm also a Jane Austen nerd—the scientific term is "Janeite." And I love playing around and going on outings with my two little kids and husband.

What is the future of CSS3 layouts, and how will designers benefit?

CSS3 layouts are going to be a lot more flexible, and I mean that in both the broad sense and the fluid-layout sense. The CSS3 layout modules give designers the flexibility to easily rearrange content without being tied to the HTML source order, to size objects in proportional ways to each other, to align completely separate objects more easily with each other. It's also going to be a lot easier to create flexible-width, fluid layouts because of the new sizing, placement, and alignment tools we have coming.

This is going to make responsive layouts even easier and faster to not only build but also to design. It used to be that in order to create a web comp that could successfully be turned into a fluid design, you had to avoid all sorts of design elements: don't give a box with text an angled edge, don't make an image the full width of a text container, don't make separate boxes match in height, that sort of thing. But now CSS3 can handle most of these design elements, without crazy hacks or really complicated code, so the comp designers are more free to put what they want in their designs. There are and will be less code constraints on visual design.

How have mobile screens changed the way we approach CSS and layouts in general?

The huge growth of mobile browsing and the incredible diversity in mobile screen sizes have forced us to acknowledge what has always been true: that there's no "majority resolution" that we can design for and ignore the rest. Our users have always had control over the conditions they want to view our sites in, and we need to make our sites adaptable to as many users as possible. Fluid layouts are one way to do that, a way I've been using for many years. I love that fluid layouts are finally becoming so popular across the web design community!

I'm also seeing a lot more consideration go into keeping CSS lean, such as through mobile-first building techniques, in order to make our pages perform better for mobile devices. This is a great trend too. All users like fast-loading pages, not just mobile folks.

It's very easy now to get into web design and development. What impact does that have on accessibility? What can we do to ensure the novices of the web are designing for it?

I think the best way we can ensure that novices make their web sites accessible is for us old folks—I mean, experienced web professionals, to make our web sites accessible. Too often, accessibility is considered a feature, an add-on service to a basic web design and development package. Accessibility is not optional. It should be built into every web page whether the client asks for it or not. It should be business-as-usual.

If accessible accommodations are seen as "just the way it's done" in our industry, then that's what the newbies are going to learn when they're reading articles, tutorials, and books on web design, and they're going to just see it as the normal way of working too. Very rarely is it more difficult to make a web site accessible than inaccessible, if you learned the right way from the beginning and plan for accessibility at the start of the project.

Are there any other speakers at FOWD New York you're excited to see?

Well, I've seen Chris Coyier speak before, but I'm excited to see him again! Not only is he crazy-smart when it comes to CSS and JavaScript, but he explains it all very clearly, and he's a really engaging, fun speaker.

I think Darcy Clarke's session on "Frontend Development Techniques for the Modern Web" sounds really interesting, because I'm a frontend person myself who likes to keep up with the latest and greatest. Also, I really need to go to Dan Rose's session on Photoshop, since it looks like Adobe will be killing my beloved Fireworks, and I may have to switch back to Photoshop for creating web graphics. And since I don't want to end on that sad note...Denise Jacobs and Carl Smith are people I've interacted with but have never seen speak, so I'm excited to finally get that chance at FOWD!

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