WaSP Interviews Jim Ramsey
On the redesign of The San Francisco Examiner
Interview Conducted for 8th Aug 2004
Guess what type of site has redesigned its Web site into a standards-compliant design that is also appealing and readable. It validates XHTML Transitional 1.0 and indicates it in its footer. No, not a Web designer’s site or anything having to do with technology. It’s an old-fashioned newspaper’s site, San Francisco Examiner. One of its own employees spearheaded the redesign. Meet Jim Ramsey.
What led you to decide to redesign San Francisco Examiner to a Web-standards–compliant site complete with valid XHTML?
About a year ago I stumbled onto Douglas Bowman’s Stopdesign site and was amazed. The HTML was so clean and logical and the site looked fantastic. I started reading more about XHTML, CSS, and web standards and got interested in the work of Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Cederholm.
The Examiner site was a jumble of nested tables and spacer gifs back then. However, I wasn’t ready to take the full plunge at that point. I had too much trouble making the CSS work the way I wanted it to and it was frustrating that it seemed to work differently in every browser. I settled for a table-based site with more CSS than I had been using previously.
A few months ago, The Examiner decided to open the site to advertising. That meant a total redesign, so I decided that I might as well make it fully standards-compliant with no tables for layout. It’s been a challenge. Things that were so easy to do with tables seemed next to impossible with CSS. Sometimes I just had to abandon ideas because it wasn’t worth the hassle. I think that turns out to be a good thing because it kept things simple.
How long did it take to convert the site and going live?
That’s hard to say since it was done in phases over the last year. Plus, the current design is sort of Version 2 of the XHTML/CSS site. I’d created one previously and it had been up for a couple months, but I was really unhappy with the way it looked so I started over again. That’s the great thing about CSS. You just throw away the old style sheet and start over.
That’s the great thing about CSS. You just throw away the old style sheet and start over.
Did you create before and after metrics? Such as size of the page? Number of images? Download time?
I wish I had, but I didn’t. Like I said before it was done in stages so there wasn’t a startling change at any one point.
What has the public / reader response been to the redesign?
The response from other Web designers has been great. I’ve received many complimentary e-mails and Jeff Veen and Douglas Bowman have linked to the site.
One person was a little confused about the fact that he didn’t have to click on a link to get a printer-friendly page. I’m still not sure if he got it sorted out. Otherwise, I haven’t had any feedback from readers, which might be counted as a positive since most readers only e-mail to complain or ask for help. Since no one had done that recently, my guess is that things are working pretty well.
What, if anything, has changed as the result of the design?
The main thing from my perspective is that it’s so much easier make changes when all you have to do is make a single edit on a stylesheet. If I decide that I want to add an extra pixel of space after a paragraph I can do it in a minute and I don’t have to edit every page of the site.
What kind of CMS are you using? Is that what helps ensure the XHTML is compliant before the content goes live? If not, how are you ensuring the site remains valid XHTML with all the hands that touch it?
We use a custom CMS that I built from the ground up last year. Since I have full control over how things are output, I can make sure it’s valid. Also, there is almost no HTML written directly into each article, so it’s not that hard to make sure invalid markup doesn’t creep in. However, with thousands of stories, I’m sure there are a few tags in all caps or img tags that aren’t closed somewhere. I’ll try to clean those things up when I have time.
I hear you’re hooked on standards as a result of this effort. What future plans to do you have for The Examiner, other sites, or both?
Standards is what got me interested in Web design again after feeling frustrated with it for some time. I’m now convinced that this is the direction that more and more sites, especially newspaper and other media sites, should be moving in.
Standards is what got me interested in Web design again after feeling frustrated with it for some time.
It will be interesting to see whether the non-technical decision makers will embrace it, reject it, or just not care about it. My guess is that if a majority of Web designers start treating valid XHTML and CSS as the de facto professional standard, their bosses or the people hiring them will accept it without complaint.
However, if designers who use standards are a minority, the decision makers, especially those still using Netscape 4.7, won’t understand the advantages. They’ll just see that the person using Frontpage can make a site that works on their browser and the person using CSS can’t.
As for The Examiner, my goal now is to fine-tune the site. I’m currently reading 37 Signals’ Defensive Design for the Web and I’m trying to incorporate some of those ideas into examiner.com. I’ve also re-launched our sister paper’s website, sfindependent.com, with the same design as The Examiner.
Thank you for talking with us, Jim. Superb job on the site.
Jim Ramsey is a web designer in San Francisco. He has been the webmaster at the San Francisco Examiner for four years, which is more than long enough to hate being called ‘webmaster’. He also spends some time at www.jimramseydesign.com.
- The San Francisco Examiner
- Douglas Bowman’s Stopdesign site
- Jeffrey Zeldman
- Dan Cederholm
- San Francisco Independent
The Web Standards Project is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.