An Interview With the Creator of “CSSquirrel”

CSSquirrel is both a person and a web comic. Both are profoundly geeky. Picture a comic where, to understand the punch line, you have to follow the politics of the development of the HTML 5 specification or be conversant with the details of RGBa color notation, and you’ll know why we love the subject of this interview.

Tell us a little bit about you.

I’m Kyle Weems, an Interactive Designer and Humorist for Mindfly Web Studio. Actually, I added the last half of the title when nobody was looking. Mostly what I do for Mindfly is integrate the designer’s pretty pictures with the website proper, add interactivity with JavaScript, create the markup to hang all the design on, and try to make CSS do things it shouldn’t. I also get to interact with the back-end code, but JavaScript and CSS fill up the majority of my daily activities.

I live in Bellingham, WA, which is about as far north as you can get without being Canadian or Alaskan. It’s a gorgeous Pacific Northwest town that’s pleasantly situated almost exactly between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, which gives me access to either big city without having to live in one. Well, it would give me access to either big city if I had a car.  Which I don’t.

And you also have a web comic called “CSSquirrel.”

A web comic about the web?  That’s kind of meta.

It didn’t occur to me how horribly geeky of a project it was until I tried to explain the first comic, featuring Andy Clarke’s underpants, to my girlfriend. For the first month or so she thought I was doing a webcomic about a British designer and his pet squirrel sidekick.

Somewhere around the SVGorilla comic, where I was making alpha transparency jokes while actually messing with the squirrel’s transparency levels, I realized I was sinking into a bad feedback loop of webiness. Is that a word? We’ll pretend it is.

How did you break free of that loop?

I don’t know if I have, to be honest. I think I’m more obsessed with web technology today than I was when I started the comic. I’m pretty trapped at this point, like a slightly pudgy Boba Fett in a digital Sarlaac Pit. However, I’ve found myself focusing more on the discussions and relationships in the web standards world more than the technology—granted, they’re discussions of technology—which I think makes it a teensy bit more accessible. At the very least, my girlfriend now tries to laugh when she sees the comic. Girlfriends and mothers can be relied upon for honest feedback… right?

Uh, sure.  So why a squirrel, exactly?

Because elephants are really hard to fit in a small strip’s frames.

Actually, it’s because I’ve always found squirrels hilarious. There were several around my childhood home—okay, let’s be honest, there are several everywhere—and their hyperactive antics are consistently amusing. I’d started to use squirrel-related handles online just prior to working at Mindfly, and when I was at a web design conference I would doodle squirrels on my notebook. It wasn’t that the presentations were boring, they were awesome, but I fidget if I don’t have my hands doing something.  Sometime during that week I looked at the squirrel I’d drawn and figured “why not?”

Interesting that CSSquirrel was born at a conference.  Which reminds me: it seems like you’ve done a large number of AEA-related comics. What’s the deal?

AEA is like a cornerstone of the web standards community, and so in the weeks leading into and out of the conferences I get to see a lot of neat traffic in Twitter and blogs about what’s going on. The comic is about the web design world, and for better or worse when the conference week hits I’m not thinking about anything web-related other than An Event Apart. With the impact it has on web design, a better question would be “How can I not have comics about AEA?”

By putting the squirrel in those situations I’m compensating for my lack of being there physically, and making myself part of the experience virtually. I’ve had a few fun online conversations with AEA Seattle people who tweeted some about the Eric Meyer abduction comic.

Um… anything I should be concerned about?

When it became apparent that the forest has wild animals in it, and that we probably can’t get a signal for our iPhones, we decided it was a lot safer to just read the blog feeds of attendees and the online slides of the presenters than to abduct people. Also, there were strong rumors that you knew Wing Chun Kung Fu, and I really didn’t want to be kicked in the head. I keep my thoughts there.

Speaking of your thoughts, apparently all creative people have to be asked this, so: where do you get your ideas?

I have a complicated setup involving a bag of Scrabble® tiles, a Magic Eight Ball™, and photos of Jeremy Keith

Oh, nice.

Really, I try to keep as informed as possible about what’s going on in the web development world. I follow interesting designers/developers on Twitter, I’m subscribed to a growing number of blogs via RSS, and I’ve lately been reading through W3C archives, which is a painful endeavor.

Often, I’ll find a topic resonating with a lot of people, and it sweeps me up, and by Sunday night, when I typically work on the comic, I’ve found myself compelled to put my two cents into the fracas. Some weeks people are talking less, and I find myself poking browsers with a stick to see if anything funny happens. If I’m desperate, I make fun of Twitter and have Biz Stone’s hair run around. The real trick is trying to get a discussion about link rot to be funny in three frames and fit along with some visual comedy. It’s easier if I somehow tie it into an 80′s action film or a painting of a pipe as a metaphor.

You’ve steered the comic into a few hot zones.  How have the reader reactions played out?

The controversial topic comics have generated some of the best reactions for me, contrary to my expectations. Sometimes after writing them I expect to get a severed horse head mailed to me or a finger in a box. Instead, they’re much more likely to generate a lot of thoughtful responses and draw in interested readers. The discussions that play out in these comment threads end up involving a lot of well-informed people getting really detailed about their stances on the subject. As a result, the comments become educational opportunities for me to learn more about the topics or people involved. I often wade into dangerous waters only partially informed, so I’m really grateful for what I end up getting out of it.

The most dangerous field for me to walk into so far has ended up being Opera. The browser has some really dedicated fans, and a couple of them have at times become very heated, occasionally aggressive commentators wielding digital pitchforks. However, they’re the minority, and every time an Opera employee has responded, they’ve been polite, thoughtful, and really made me think about my stances as expressed in the comic.

What’s next for you and the Squirrel?

I’ve been considering a Weems/Squirrel 2012 presidential bid, but I don’t think that’s going to pan out. In the meanwhile, there are a plethora of ways that I’ve been mulling over expanding the CSSquirrel experience: a browser-based adventure game featuring the Squirrel, sans plugins just to see what’s possible; convincing people that they want to wear T-shirts of the Squirrel; and writing some sort of web-related tutorial book or books are all in my crystal ball at the moment.

In particular, I’d like to help contribute to materials aimed at getting good standards-oriented information to young people interested in web development, in a form they can digest. Through Mindfly I had the opportunity to be involved in judging the projects of several high school students in a Web Design course—where was this when I was a teenager?—and I’ll admit I was frightened by what they produced. Convoluted, pre-generated code that would only validate in Bizzaro-land, inline-styles, and font tags were only some of the horrors I faced. If we want the Web to keep improving, it’d be in our interest to get these kids better educated prior to them inventing the next MySpace.

Kyle, thanks for your time and for all the laughs!

It’s my pleasure! Thanks for making the web a better place with An Event Apart! If it wasn’t for the web standards movement, I would never have made it into this career, and the Squirrel and I would still be wearing hair nets in a food court.