Looking Ahead—Insights from Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer

June 2022

Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman share their thoughts on the current state of the industry and what’s to come.

Jeffrey Zeldman

What’s next for web design?

Like many of you, I’ve been designing websites for a long time. And after three decades of extraordinarily fast-paced innovation and change, I find myself wondering what’s next. I don’t mean that I wonder what technological advance will achieve standardization and show up in which browser. I mean something more, something bigger.

The big idea

In the early 1990s, the web was its own huge idea: the idea that, from now on, anyone with access to a networked computer could share ideas with anyone else similarly equipped, anywhere in the world.

The web’s invention democratized publishing, empowered self-expression, gave everyone with access the ability to share their truth and find their tribe. Ultimately it would lead to new forms of journalism and fact sharing, new ways to build community, and much more—sadly including chaotic and destructive forces we could not imagine as we first sat at our tiny amber monitors, innocently learning HTML and discovering a world beyond Gopher.

But the story, the big story of the dawn of the web, was democratization through simple, easy-to-learn languages and protocols. And that was phase one.

Enter capitalism

Almost immediately, business and the professions that serve it began shaping the web to new ends. Some of us remained passionate amateurs devoted to experimentation and creative expression. But many others became professional web designers and developers, ushering in two decades of innovation and discovery as we pushed the new medium far beyond its original scope as a platform for sharing basic documents.

In place of one big idea, we had a million of them.

Almost every month, from 1995 on, it seemed there was some brilliant new rethinking—from the early table layouts and typographic hacks to liquid, Jello, and Ice layouts; from server-side interactivity to client-side DHTML to Ajax; from Flash to web standards. We used HTML elements willy-nilly to affect how the type on our page looked.

Then, with the introduction of CSS, we learned better, using markup semantically and letting styles determine how pages looked—at least, when browsers behave correctly.

And as we were learning to separate content from presentation, we also began to make long overdue progress at bringing the web to where it should always have been, by making our pages accessible to everyone—regardless of personal ability or device used.

As web standards became accepted as the way to move the web forward, we began to have Really Big Ideas in fairly quick succession, often in reaction to new tech like the iPhone and Android. Responsive Web Design, Mobile First—it was one sea change after another, often starting on the stage of An Event Apart and the pages of A List Apart.

How do you follow 20 years of visual and interactive innovation?

As I step back and try to imagine the web’s future, I see a mature medium, held together with standards. Things we used to have to pull off by deliberately abusing code or relying on the quirks of browsers we can now achieve with the mature and sophisticated CSS that W3C working groups continue to drop on us.

As the era of the web design pioneer recedes, a new era is emerging, based on the web’s old, original idea: that this is a medium for people—a medium that should be usable, accessible, and both broadly and specifically inclusive.

Instead of memorizing new tricks, we’re deepening our knowledge of what we already know, and learning to be better at anticipating the needs of the people we serve. Not just some of the people. Not just 80% of the people. But all of the people.

This is what the journey of web design has always been about. We lost sight of it when we first began exploring and innovating. We remembered it as we shifted the focus of our innovation from tricks designers and developers get off on, to methods of understanding and helping more people.

Achieving the business goals of our employers while simultaneously improving the lives of our users—with all the detailed experimentation and research such an undertaking requires—will be the Next Big Thing in web design and development, as it is already the focus of An Event Apart’s curriculum.

Let’s make humanism, democracy, and inclusion the real Web 3.0.


Eric Meyer

A few months ago, I said I was excited about the publication of the first public working drafts for both CSS Cascade Layers and CSS Container Queries. I also said there was strong agreement from browser makers to implement them.

What I didn’t expect was that by now, today, just a few months later, Cascade Layers would have shipped in every major desktop and mobile browser. And I don’t mean in preview builds behind flags: I mean full public releases. If you’re coding for an intranet with a known, updated browser population, you could literally start using cascade layers today. The speed of this frankly spun my head like a 5ms rotation animation.

On the one hand, I suppose it might have been low-hanging fruit, because browsers have maintained two cascade layers since 1996: the important layer, and the everything-else layer. That’s how the cascade was defined from the outset. Support for Cascade Layers simply allows authors to add more layers, name them, order them, and use them to group styles together and know that the styles in other layers will override them, or be overridden by them, regardless of selector specificity. The simplest selector in a layer will override anything in the layers below it. The most complex selector in a layer will be overridden by anything in the layers above it.

Flagging rules as important will still allow overriding of things in other layers, but the promise of Cascade Layers is that they can do away with specificity wars, and thus the need for marking certain declarations important to overcome others. Instead, you can slot rules into layers you set up, and let the hierarchy of priorities you define govern which rules will win, regardless of where they sit in the style sheet or how complex their selector.

Think of it: the thing we struggled with for decades, the impetus that created naming methodology after naming methodology in an attempt to “tame the cascade,” can now be relegated to the past. This is going to set off— well, I was going to say a slow revolution in how we structure our CSS, but there might not be anything slow about it. This is a huge step forward, one I’m excited to see unfold and one we’ll be seeing in AEA talks throughout the rest of this year, and I expect for years to come.