The Contributions of Others: A Session with Jeremy Keith

You may know Jeremy Keith from such books as DOM Scripting, Bulletproof Ajax, and HTML5 For Web Designers (now in its second edition). He's a cofounder of the splendid design agency Clearleft, where he makes websites, a bouzouki player in the band Salter Cane, founder of the world's first Science Hack Day, and maintains numerous other creative and scientific outlets and communities. Between activities, Jeremy graciously agreed to talk with us about the Irish music community site The Session (which he created and maintains), his passion for the web (because it's other people!), and his new AEA presentation on the telegraph, the space elevator, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

You've been at this for quite a while. How and when did you get your start in web design?

Y'know, in retrospect, it's like I was killing time waiting for the web to come along. After I dropped out of Art College in the early ‘90s, I was busking and hitching my way around Europe, eventually settling in Germany's Black Forest region. I was playing in a band there—a precursor to today's Salter Cane. We decided we should have one of those new-fangled websites that was all the rage. I said I'd look into making one. So, thanks to the generosity of all the people sharing their knowledge on the web, I was able to learn everything I needed about nested tables and font tags.

Anyway, the band's website turned out okay. Then other people in other bands started asking me to make websites for them. They even offered payment. Payment! I had a day job selling bread in a bakery but after a while I was able to pack that in and do the web thing full time as a freelancer.

When the new millennium came around, it was time to bid farewell to Germany. I packed my bags and lit out for Brighton on England's south coast. I'm still there today.

Tell us a little bit about The Session.

I'm really into Irish traditional music. The funny thing is, I only got into trad music after leaving Ireland. It's the typical Irish-in-exile story: constantly going on about the homeland, but not, y'know, actually living there.

So it was while I was living in Germany and discovering the web that I was also immersing myself in Irish music. I knew I wanted to combine the two things somehow and create some kind of website that had something to do with the music.

What I settled on was a tune-a-week affair, where I would publish a different jig or reel each week and write a few words about the tune. It worked really well and started attracting quite a following. The problem was that I only knew a finite amount of tunes. When I started running out of tunes, I overhauled the site to be more a community affair, where anyone could publish a tune. I also added the ability to submit events and discussions.

That was back in 2001, when I was still dealing with Netscape 4.

The site grew and grew thanks to the generous contributions of all the members. I was very proud of The Session…but over time, I was also somewhat ashamed. Its design and technical infrastructure were badly in need of an overhaul.

Finally, just a few years ago, the site finally got the overhaul it needed. It's looking and working a whole lot better these days.

I really like the perspective of working on such a long-term project. I'm immensely proud of the site although, as I said, it's all down to the contributions of other people. Kind of like the web itself.

What are some tools, tricks, and/or techniques you can't work without?

I try not to get too attached to specific tools or tricks. Today's best practice is tomorrow's anti-pattern. You get all set up with Photoshop, Sublime Text, and Grunt only to find out that they've been replaced by Sketch, Atom, and Gulp. Don't get me started on JavaScript libraries!

Instead of focusing on particular tools or trends, I find it more useful to get acquainted with design principles, color theory, contrast, typography—and when it comes to web development, progressive enhancement is a principle that has stood me in very good stead over the years.

The three tools I really can't work without are HTML, CSS, and JavaScript…and even that's a bit of a stretch because I don't always need JavaScript.

What would you say is the most overlooked aspect of web design?

Weirdly, I think the “web” part of web design is the most overlooked. For as long as I can remember, designers and developers have been trying to find reasons to avoid the inherent flexibility and uncertainty of the web and instead try to shoehorn it into pre-existing design processes. At first it was print design, now it's software development. The thinking is always based on assumptions: “Let's assume that everyone is using a desktop computer…” or “Let's assume everyone has a device capable of running the latest JavaScript…”

I've found that on the web, it's best to assume nothing. That might sound like a scary prospect, but it's actually quite liberating. Giving up on “pixel-perfect” control doesn't mean giving up on quality. Quite the opposite: it means treating the web for what it is, not what we wish it were.

What has you most excited these days?

I know I said I wasn't pushed about specific tools and techniques, but I'm pretty excited by Service Workers. It's really not the technology itself, but what it enables that excites me. We can start to design for situations where the network isn't available. That's something that's previously been out of bounds for web design. It feels like it could be as big a game-changer as Ajax or responsive design.

Also: plastics.

You're giving a talk called “Resilience” this year at AEA. What's it all about, and what will people take away from it?

It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I'll be talking about progressive enhancement, my eternal hobby-horse. But I'm trying something different: I'm not going to use the phrase “progressive enhancement” at all during the talk. I think some people are put off by that phrase, or perhaps have a misunderstanding of what it entails. Instead I want to focus on the benefits of approaching the web with a progressive enhancement mindset, namely that it leads to a more robust and resilient end product.

Instead of taking the straightforward route, I'm going to take a ramble through the history of communication networks from the telegraph to the internet. It won't be all about the past though. I'll have some things in there that are currently in the realm of science fiction. Yes, I'm talking about the space elevator. I can't resist an opportunity to geek out about the space elevator.

Oh, and there'll be some talk about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript in there, too.

I'm hoping that people will come away with an appreciation for the broader perspective of our work. The web is a truly amazing collective creation. It's a privilege for all of us to work on making it a little bit better each and every day.

Jeremy will bring “Resilience: Building a Robust Web That Lasts” to An Event Apart Boston, May 16-18; An Event Apart Chicago, August 29-31; and other shows throughout 2016. Don't miss out on this essential information—plus eleven other great presentations for people who create digital experiences.