Join Jeffrey Zeldman for an in-depth discussion in this video Backstory, part of Jeffrey Zeldman: 20 years of Web Design and Community.
(music) - This is the Penguin Book of Comics. I loved Spiderman and all that stuff, and I wanted to go more deeply into it, and I think in 7th grade, is when I saw this book and got it, and I just, we didn't have air conditioning. I would just climb into the bathtub on a summer day, and just lose myself in this book for hours. They had like thousands of examples of comics, and I would read every one of them.
They go way back to, you know the Bayeux Tapestry, and they go through political cartoons, and so they're tracing the roots of visual story telling. I tried to be a comic artist from, I don't know, from like, I did it all day long in school. I didn't really pay attention. I would just draw comics. My first comics were the army ants. Had black ants and white ants that were attacking each other. And then my parents were really encouraging. They told me that my work was great.
It wasn't, but they told me that, which was really nice. It was something that I got confidence in. When I was in college, I tried to, I still try to sell comics to the New Yorker and PlayBoy. The idea of starting small didn't occur to me. I failed at a bunch of things. I had failed at fiction. I was in rock bands. I ended up writing for the Washington Post, but not as a staff writer, as a stringer.
And they fired me one day, I never found out why. So I ended up in advertising at first, not because I was creatively driven. I just plunged, like whenever I get interested in something, I dive into it obsessively, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. So I got all these books, like "when advertising tried harder." And Bill Bernbach's book. These are the classic ads, like let me find the Volkswagen ad. Everyone knows lemon, but there's one that says, "We finally found a beautiful picture of a Volkswagen." And it was just a snowy road.
And what was beautiful was that the Volkswagen could travel through the snow very easily, but what they were saying is "We know our car is ugly." And nobody did that in advertising back then. So just very direct communi- like with the comics. Clean, straight forward, direct communication in a clever and arresting way. I wasn't good enough to stay in advertising. With that, I tried, but I don't think I loved it as much as they did. It made me a communication designer, so that when the web came around, I saw it as a medium for communicating.
The web was exciting to me, because you know, I tried to publish my novels, and I hadn't. I tried to get a record deal, and I hadn't gotten a record deal. So there's always gatekeepers when you're a creative person. Maybe the publishers were right, not to publish my stuff. Maybe the record companies were right, but with the web, it was all up to me. - Five minutes after it became possible to do table layouts, ad agencies began hocking their wares on the web. This is years before flash.
Years before Amazon was even a gleam in Jeff Bezo's eye. And I was one of the people who rushed to do it. My second website was my personal site, Zeldman.com. But my first was a promotional site for Warner Bros. A client at the ad agency where, until I got this opportunity, I was struggling and sad and miserable. But suddenly, working on a website changed all that. In 1995, we were in a meeting, and the client said, "Look it. "I love you guys, and I think you're going to get "the account, but I'm honor-bound to let my "internal team compete for it." And the internal team had already had like a year of website experience.
In 1995. This means they were designing websites in 1994 for Mosaic, right? They were technically way more advanced than we were. The client said to us, "Now just please be quiet "while the other team makes their pitch." And we were supposed to sit there with our mouths shut. That's only right. And the other team started, and they had just started their talk, and the person leading it said, "Batman -" now I don't know how he thought there was going to be animation. Remember this is 1995. He says "Batman swings out on a rope and says, "'Hi, I'm Batman!'" And I said "Batman doesn't talk." (laughter) I'm not the client, I don't get to say that.
I was the guy pitching the account. But I said, "Batman doesn't talk" because Batman doesn't talk! (laughter) And if you knew anything, you'd know that. If you understood the character at all, you would know that. You can't make Batman your schill for the website. Batman can't address the website at all. And the client looked at me, and I knew that we had it. And we did. - Netscape 1.1 had just come out, and it enable a couple of things. It enabled a tiled, a repeating background tile, which was the way to make a full screen background back then.
That had never existed before. There hadn't even been support for images in the first version. And now not only could you take an image, but you could put it in a BG, was it a BG element? I forget. This proprietary, non-standard html element that Netscape made up. This is years before flash. We had an animated entrance event before the flash intro. It was a bat flying toward you. My partner, Steve McClaren, took some art work from DC comics of the bat logo, and then shrank it by 20%, and saved that as a GIF image, and then shrank it again, and saved it as a GIF image.
He kept shrinking and shrinking and shrinking and shrinking and making it smaller and smaller and smaller. And then he reversed the series of images, so that it started small and went big. And then we hired a guy named Doug Rice, who had a small, interactive agency called Interactive 8. He wrote a pearl script for us, which would send the first image, and when it had finished loading, tell the server to send you another image. Very primitive and ridiculous, but it blew people's minds. And I'm talking about a tiny image, too, right, except screens were very low resolution and rather small, so this filled your screen.
So we centered this thing. That was another thing you could do. Netscape had a center tag, right. So there were primitive, all kinds of primitive layout things that we could do. Anyway, once the sequence of images, once the bat had flown toward you, it took you to the homepage. It wasn't just that we were doing visual things that nobody had ever done before, it was that was nobody was thinking of the web as an exciting presentation medium. As soon as I worked on a website, I was done with advertising. It was so exciting, it was like all the excitement that had been missing for a long time for me, and the different creative things I did, it was back.
And just like, intense collaboration, and someone would knock on the door, and you'd say "Go away." We just, it was like we were in a submarine, and we were going to come up with something brilliant three months later. When we did this BatmanForever.com, so there were three million people using the web at the time, and we had 1.5 million unique visitors. Which means half, half the internet saw my work. And for someone who'd been struggling as a musician, struggling as a fiction writer, struggling as a journalist, to suddenly have an audience.
It didn't matter that it wasn't, they weren't coming for me, but it was amazing to be able to communicate with an audience.