The Official Shorty Awards Blog

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Miniature Art Form

This is the second installment of our interview series with Shorty Awards contenders and other intriguing Twitterers.

Back in the Internet’s early days, pioneering Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman successfully pushed for standards so that the same site content could be viewed across different browsers. The cover of his book Designing With Web Standards inspired an annual Blue Beanie Day, when standardistas across the world unite. The Shorty Award design finalist is the executive creative director of Happy Cog, a Web design and user experience studio he founded. His informative, irreverent, and self-deprecating Twitter feed is featured on Ink Pill and has more than 25,000 followers.

When did you sign up for Twitter and what prompted you to join?

Soon after it started. I was really annoyed to discover that many of my Web design friends had been on it for six months and hadn’t thought to invite me. Andy Budd, Jason Santa Maria? You’re kidding! I think “scratching myself” was my first tweet, sort of a protest tweet. Then I didn’t come back for a week. I don’t know what turned it around but I suddenly realized that it was micro-publishing and I could do anything I wanted to. It could be a little art form.

Has Twitter changed the way that you structure content on your site and your clients’ sites?

It has focused my writing. I wrote a book, Designing With Web Standards, and the first two editions were fairly discursive. I just finished the third edition and it’s much tighter. I wanted to be sharp in the ideas, and if there were jokes they had to happen quickly in passing, the same way they do on Twitter.

We’re changing the way we design content for our clients so there’s more emphasis on the first paragraph. We’re designing type bigger. I always thought that the Internet was going to unleash people’s creativity: everyone is going to learn HTML and have a blog and be a writer. That didn’t really happen because it’s too much work. The barrier is so low with Twitter that it paradoxically brings you up against a barrier that’s actually very high: Can you say something meaningful in just 140 characters? By removing everything extraneous and focusing on the act of writing in miniature, it’s making better communicators out of a lot of people, whether they do any kind of professional writing or not.

How should designers approach the look and feel of their own Twitter pages?

The Web designers I know who use Twitter approach their page like they do their personal site or blog: the design has to do a job—supporting my content—but it also needs to express me in some way. A lot of sophisticated designers create unsophisticated backgrounds as a joke. If you go to their website maybe all the navigation is hidden until you hover over every third adjective, but when you go to their Twitter page there’s a GIF image of a unicorn. So some people use it to demonstrate their design skill and other people use it to escape from their design skill. And you lose that if you’re using Tweetie or Twitterrific or any of the platforms because the typography is different, the interface is different. (That’s not to say I don’t love Tweetie and Twitterrific.)

Are there connections you’ve made through Twitter that you wouldn’t otherwise have made?

There are people I have real relationships with and there are my Internet friends and sometimes when I meet them that spark isn’t there. It’s like the personality we become online with that little avatar and those few words, those personalities can have a good time, but the complicated messy people we are might not hit it off. I went to a tweet-up once and I felt awkward and self-conscious. It was like being at a party where you don’t know anybody. I think everyone pretty much felt the same way. We all ran back online again where we could be friends.

Who do you wish had a Twitter feed but doesn’t?

Mark Twain would have been good. I would love to see J.K. Rowling have a Twitter feed—the author of Harry Potter. I’d love to know what’s she’s working on now and I’d love to know what her observations are like when she’s not creating fictional worlds. James Ellroy would be pretty interesting, but maybe not. It might be horrible.

What do you think is the most effective way for designers to use Twitter?

You don’t have to have a scintillating online personality to have a really good Twitter feed. If you write about online typography and you have good observations, good links, and you post a couple of times a day, that’s very effective. That will make people discover your blog and portfolio. I’ve discovered lots of people that way.

It’s important if you’re using Twitter at least partly to promote your work that you also have something unselfish to share. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about design. Maybe you write about your dog once a week. Use Twitter to put out a professional message but also something personal so we care when you lose an account or when you have to put your dog to sleep.

How do you think Twitter will evolve?

There’s a danger where if it changes too much it loses what makes it so special. They need to make money so they can pay the people who run it. If they had a pro account I’m sure I would happily pay $30 a year or whatever. Actually, if they just asked for a donation I’d do it. A lot of people would. Ev and Biz have been around a long time. They’ve created brilliant things on the Web and I think they’re too smart to change Twitter for the worse. The simplicity it has now is a real virtue and is what people love about it.

Follow who matters on Twitter with the Shorty Awards mailing list and learn about how businesses use Twitter with the Shorty Report.

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September 22, 2009