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Blue Beanie Day: My Origin Story

Derek Featherstone 11/30/18

Blue Beanie Day Collage of Level Access employeesIn 1996 I remember sitting at a computer at 11pm trying to figure out why the web page I had created would show just fine in Internet Explorer 3, but wouldn’t render AT ALL in Netscape 3. I was all about cross browser testing and that meant there would be no “Best viewed in…” badge on my web site!

At that point, cross-browser testing meant IE3 and Netscape 3. I added Lynx into the mix because I had read something on Usenet about that being a good proxy for “other unknown devices” — and because if it all makes sense in Lynx, it’ll still make sense in more modern, more capable browsers. I wouldn’t discover the Opera browser and build it into my work until around mid-1997.

I spent what felt like forever debugging and researching, in futility, trying to figure out WHY the page wouldn’t show. What was Netscape doing differently that I was missing? WHY was the same code just fine in one browser and completely broken in another?

So, what was it?

I eventually figured it out. The answer? So simple:

I was missing a single closing </td> tag.

When Netscape 3 encountered a missing </td> tag, it stopped rendering the page. The document wasn’t well-formed, and it didn’t recover.

And yes, the entire industry (actually, there wasn’t really much of an industry back then, so I don’t even know if we can call it that, but let’s just go with it!)… The entire industry was using table-based layouts in those days for any design that had multiple columns. I used them minimally, of course, to create a base grid for columns and a few rows for a header, the main content, and a footer.

Once I had discovered the problem, it was easy to fix. But how on earth could I make sure that I didn’t have to go through that pain again? That’s when I discovered validation. And tools like validators.

That moment… that one mistake, changed my life. Because all of that research and all of that time invested in solving that problem. And that, right there, led me to the world of Web Standards.

My initiation

That moment was when I experienced the Browser Wars for the first time. The inconsistency between IE and Netscape caused me some pain. It caused others pain too. That pain forced us all to realize that we needed all the pieces of the web to work well together. That authors could write their code to the standards and rely on browser vendors to do the right thing with that code.

Enter Jeffrey Zeldman. The man in the Blue Beanie. His work in that time (along with countless others as part of the Web Standards Project) literally changed the world for the better. You can dig in more if you read the history of the Web Standards Project.

Jeffrey wrote the book that changed web design back in the day: Designing with Web Standards. The book where Jeffrey donned that blue beanie, shared his wisdom and his craft, and influenced all of us.

I am proud to wear my Blue Beanie today for three reasons:

  • First, to remind myself of that journey and where I came from.
  • Second, to share the message that we still need Web Standards in our work to make the web more accessible to everyone.
  • Third, and finally, as an homage to my good friend, and colleague Jeffrey Zeldman.

Jeffrey — I know that Blue Beanie day isn’t about you. It never was. It was always about making the web better for all of us. But nonetheless, thank you for everything you’ve done to help bring standards to the forefront of our industry, and to make the web more accessible to everyone.

Derek Featherstone is the Chief Experience Officer at Level Access.

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