Web standards at all costs?

Paul Boag

So should you always build sites using web standards? Should tables really only be used for tabular data? Is it CSS at all costs?

I received an email today from a web designer called Keir with a question for the podcast. It is a question I have heard many times before, but because of work I am currently doing for Headscape, I have had to think twice about the answer.

Here is what Keir wrote:

Why would I want to design using CSS considering the amount of work that has to go into building a CSS site that is compatible with all major browsers, using hacks and work arounds when I could build one straight forward design through tables in a fraction of the time that would look practically identical in all browsers (aside from the ease of updating design?)

Actually taking time to think about the answer

Under normal circumstances, I would have just referred Keir to the article I wrote on the benefits of web standards, but today was different. Today I was building a disposable wireframe for usability testing, which for the sake of speed was being produced using tables for layout. Today, I have also been thinking about Headscape’s business strategy and the impact of web standards on some aspects of our productivity.

Not all approaches suit everybody

Sure, web standards have a huge list of benefits but is it always the right solution for every web design agency? Possibly not. Let’s live in the real world here, building table based sites is quicker for small, flat sites that rarely (if ever) change. Okay, you might have headaches later on but for some web design companies that is not an issue. Take for example a small web design company that is building cheap, flat sites for estate agents. Estate agents are not willing to pay more than a few hundred pounds for their site and care little about accessibility, or future proofing. All they care is whether it looks okay in Internet Explorer. Now, the web design company has a choice. They can do one of the following:

  • Explain to the client the benefits of web standards and why they should pay more for their site to be built properly
  • Take the risk of running at a loss and build the site with web standards anyway while still keeping the price low.
  • Churn the site out, tables and all, using a WYSIWYG like Dreamweaver

Commercial reality matters

I am sure some of the web standards evangelist would argue that the web design company should take the first option. I would suggest that in the real world of commercial design this would be a mistake. Not only would they probably loose the work but also even if they did win it I am not convinced that the estate agent would really feel the benefit. After all, will it help to sell more houses? Possibly, but I doubt it would generate a big enough return on investment to justify the extra expenditure.

So what am I saying?

I am not suggesting that if you are a small web design agency (or freelancer) who works on small websites, you should not bother with web standards. What I am saying is that you have to be pragmatic and that you can introduce some elements of web standards while leaving others aside. For example, probably the majority of delays with web standards come from positioning. Having to use floats and absolute/relative positioning can sometimes prove a lot trickier than simply adding the odd table.

Mix and match

Maybe for some it is simply easier to use tables for the basic layout and then use web standards for things like fonts, colours and design details. This does not have to be an either or decision. The transition from odd school design to web standards can be a gradual process and you can judge how far down the web standards root you go on a per project basis. Like all aspects of web design, the use of web standards has to be a compromise and it should be used as and when appropriate. However, remember, you cannot choose when you use web standards if you have never taken the time to learn it. Web standards should be another tool in your tool belt that you choose to use when appropriate.

For more on getting the balance right between business drivers and technical considerations read "the missing pillar of web design"