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May 18, 2004

The right tool for the right job

The edifying if somewhat disheartening discussion which ensued from Andy Budd's recent post regarding tables and CSS layout threw up a lot of "pragmatic" and "realistic" talk about "using the right tool for the right job". So here is my take on that.

Let me tell you a little parable

There was a man who hung paintings for a living. He was highly sought after, because of his eye for color, for position, for light. Paintings hung by this man, agreed everyone who saw them, always seemed better, brighter, of greater impact, greater beauty.

One day one of his clients was moving to a new house, a bigger house. Thy would of course need to have their paintings hung in this new house, and as it was a bigger house, they would have many more paintings to hang. Who else to hang them but the maestro?

As they prepared for the move, the owners were aghast. Behind each painting the plaster of the wall was cracked and discolored, where a nail had been hammered into the wall. Of course they had never seen it, and once their paintings were hung in the new house, they would not see them again, but what if they wanted to move the paintings? What about when they sold their house and moved to an even bigger and better house? Would this decrease the value of their property? Sure they could plaster the cracks, but that cost money, and time, and effort, and there was the risk that their precious hardwood floors would end up with plaster on them.

So for their new house they investigated the options, and found a hanging system, invisible to the naked eye, that allowed painting to easily be moved, and which did not affect the walls at all.
Yes, it cost quite a bit of money, but once it was up, it even added value to the property.

So they went ahead and purchased this system, and used the services of someone who knew how it worked, and could explain how to use it to them. So they had their paintings hung for them, but were now able to move and change them to suit their moods. And of course they had always had many more paintings than they could hang at any one time, so now they could easily change paintings, putting some in storage, lending some of the more sought-after ones to friends, or even galleries who sometimes asked for a Boyd or a Williams, a Whitely or Lloyd Rees.

And they told their friends about this fabulous new system, which cost a bit more to start with, but once it was in meant that ongoing costs were much much lower, and didn't damage the walls, and opened up all these new possibilities.

The maestro stuck to his tried and true methods. After all, it was his eye they wanted, and his was the quickest and easiest way to hang paintings. It took but a few moments, just a hammer and a nail. Almost no cost at all. They paid so much more for this new system, and the people who installed it and hung the paintings, well frankly they did not have his experience, his eye, his ability.

I don't like sad stories, so I won't end it for you. You can write your own ending.

Yes, it is about choosing the right tool for the right job. But first you need to know what the job is.

John

May 18, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

unfortunately, there were a lot of young wannabes who looked at what the maestro was doing. they didn't know about the new hanging system, and frankly didn't want to invest the time and effort in learning how all the separate pieces of the system fit together, nor did they want to learn the new craft of fitting the new system at all. they simply copied what the maestro was doing...badly. and they started to invent new ways of perverting the work of the maestro, adding their personal touch to his masterful technique, but effectively coming up with more ways in which to completely ruin the wall behind the paintings, up to the point where the paintings themselves were covering up huge chasms which were proving dangerous to the structural integrity of the building.
meanwhile, the young artisans who first embraced the new system stopped being simply impressed by the system itself. they started taking it for granted, on concentrated a lot more on honing their eye in order to use the system for aesthetically pleasing arrangements. they slowly moved away from trying to recreate the traditional way of hanging pictures, and started exploring completely new avenues that had been completely unthinkable with a static hammer and nail approach. soon, they moved beyond the wall, and started constructing dynamic, moving painting display systems which simply hung in mid air, and could be instantly rearranged at the customer's whim.

or something like that anyway. cute parable, but ultimately biased in my opinion...

Posted by: patrick h. lauke | May 18, 2004 11:22:57 AM

Of course the system was not fool proof. Often the hanging system wouldn't take to certain wall surfaces, often to the frustration of the person hanging the frame. It could even end in disaster as not ten minutes later the paintings sometimes fell to the floor, damaged, even destroyed.. The house holder would yell "Not my master piece!". This had the effect of often ruining the reputation of the person who hung the painting and the new hanging system to boot.

The maestro smirked, when he heard such tails. The good old nail has no such failings.

Posted by: Chris Blown | May 18, 2004 11:23:12 AM

Nice parable, John. Just a couple of comments.

1) CSS can make pages look more beautiful than an old-style HTML content-mixed-with-presentation approach. Much more control typographically, for a start. The best solution would combine the two... traditional design skills with web standards code.

2) Is the set-up cost for a pure CSS site really much higher than for an old-style site? Especially once you get past basic page-building in Dreamweaver. Sure there's a cost in getting coders/designers up to speed with web standards. Maybe this is what you are referring to. But once that has been accomplished (and the position of landmines identified) the process for any one site can be relatively painless, no?

Posted by: Hugh | May 18, 2004 11:26:57 AM

The single most important point in Andy Budds article was this quote "The sad fact is, most clients don’t care how a site is coded". IMHO Pretty much all of the major CSS benefits have virtually no realistic business benefits that my clients are interested in. Perhaps if their whole business was just the site then that might change but I don't have any clients like that.

Additionally my general experience is that clients actually do prefer to spend a mid-range amount on each site up date, rather than a bigger cost up front and smaller costs later. Even when they fully understand that it's cheaper in the long run they still prefer to put off costs as much as possible.

In the parable given above, the vast majority of my clients would say "I don't want your fancy hanging system, just nail the wall and fix it later, it looks the same and you never know, there may not be a later."

Posted by: Sam | May 18, 2004 1:00:52 PM

Hugh writes

"Is the set-up cost for a pure CSS site really much higher than for an old-style site? Especially once you get past basic page-building in Dreamweaver. Sure there's a cost in getting coders/designers up to speed with web standards. Maybe this is what you are referring to. But once that has been accomplished (and the position of landmines identified) the process for any one site can be relatively painless, no?"

I kind of overstated it in the parable, but I do agree. I was originally going to write a much puthier parable, about driving a screw into wood with a hammer as opposed to a screw driver, but I thought how it turned out was nicer :-)

I agree too. I'd argue tables are much harder. I've done both, and even had to rewirk som stuff in a table based format relatively recently and it was an unspeakable nightmare. The cost is in learning the new skill, but it is a skill worth having.

Posted by: John Allsopp | May 18, 2004 1:16:10 PM

Sam writes

"In the parable given above, the vast majority of my clients would say "I don't want your fancy hanging system, just nail the wall and fix it later, it looks the same and you never know, there may not be a later."
"

OK, They are paying the bills.

Imagine you were a lawyer. Your client wants to do something that legally you wouldn't recommend. Or a doctor, and your patient wants a treatment that is now known to be less effective than other treatments. What is your ethical obligation? Give them what they want regardless of what they need, in the fear that they will go elsewhere otherwise?

And would that make good long term business sense?

As well, as I mentioned to Hugh above, I did rather overstate the costs case. Once a developer is up to speed with CSS, the cost to the client of a CSS based design over a table based design is not necessarily higher. In many cases probably much lower. What happens when they really want the layout to look different once they see it in action?

This really is about designers and developers, rather than the client.

john

Posted by: John Allsopp | May 18, 2004 1:23:14 PM

To John:

One of my pet hates is when I go to a doctor or chemist and they treat me like I am an idiot. In some cases I have actually known a lot more about a particular problem than they do because I have spent a lot of time studying up before I seek professional help. Then I have to sit there and listen to them misdiagnose it and then when I try to add what I know to the discussion they make a patronising attempt at acting like they are listening to what I am saying and then go on as if I had not spoken at all. That is bad customer service no matter how you cut it.

In the case of the lawyer's/doctor's dilemma as stated above, I believe it is their responsibilty to *inform* the client to the best of their ability and then accept the clients wishes (provided they aren't illegal and/or don't expose the professional to being sued). Having a "my way or the highway" attitude doesn't serve anyone's interests at all.

In fact I get repeat business from several of my largest clients based largely on the fact that I do not try to force my preferred solution on them and don't give them grief when they decide to go their own way. They know they can come to me, I will advise them to the best of my ability, and then I will be happy to accept and implement their final judgement on the matter. They have specifically told me that this is a very important part of our business relationship.

IMHO one of my biggest failings in my past business dealings was having an "I know better than you" attitude towards what my clients want or going a certain way with a project because I thought it was technically "cool" or was "the latest thing".

The moral I took from your parable is that we are stuck in the old ways just because it's entrenched in the industry and many graphic designers still use it. In fact your parable has another moral that goes more towards my point that clients don't care how it's done they are just interested in the final result and the bottom line, they honestly couldn't care less about tables Vs CSS and this is why they keep going back to the maestro.

Your final statement "This really is about designers and developers, rather than the client." is fine when designers and developers are writing their own websites for their own amusement, but when a client is involved, as it is with 99% of my work, it is ALWAYS about the client first. So to my mind there is not point having a discussion about practical use of CSS that does not involve consideration for the client.

Posted by: Sam | May 18, 2004 3:04:12 PM

Sam writes

"In fact your parable has another moral that goes more towards my point that clients don't care how it's done they are just interested in the final result and the bottom line, they honestly couldn't care less about tables Vs CSS and this is why they keep going back to the maestro."

Well, you are allowed to write your own ending. Parables are tricky like that. I am sure some people read "the good samaritan" as a lesson which says "see how wise those who avoided helping the traveler were, they did not have to deal with all the costs and fuss". The way I saw it ending was regardless of the skill the maestro had, the clients moved away, when they realised what costs were associated with his solution.
But they could care less. They don't want cracks in their walls. They thought they were getting their pictures hung. They didn't realise they were getting those holes.

Sam continues

"Your final statement "This really is about designers and developers, rather than the client." is fine when designers and developers are writing their own websites for their own amusement"

This would be better put "when there is no client" as that is a more value neutral judgement, although I disagree regardless.


"but when a client is involved, as it is with 99% of my work, it is ALWAYS about the client first. So to my mind there is not point having a discussion about practical use of CSS that does not involve consideration for the client."

I think we can both agree that the client has very little real idea abou what they need. They may have some idea of what they want, which is not the same thing. The clients want their pictures hung as attractively as possible. What they need is more complex.

Do they need to minimize the impact on their dwelling?
Do they need to be able to inexpensively rehang new paintings?

Do they need things that a new technology can offer but which an older one can't?

I believe it is the role of the expert to guide the choice of the client.

What I meant when I said "This really is about designers and developers, rather than the client" is that people's insistence on tables for design for example, has nothing to do with the client, as we have already agreed they are unaware of such things. This debate is about the designers and developers, and not about clients.

John

Posted by: John Allsopp | May 18, 2004 3:16:28 PM

And sure enough, the telltale signs of the maestro's work punctuated the otherwise unadorned walls with the dark glint of avarice, and the smartly dressed realtor knew the inflated asking price would hold the moment the gasp of delight escaped her client's lips, 'He has worked here, he has!'

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