AUTHOR’S NOTE – You’re reading the HTML version of a chapter from the book Building Accessible Websites (ISBN 0-7357-1150-X). Copyright © Joe Clark, 2002 (about the author). All rights reserved. ¶ Back to Contents
A colophon is “an inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript usually with facts relative to its production.” It’s the Making Of section of a book. Not many computer books feature a colophon, but then again, Building Accessible Websites isn’t a typical computer book, and I am something of an obsessif.
I haven’t exactly answered the question, sure to be on the tip of your tongue: “Why exactly did you write the book?” Well, I go back over twenty years in the field of what is now known generically as media access, and I’ve been online for over a decade. Eventually it became apparent that there was an overlap between the two worlds. I credit Geoff Freed at the WGBH Educational Foundation for putting the concept of Web accessibility on the map for me; I’ve known people at WGBH longer than anyone in WGBH’s own Media Access Group has actually worked there, and once Geoff started working on publicly-discussed Web-accessibility projects, I began to learn whatever I could.
I got a bit tired of the high dudgeon of boy-racer designer types, who hated the entire idea of lifting a finger to design for accessibility. I also got fed up with the even-more-deadening hypercorrectness of accessibility advocates, who never met a beautiful Website they didn’t dislike. The boy racers thought accessibility meant text-only pages and hated the prospect, while access types thought exactly the same thing and loved it.
I was, quite frankly, also tired of working Joe-jobs and was perfectly happy to earn not a whole lot of money (but in lucrative U.S. dollars, never netting me less than a 52% exchange rate) to sit around and write a book for a year (2001–2002). After having 390 journalistic articles published and many hundreds posted online, it is nice to be able to legitimately bill myself as an author.
Writing this book was a protracted and often frustrating process, and it was so painful and onerous that I have three brand-new books in the hopper. (It’s only worth doing if it hurts.) Let’s see if they all make it to print.
Now that I’ve gotten the self-aggrandizement over with, time for the requisite acknowledgements. Don’t you hate the way books place acknowledgements and dedications right at the outset, forcing you to wade through streams of names of people you don’t know and references to chapters and sections you haven’t even read yet?
Well, I certainly hate it. Since you have presumably read the book by now (oh, I know, designer types will have immediately gravitated to this colophon the way teenagers head straight for the swear words in a dictionary), now it can exclusively be revealed who helped me out.
Curt Cloninger was a technical editor (and a designer/author himself: Lab404.com). Curt focused on HTML correctness, while Mark Pilgrim (DiveintoMark.org) separately tech-edited the book for accessibility correctness.
(As the kids say today, a big shout-out! goes to Greg Rosmaita, who was pegged as the book’s second technical editor, focusing on accessibility rather than HTML. Greg, the wryest, drollest blind man I’ve ever met, couldn’t edit the book for reasons he will surely regale you with should you ever meet him. Try again on the second edition, Greg?)
In what passes for my Personal Life™, I benefited from the largesse of Luke Tymowski, who will simply hate the fact I have acknowledged him here. (Killing you with kindness, Luke. Killing you with kindness.) He hosts my various Websites and – get this – actually lent me his PowerMac G4 Cube when my own computer upped and croaked. (More on production in due course.)
A couple of old friends got older and stayed friends: Jeff Adams, Michel Blondeau, Colin Doyle, Bilal Halim, Brendan Kehoe.
As it turns out, Toronto is a minor hotbed of accessibility work. Jutta Treviranus at the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto actually believed in me, as did her hubby, Charles Silverman of Ryerson Polytechnic University. You know, I don’t get that very often.
The reality for the author of the Web-related book is that friends are often virtual and are scattered to the four winds.
Topic experts helpfully prevented me from incurring excess embarrassment by vetting chapters on their respective topics. Joel Pokorny of the University of Chicago and Cynthia Brewer of Pennsylvania State University debugged the colourblindness chapter. Eric Meyer and Tantek Çelik spotted numerous errors in stylesheet discussions. Rudy Limeback contributed details on database integration. T.V. Raman reinforced my contention that aural cascading stylesheets are a joke! Meanwhile, Jukka K. Korpela read nearly the entire manuscript and pointed out my many mistakes. (That’s not a problem, it’s the goal.)
Dana McKee, Martin Sloan, WGBH, Jeff Schriebman of CCaption.com, and others licenced their written works, research, and software.
Now you the reader can enjoy a superexclusive, behind-the-scenes peek at Just How It Is One Writes a Computer Book. You Are There!
Can you imagine writing an entire book in HTML? Well, that’s what I did.
I am actually a longtime word-processing user. (One day back in engineer school, I held up a printout of an essay I wrote. “You’ll make a fine secretary someday, Joe,” a fellow I had a crush on declared with icy prescience.) I specifically remember AppleWorks on the Apple IIe; every version of WordPerfect for DOS from 3 on up and for Macintosh from 2.1 on up; Word starting at version 1.0 on Macintosh. (Yes, I used the original Word. On a 128 K Mac. With my own customized bitmap font.) WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS beats everything: A better platform for pure writing has not been invented.
However, I am a Macintosh supremacist. I actively considered running samizdat copies of 5.1 under VirtualPC, but that made as much sense as skateboards at a retirement villa. Besides, I knew that the entire text of the book had to be accessible to a blind reader, and the easiest way to do that was to write the book in validated, accessible HTML. All we’d need to do is link the files together on the book’s CD-ROM.
So that’s what I did. Essentially every character was typed in BBEdit, the efficient text editor. (Accept no substitutes.) I started out on my old jalopy of a computer, a PowerMac 7100/66. (With two monitors, I might add.) Then the first royalty advance cheque arrived, and I swept triumphantly out the door to buy the fairest compromise of a new machine I could stomach, an iMac 500.
A Flower Power iMac. The one with the pastel floral designs on the case. Yes, I’m the one – the only male owner of a Girl Power iMac, as I so cleverly call it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have no particular fear of seeming girly, and it guarantees me an Apple collectible of the Color Classic/840AV/Twentieth Anniversary ilk. The other available pattern, the ill-named Blue Dalmation, looked too much like desiccated vomit, showed digital-compression-like artifacts (seemingly unintended random green splotches on the case), and was way too butch by comparison.
By the way, my preferred screen colours in BBEdit are black text on pink. At least I’m consistent.
While writing the book, I maintained an occasional Weblog about the process at joeclark.org/bookblog/. It makes sense, really: The entire ethos of the Web centres on openness. I continue to be shocked at the dunderheadedness of some of my correspondents, who, despite using E-mail and surfing the Web themselves, insist that it is unwise to document the authorial process while it is happening. How very twentieth-century. These correspondents worry about making a bad impression; I suspect they never met an authority figure they didn’t like.
Also, while I was writing the book, Girl Power croaked. All hard drives fail, but how many of them fail nine months into their lives? Little was lost, apart from sleep. If you’ve got the money, buy backup equipment.
And if you’re interested, much of the writing of the book took place in a trance-like state induced by Internet radio stations, namely BassDrive and Neurofunk, that play nonstop drum & bass. The amorphousness and hooklessness of the music made it hard to fixate on verse and chorus, eliminating a pesky distraction. Drum & bass intensifies whatever autism-like behaviours I have, forcing me to get some work done. (In the immortal words of James Lileks, “There’s something calming about working in Photoshop while deafening myself with techno.”) I’m sure those stations were playing the same records over and over, but really, how could you tell?
Now, then. I go back over twenty years in typography and graphic design; though I am not much of a practitioner (unless you count working as a night-shift typesetter on CompuGraphic 8600 equipment), I know my stuff cold. I was a graphic-design critic for ten years; I can name any font at ten paces and absolutely the first things I spot on any printed page are the mistakes. This book had to look superb qua book, with pluperfect typography and composition.
This posed a bit of a dilemma. Computer books are disposable, overlong, ill-written, and ugly, not to mention overpriced. They’re disposable because the underlying technology changes; no problem there. As for length: Who needs a 600-page analysis of every nook and cranny of a topic? Especially given the dryness of so many of the topics? If I wanted a textbook, I’d go back to university.
Most importantly, computer-book authors are only occasionally actual writers. Typically, their métiers are computer programming (quelle surprise), or Web design, or systems administration. If such authors were actual writers, they wouldn’t be any good at their day jobs. Yes, of course, dear reader, we can all point to exceptions, like David Pogue. But let’s get real: Computer books are not so much written as assembled. Editing such books becomes a matter of language translation, transforming modern Geek into English.
Whereas I wanted to write a computer book you could sit down and read. It had to look great, and even the very oldest of oldschool typographers would be forced to mutter words of grudging respect. No guts, no glory, as they say.
But what to do about the cover? You never get a second chance to make a first impression, etc.
I’d been a fan of Matt Mahurin for a decade. He’s a photographer and photoillustrator who has also directed dozens of music videos, usually in a signature chiaroscuro style: Metallica’s “Unforgiven” (he’s a big fan of metal and rock), “Orange Crush” by R.E.M. (like so very many of that band’s videos, a fine freestanding short film), Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” You’re often able to find his disturbing photocollage illustrations in issues of the U.S. Esquire. (Matt desperately needs a Website. I’ve volunteered to work on it.)
Most memorably (some would say notoriously, but I quite disagree), Matt was the man responsible for darkening O.J. Simpson’s mug shot on the June 27, 1994 cover of Time (while the same photo ran at the same time with much less retouching on the cover of Newsweek). As someone who believes that strict accuracy is not always necessary to express truth, I was right behind Matt on that one. My kinda guy.
So I E-mailed him and asked if he’d design the cover (for whatever the New Riders standard fee was – undoubtedly less than he’s used to). By gar, he said yes.
It was a very happy day.
But how do you illustrate accessibility? It’s been attempted for years, most irksomely with that ungainly and ham-fisted wheelchair logo, which consists of a white tadpole with no legs riding a wheelchair, all presented on a screaming blue backdrop.
Matt brainstormed some ideas, chief among them:
The visual play on the word “Web” was too obvious for my tastes. But neither Matt nor I could come up with a smart substitution, until one day it hit me: The hands can pull open a portal from an impenetrable thicket of something. Of what, though? All I could think of were twigs and grass, as if opening up a void in the forest floor (to hunt buffalo?). It took Matt about ten seconds on the phone to suggest a thicket of cables. Aha!
An easy linkage to technology, with just enough abstraction to make it work. The hands (definitely pulling from the corners) symbolically “demystify” accessibility and open a metaphorical portal to an accessible technological future.
But what are the hands opening a portal to? In mockups, the portal is merely a black void. But that’s where we’d set the title block. The hands, then, open a portal to the title of the book, or, by extension, to the book itself. We’ve got enough layers of metaphor at work here to keep Gitanes-smoking semioticians exercised for hours.
I was a tad disappointed that Matt did not photograph actual cables (power, armoured, telephone, Ethernet, fibre-optic) and create one of his combined reality/illusion illustrations, choosing instead to draw it all in Illustrator, but who cares, really? And, in a feature not everyone noticed, there are exactly two different hands depicted, each used twice, with various artificial tints. (There was the predictable call for more racial diversity. I countered that we already had three human skin tones and one sky-blue Smurf, and you can’t get more diverse than that, now, can you?)
The cover was approved, though it is apparent as I write this that Matt and I are the only people who like it. I’m not afraid of a little polarization.
Next, body copy. Out of the blue, a local graphic designer named Marc Sullivan had E-mailed me months before. We’d enjoyed a double espresso at a local high-fashion café, which on that day was thankfully free of semioticians. It turns out Marc has an unusually sharp and informed typographic sense. After a great many meandering bull sessions, punctuated by further yuppified coffee, pastries, and Clif Bars to ward off my frequent post-espresso protein crashes, Marc agreed to work up a few prototypes. (Dean Allen designed one, too – a symphony in Sabon that did not turn my crank. You win some, you lose some, Dean.)
Marc agreed with my criticisms of the typography of computer books:
Marc produced a few works-in-progress using candidate typefaces:
We settled on Joanna by Eric Gill, which dates from 1937, comfortably insulating us from accusations of trendiness. (It’s hard to find an educated typographer who doesn’t respect Joanna, particularly its distinctive italic, which shows much more variation from the roman than is fashionable today.) It’s a face I’d enjoyed in its original Monotype hot-metal incarnations when I was a youngster. The PostScript interpretations of Joanna are too light in the body (they look rather spindly), but we are living with that.
For code samples, Marc came up with the brilliantly unexpected choice of Signa by Ole Søndergaard (2000), a nearly-monoline sans serif face (i.e., its strokes appear almost even and consistent in thickness) with an even stranger g than Collis’ that I nonetheless do not find distracting. (That’s inexplicable and inconsistent of me, I know. Typography is like that.)
Signa offers just enough contrast with Joanna, and adds just enough 21st-century moxie, to create an enjoyable but unobtrusive counterpoint. Marc and I could never figure out how to pronounce the name, though: The English way (as in signal) or the Italian (“sinnya”)? It doesn’t help that the designer is Danish; we could be wrong both ways.
Much nailbiting ensued in the choice of headline fonts. We bandied about various trendy sans serifs, like Scala Sans (no, thank you) and Quadraat Sans (which I like chiefly for the chance it gives me to pronounce its name “Kvadraat,” like the name of some B-movie vampire), but settled on the humanist sans serif known as Seria Sans by Martin Majoor (2000).
Marc and I decided to go to the wall in type choice for cover and chapter heads. Jeremy Tankard’s demented sextet of Shire Types includes a gargoylish variant known as Warwickshire. (The others are Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire.) A common case font (mixing caps and lower case in letters of uniform height), Warwickshire adds a bit of daring. It’s just the right kind of bad taste, really. If Alexander McQueen designed type, he’d be Jeremy Tankard.
Numerals superimposed on examples used in the “Navigation” chapter are set in FF Dingbats Numbers by Johannes Erler and Olaf Stein (2000).
The worst was yet to come: I can tell you right now that HTML, with
its rigid markup, actively moulds your mind and influences your fate
months down the road. Just how do you adapt HTML elements
<var></var> (sometimes in combination:
and all six of the heading elements, to the world of print
typography, with its centuries of tradition? In fact, while writing
the book I was crying out for more heading levels than
a mere six, but those were hard enough to differentiate
typographically. The ideal solution would have used legal numbering
(1, 1.1, 1.1.1), but that’s the sort of thing you want your
software to handle for you automatically, and ours could not. (I am
aware that it is possible to enumerate headings in HTML using
stylesheets. Try getting that to transfer over to Quark
Matt Mahurin, Marc Sullivan, and I had no idea that our cover illustration might resemble a notorious shock image on the Web. Do not propagate the idea that we did it as any kind of an in joke or with any foreknowledge whatsoever. It is something I find mortifying, and if you make fun of us for it, what you end up making is an enemy.
My thanks go out to Compu-TTY for the TTY product shot and Tieman BV for the refreshable-Braille-display product shot. Captioning and subtitling frames reflect the film Run Lola Run (copyright © X Filme Creative Pool 1998); captions and subtitles by Captions, Inc. Captions from online video productions are taken from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s series of public-service announcements and the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin’s Introduction to the Screen Reader with Neal Ewers.
I was hell-bent to stamp out errors in the book. Some chapters were read as many as eight times, and I am sure that’s still not enough. At my prompting, and after some reprioritizing of budget line-items, we were able to hire Moveable Inc., indisputably the best typesetting house in Canada and almost certainly the best in North America, to proof the book’s final copy.
Nonetheless, I actively encourage readers to write in with corrections – any corrections at all, no matter how seemingly minor.
Readers outside Canada must reassure themselves that this book is not in fact rife with spelling errors. I write in Canadian English, whose orthography differs from every other kind. You can sum it up in three words: neighbour, organize, tire (surrounding a wheel); we use double quotation marks. (Brits and most former colonies use neighbour, organise, tyre; single quotes. Americans use neighbor, organize, tire; double quotes.) I simply cannot write consistently in American or U.K. spellings. The publisher and I decided that it was easier to live with Canadian orthography than my error-prone attempts to write in a different dialect; we would also risk too many niggly mistakes by attempting to regularize Canadian spellings into American: I expected we’d end up missing a word ending in -our somewhere. (And yes, from an accessibility perspective, that does mean that TV shows, films, and online video with American or British captions or subtitles are all misspelled as far as we’re concerned.)
Further, the term shurely (usually written with a trailing ?!) is not a misspelling. It’s an adaptation of the usage of Private Eye and Frank, the British and Canadian satirical newspapers. The original Private Eye–ism, attributed to the speech impediment of Lord Bill Deedes of the Daily Telegraph, is “shurely shome mishtake?!”
A note to accessibility advocates: Your advice may differ from mine. It ought to: This is my book, not yours. Still, I have encouraged others to write their own books, because the greater the number of accessibility books on the market, the more obvious it becomes that mine is the best. I acknowledge in advance that my recommendations are often at infuriating variance with official dogma as articulated in the WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Dogma needs a bit of rattling now and then, and frankly, a lot of people involved with the WAI need to get out more.
Thanks for reading, and I insist you drop me a line: email@example.com.