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Standard Bearer

Text by John Lampard

While not everyone may be using web standards, there are certainly plenty of people talking about them. That’s if the growth of the Australian based Web Standards Group, or WSG, is anything to go by. From just eight people at its first meeting in Sydney in early 2003, the group now has over 3000 members worldwide.

And for Russ Weakley, talking was one reason he co-founded the WSG. Previously a graphic designer, Russ found it easy to discuss or share ideas with colleagues and associates, through forums such as the Designers for Cultural Institutions, or DCI.

“This group brought together exhibition and graphic designers from Sydney-based cultural institutions so they could talk about professional issues. When I moved into web design, I missed being able to discuss and share ideas with other designers in the same field. I wanted a group like the DCI for web designers and developers,” says Russ.

Maxine Sherrin presenting at a WSG meeting
Maxine Sherrin presenting at a WSG meeting
© Photo by Russ Weakley

In January 2003, together with Peter Firminger, Russ set about establishing a group to promote web standards, and industry best practices (that is, designing accessible sites using valid and semantically correct code). The group’s inaugural meeting was held at Sydney’s Darlo bar in March that year.

“Peter and I offered to set up a website, a mail list and organise regular meetings. We began as the Sydney Web Standards Group, then became the Web Standards Group as people from other countries started to join,” says Russ.

Apart from promoting standards use and best practices, the group also provides a forum for web professionals to network and discuss ideas and issues. Meetings are held regularly around Australia, and in New Zealand. As well as providing an opportunity to socialise, meetings often feature presentations by local and international speakers.

WSG meeting in Melbourne
A WSG meeting in Melbourne
© Photo by Ben Bishop

The WSG, along with other groups, such as the Web Standards Project, have been part of an on-going effort to promote the use of web standards in recent years. And while there has been a marked increase in standards’ awareness, there is still much work ahead of the advocates.

Russ cites a study conducted by John Allsopp in 2005, which tested over 80 of Australia’s highest profile websites, and found that just nine validated to the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, specification they were coded according to.

For many designers though, working with standards is still far easier said than done. A range of factors, including lack of management empathy in design studios, restrictive in-house publishing systems and, ironically, the attitudes of designers already using standards, play a part.

WSG gathering in Canberra
WSG gathering in Canberra
© Photo by Russ Weakley

“In my experience the biggest issue is browser support. The fundamentals of CSS are quite easy to grasp, but creating layouts that are stable across a wide variety of browsers is much harder. There are also some developers using standards who are sometimes very judgemental of those who are not, and this can be a real turn off for newbies,” says Russ.

“There are also large grey areas within standards that make it very hard for developers who are trying to do the right thing. For example, some aspects of accessibility are very hard to define, and developers can often feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Russ Weakley, right, with Doug Bowman at Web Essentials 04
Russ Weakley, right, with Doug Bowman at Web Essentials 04
© Photo by Ben Bishop

Despite the challenges though, there are more designers working with, and talking about web standards than in the past. And there is also interest in standards outside the design industry as well.

“There is a definite change going on within the industry. In the last 12 months, there has been a lot more discussion about the use of standards within the broader web community. Every day there are new and exciting standards-compliant sites being launched. Government tenders now often stipulate standards as part of the process,” says Russ.