Clarence the Pony

When my wife was twelve years old (this was before we got married) she really wanted a pony. Carol begged and she pleaded until Dad finally broke down. "Hmm", thought Dad, "where can I get a pony?".

Dad happened to know a local farmer whose side business was a mobile petting zoo that he'd take around to schools and local fairs. The zoo included a pony ride (the kind of pony ride where a bunch of ponies are tethered to a spindle and travel round and round in a circle).

Clarence seemed normal enough

The farmer had a few more ponies then he needed and introduced Dad to a cute little Shetland named Clarence. It was love at first snort. Dad and the farmer agreed on a price and the deal was done. The farmer led Clarence from his corral to a waiting trailer Dad had purchased earlier that day. Clarence was a lovely animal and friendly as could be. He also seemed quite normal as ponies go.

Carol's family home is on 14 lush acres and Dad was easily able to drive on down behind the barn unnoticed. He led Clarence into a stall, brushed him down, fed him, and saddled him. Then he walked Clarence to the front of the house, and shouted for everyone to come outside. Carol, her brother Tom, and sister Linda were wonderstruck. "Kids, meet Clarence" Dad said. Carol got the first ride. Clarence was just the right size and so cute.

The front yard is an open meadow about two acres big. Carol was atop Clarence, who was pointed down-meadow.

One-trick pony

My cute little bride-to-be was beside herself with joy as she firmly gave Clarence both heels and an assertive "giddyup". The little pony let out a cute little snort and took off in a perfect sixty-foot diameter circle, counter clockwise. Reigns left or reigns right, Clarence was true to his circle. You see, after seven years working kiddie ride gigs, Clarence was very focused. If you just walked him, he could move straight ahead and make right turns as if he'd been doing it all his life. But put a kid in his saddle and old Clarence was a real specialist.

He was very serious about that circle, too. The kids tried to break him. They'd yank so hard on the reigns that poor Clarence's eyeballs would pop out a bit more than they were meant to. No matter how much they tried, Clarence kept turning left. He'd walk to the left and he'd even gallop to the left. But that's all he'd do. So the kids marked off a sixty foot circle and that was all there was to that.

What's the point?

"This is a web design column", you're telling yourself. What's this guy talking about ponies for?

One-trick Web Designers

So you've been at the game for a couple of years and think you have it all figured out. You get a gig, you fire up Dreamweaver. You insert your requisite two-column table with a Fireworks (or ImageReady) slice and dice navigation bar and 24-state rollovers. I've got news for you. Whether you realize it or not, you may be running in circles. Eyes looking left, you are totally oblivious to what lay on the other side. Keep it up and all you'll be able to do is look up from the rut you've worn at the web designer you could have been.

There's nothing inherently wrong with using tables to layout a web page. They are great for rapidly deploying sites for clients who need to support a wide range of older browsers, or in any site that needs to display organized tabular data. Tables are not evil. But in terms of web page design, nothing is absolute. The target is constantly moving... but not in circles. To only use tables is as wrong a decision as to never use tables. Not to embrace CSS, could be tantamount to a slow professional suicide.

Web design is like medicine. Successful doctors are the ones who keep up with the latest techniques. You wouldn't want to go to a doctor who doesn't know the latest imaging and non-invasive surgical methods. I wouldn't hire a web designer who couldn't wax poetic about CSS, W3C Standards, Accessibility, and Usability.

A Happy Ending

Clarence finally did outgrow his circle walking. The kids stuck with him and the old boy finally got it. You have to persevere. You have to work through the frustration because the rewards are truly amazing. The web business is very unique because it's still so young and things are changing so damn fast. Once you master a technique, a new one comes along and the natural reaction is to react defensively. It can be depressing and it can be debilitating, but only if you let it get the better of you. So you just spent 6 months learning to make the perfect design with 63 perilously nested tables (we've all done it). You look up and everybody is touting the wonders of CSS. You've got a choice to make (again). You can plop your best table on the front lawn, take off all your clothes, and start walking around it endlessly (I'm writing figuratively, please don't try this at home or in the office), or you can seize the opportunity to learn a wonderful new technique and keep a leg up on your competition. The point is that you can't stop learning. Once you think you know all you need to know, you're walking in circles.