He’s a bit more ‘CSS’ than ‘HTML’…

HTML. Structure. CSS. Style. Okay, I’m writing for other coders, you know this already. I’m a big fan of finding the crossover between ideas from coding and the rest of life. I think there’s real wisdom to be gleaned from each facet of programming.

So what’s the real message of the HTML/CSS paradigm? What’s the philosophy behind it? The idea, simply put, is that content is separate from style, and should be recognized as such. It doesn’t try to devalue style, or to render it somehow ‘less than’ content, but it draws a line in the sand with a statement that there is a difference, and that it matters. Knowing 100% what about your website, or yourself, is actual substance and what is style can be extremely useful.

When I use the words “style” and “substance” in reference to people, what I’m referring to are simply the things that are visible to the outside world, and those that are not. So “substance” in this case might refer to a persons inner beliefs, motivations, knowledge, emotions, life philosophy, etc. Their style might refer to their manner of speech, professed beliefs, clothing choices, physical appearance, charisma, posture, way of interacting with others, and so on.

Implying that a person is more style than substance is generally considered impolite in our society. However, I think it’s counterproductive to take that kind of view of the style/substance divide, whether it has to do with web design or everyday life. Humans hsve evolved to be naturally attracted to certain things – bright colors, interesting noises… that’s not going to change, and we shouldn’t feel bad about that. However, being drawn in by something that looks interesting on the surface and turns out not to be is infuriating in any context. It’s okay to favor style over substance or vice versa, but you need to have a bit of both.

This website for Johos Coffee is counterintuitive, hard to navigate and information light. However, it’s so cool to look at that its frustrations are easy to forgive.

On the other hand, here we have the well-known “hacker news” site from ycombinator. The site is unbelievably information dense and incredibly interesting, yet an outsider could be forgiven for thinking, on first glance, that it was designed by a third-grader. Personally, I thought I was at the wrong site the first three times I found it.

I’m a big fan of standup comedy, and I’ve always thought that Dane Cook was a fascinating case study in what can be accomplished with ‘style’, and what can’t. Cook was known for being extremely physical on stage, doing noises, imitations and totally unneccessary near-acrobatic movements that made you laugh despite yourself. There were jokes, there were ideas, but the sheer ridiculousness of his act was what really pushed things over the edge.

Where things started to go wrong was when his joke-writing started to suffer a little bit. Within a very short time, he became intensly hated by a huge contingent of comedy fans, becoming the butt of jokes and impressions that depicted him as a mindless, goofy acrobatic hack with nothing of substance to say.

This is the risk with going “full CSS.” People really hate style without substance. What’s the alternative? Well, I’m sure there’s a comedian out there who’s chock-full of substance but who puts you to sleep when you look at him. I don’t know that comedian’s name, and I probably never will. That’s the risk of going “full HTML.”

If you go for style without substance, prepare to be disliked. If you go for substance without style, prepare to be ignored. Both are necessary – as a designer and as a human being.

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