23rd August, 2005

Part 1: CSS showcases - the sites

CSS gallery sites. They seem to stimulate both inspiration and distress in equal amounts. As a reviewer for one of the better showcase sites, I get to see a lot of the madness first-hand. Thus, the time has come to delve into this dark and dirty world of opposing emotions, and do my bit to calm everyone down a bit.

So, for part one of this mini-series I’ll be casting my critical eye over the good, the bad and the pointless of CSS showcase sites, looking at what works and what doesn’t, and why I think some of them are not worth your time. In part two, I get mean. I’m continually frustrated by the ill-spirited, jealous and downright nasty comments that go hand-in-hand with site reviews, and I get quite a lot off my chest there. I’m expecting plenty of abuse in return. Part three looks at many of the common errors that automatically render websites “unworthy”. I take a handful of key mistakes, and offer a few workable solutions to make showcase reviewers accept you into our ivory towers of “elitism” and “prejudice”.

In the beginning…

Back in the early 18th century when the outspoken and self-confessed design guru Scrivs (I love him really) founded CSS Vault, the idea of a site dedicated to showcasing inventive web design whilst also promoting the uptake of standards-based methodology seemed fresh and very, very useful. We all wanted to be featured on it, and if we were we would be jubilant, do a jig, and tell everyone.

Later came Stylegala. A broader publication that acted as a one-stop-shop for not just excellent reviews and nifty ratings systems, but also news, quality links, discussion forums - and (extending the Vault’s Resources) in-depth articles and user-submitted links to new techniques and methods.

The Web Standards Awards capped off this hat-trick of excellent showcase sites, upping the submission criteria, opting to post less often and only when a design really shone and gained plaudits from the whole judging team. You could argue that using the term “awards” might have been a bit grandiose (it’s not official like an MBE, is it?), but again it’s a showcase that we all respect, and want to be on. Shame it’s not updated with more regularity though.

In my mind, these three sites remain worthy, intelligently authored, and industry leaders. Sure, Scrivs sold the Vault, and there is always talk of it being “not as good as it was”, but it still works, and it still garners the traffic and attention it deserves.

“Mum, I want a CSS showcase site?”

And then - almost overnight - came the others. CSS Drive, CSS Thesis (thesis?! Is it a college project?), Screenspire, CSS Import, Unmatched Style - the list goes on. These sites are ten-a-penny nowadays, and we could argue all day about the relative worth of each. Where some are based around excellent designs, the actual content can be dire. Likewise, some manage to catch great new sites just as they launch, yet don’t have any traffic, or make a pig’s ear of the reviews. Hey, some even feature world-familiar templates as cutting-edge unique designs. Remember poor Chris Gwynne - who’d made use of the popular Kubrick template - being featured on CSS Drive? Need I say more about that one?

I’ll make an exception for CSS Beauty - which I recall arriving around the same time as arrived just before Stylegala, for it remains consistent, gleans good, constructive comments, and also throws out links to excellent resources. It doesn’t do anything new, but it deserves it’s place in all our feed readers.

Do we need so many showcase sites

I think not. Whilst more sites means more designers getting more plaudits for their work, I feel that the quality control is going downhill. I think Stylegala, WSA and CSS Beauty still have the tightest policies here, and the Vault is just about holding it together. All the others seem very confused about the role they are playing. I liked Screenspire’s simplistic approach (they don’t really tell us their aims, and they don’t invite thickies to come along and comment the designs to death), but for the most part, everyone seems to be trying to emulate (kindest word I could think of) the Stylegala/Vault format.

Unmatched Style has thankfully re-designed recently, but for a while it was kinda like one of those funny fanboys who copy the image of somebody famous until the parody becomes too uncomfortable and they get committed to a mental asylum by their friends. It might have worked, were it not for the fact that nobody could be arsed to comment and you could see tumbleweeds rolling across the screen (seems much improved now).

Will we stop caring?

Yes, probably. I think this whole thing is becoming saturated. What good are awards and reviews when there are so many being given out? If all showcase sites at least attempted to plot similar courses in terms of quality control, and stopped letting weak designs through the net, we might have some semblance of clarity. Perhaps only a couple will survive, whilst the poor ones fade into further insignificance - the founders admitting defeat when nobody comments on their reviews any more, or their Google and Amazon affiliate payments are barely enough to buy them the latest printing of “CSS For Dummies”.

You can judge the appreciation for showcase sites by reading user-submitted comments. I like the fact that most of the sites allow discussion and make room for constructive criticism. Reviewers often miss important details, and it’s always good to enjoy on-topic discussion. Think though, how many comments lately cast views about the showcase site itself? We are seeing criticism for reviews that don’t toe the submission rules line. Many comments criticise a review just because that site has been featured on another showcase a few days prior. Also, there are times when the readership is quick to flame a reviewer who has made a valid point (I’m not talking from a personal perspective here - I’m thick-skinned), selected something that apparently resembles another design, or generally want to have a go at the site’s principles. I’ll talk more about comment trolls, false accusations and jealousy in the next part of this series. Can’t wait for that.

Why does it matter?

CSS showcase sites have a significant role to play. Actively promoting web standards and accessibility is a very important benefit to our industry, and we all agree that young designers, or those previously stuck in table-based design and bloated markup hell, need all the encouragement they can get. I need to see new methods and be inspired as much as they do, and I look to certain showcases for that.

What bothers me are the showcase sites that lazily feature poorly-built CSS sites and don’t take the trouble to show young or inexperienced designers the right ways of doing things. To all of those wanting to start a CSS showcase site, I say this: You have a very important job to do, and you need to do it well. It is not something to play at, and it should be more than a revenue-maker. Think twice before you enter this crowded arena, for you will have an awful lot to do to make an impression.

And there’s more…

Watch out for part two, and part three coming your way over the next two days. In the meantime, let me know of any other showcase sites I’ve missed, and what you think of them. Perhaps this mini-series has already got your back up, or you feel you have been a victim. If you run a showcase site that I have slagged off, tell me why you are different, and why I am wrong.

Related articles

Part two: CSS showcases - the trolls.

Part three: CSS showcases - be selected.

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