Interview John Allsopp of Web Directions and Scroll Magazine

When some of the Opera crew went to Australia to sponsor this year's Web Directions South conference, we noticed that the conference programme looked considerably sexier than the average programe.

Conference organiser John Allsopp said,

This year the programme is magazine style - so much bigger than in the past. It's also full color, and very nicely designed. In fact, it's not just magazine style, it's the first edition of Scroll , a magazine for web designers and developers - but think more like a coffee table book than a magazine.

I was intrigued, and so asked him a few questions. The first was, why?

Every time we hold a conference, we find ourselves dong this huge production job around the printed program. But I am sure lots of folks probably throw this straight in the bin. So, we thought if we are going to do it, let's rethink what a program should be.

I've actually been interested in the idea of a print magazine for web professionals for quite some time. Typically when I raise the idea, people think I'm mad. Somehow, I convinced Maxine [Maxine Sherrin, also of Web Directions] to go with the idea, and then tricked her into doing most of the work. And so Scroll was born.

This version you might think of as a prototype. We want to see how it is received, how much interest there is in it, and hopefully to do an edition for each of our events, so in effect, to have 4 editions a year. Each edition will hopefully have a loose "theme" (the first edition is about the way in which the "real" or physical, and the "virtual" or online are coming together to create a single entity).

Each edition will feature in-depth articles (1500 words or more) from industry practitioners and thinkers. And hopefully some artwork and photography from folks in the industry as well. Or it might be a colossal non event, and people were right, it is a mad idea.

I find the title intriguing; scroll as in scrollbar, or as in ancient media format?

We spent quite sometime looking for a single word title that was both a little enigmatic, but also in some way related to the web. Scroll, which was Maxine's idea, is perfect, as it looks both backwards to the printed medium, and forward to the online medium (scroll as in scrollbar, and scroll as in ancient media format).

Why another design mag: is there room for another in the market?

Well, in a sense, Scroll's not a design magazine. Our focus is much more broadly on the web, than simply design. And in fact, as you allude to, design is eminently well served on the web (and in print). But one area I think isn't well served at all at present, online or off, in the web industry is more in depth thinking. Of course there's a lot of work in the academic world that is relevant, but on the whole, we don't see a lot of essay length writing on things of relevance to web professionals. A list apart is quite a rare example of this, and of course it is entirely online.

But probably just as big a motivation was to explore ideas around how print and the online medium can complement one another. At our conferences we try to bring the online and "real" worlds together (through the use of photosharing like flickr, blogging, twitter, short video messages from speakers and attendees available via bluetooth and at Youtube and so on), and similarly, we are interested in this from the perspective of the print medium.

For example, each article has a home online. At the foot of each article is a semacode, that takes you straight to the article online. The articles allow you to comment on them, and there's links to additional reading and so on online that there wouldn't traditionally be room for online.

Not hurt that no-one asked me to write ;-) but do you pick subjects, or pick authors and they choose the subject?

In this case, we chose the authors and gave them a general idea of what the magazine was about. Like everything to do with Scroll, this is a work in progress. So we'll see how editorial the process becomes. Ironically, our conferences are far more editorially driven. Unlike a great many conferences, we don't do calls for papers, but rather work backwards from sessions we think would be popular and valuable to our audience, to the speakers we think are doing the most interesting work in that area that we have come across. So, that might well become our approach to the content of the magazine in future editions.

You commissioned Veerle Pieters (who we're interviewing next week) to design Scroll. What attracted you about her work?

We've known of Veerle's work for many years, and she's spoken at one of our conferences and we know her well, so when it came to a designer, she went straight on the short list. It's hard to know exactly why she made so much sense for the project, but I think it has to do with her long time experience as a print designer before her work for the web. So, she seemed to really understand the ideas we were thinking about when it came to the magazine.

There has been a resurgence in conferences recently. How does Web Directions differ from others?

Well, there's at least one parallel with Scroll. When we started there were few if any of the well known conferences. I hope that our success helped in some small part pave the way for so many other great events round the world. More than one conference organizer has told us that the fact we managed to make a go of our conferences was an important factor in their decision to hold a conference.

As to what makes our different. I think there are a number of things about Web Directions conferences that put together hopefully contribute to them having their own flavour.

It's really just a couple of people, mostly Maxine and myself, who are responsible for the events from end to end. In Japan we work with a small partner company, and in Vancouver, we worked with Dave Shea and Derek Featherstone. But in comparison with many many events, it's a tiny, very hands on team. Hopefully that brings an attention to detail, and a personal quality that shows up in every aspect of the event - from the choice of speakers and subject areas, to the food (these things matter) to the design of the name badges (big print, so it's easy to see the name of the person you are speaking to).

Maxine and I have been involved in the web industry since about 1994, and we have been fortunate to get to know a great many wonderful people round the world in our industry. That really helps us keep abreast with what's going on, and those 14 or 15 years of experience help us get a decent feel for what's faddish, and what's here to last - whether it's technologies, techniques, ideas, and so on. When you plan a conference, you are often thinking close to a year out about the kind of content that you'll have. It's easy to get sucked into the latest fads, and the latest hype. Hopefully our experience helps us avoid those kinds of mistakes.

One of our underlying principles (and this is related to the last point) is that we really aren't that interested in the talking heads (well, the band we are), the famous bloggers with opinions of just about anything. We like people who are willing and able to talk from deep experience. Theory is great, but our audience needs practical content, useful techniques, but just pie in the sky big ideas and inspiration.

So, we really have a keen eye for speakers who can talk about that real world experience (but at the same time are entertaining and inspiring). Finding speakers who meet all these criteria is far from easy. But I think we are quite good at it.

A couple of other things that are important to us:

  1. We hate panels. When people pay good money, and spend a lot of time and effort coming to a conference, they need detailed, practical, well prepared material. Panels are almost invariably under prepared, and the signal to noise ratio is low. Mostly they are about opinion. That's what bogs were invented for. We have had the occasional panel, but even then, every presenter had prepared a detailed presentation, and most of the content of the panel was those presentations.
  2. We try really hard to find women, and other under-represented people in the industry, as presenters. The industry is full of a diversity of people, and yet, it seems we often see the same folks on stage time and again. We also tend to have a very high percentage of women attendees at our conferences, in Australia as high as 40%, which by tech conference standards is extremely high.
  3. We try to make our conferences as affordable as possible - with very reasonable prices and very large discounts for students. Basically, our price point is around one to two cups of coffee per working day of the year.
  4. We strictly separate content and sponsorship. There is no relationship between a sponsors support, and speakers on stage. That's not to say that there might not be a speaker from one of our sponsor companies, but these speakers will definitely be there on merit.

It's not to say that any of these is unique to Web Directions, but I think all these together make for the particular great value, rich content, high quality, enjoyable events that Web Directions have become.

John, you were a CSS Samurai back in the day. Thoughts on where the web standards movement is going now? Is the war won?

In a sense, yes, I think the war is won, in the sense that standards support in browsers is considered as high a priority among browser developers as anything else. There's still definitely work to be done, particularly in regards to getting many web developers really on board when it comes to best practice in markup, coding and accessibility, and probably above all in the area of education, where the techniques and technologies taught often are really outdated.

I'm particularly excited to see the kind of innovation in CSS we are seeing in Safari, Opera and Firefox taking place within a framework that allows for backwards and forwards compatibility, and which is seeing major browser companies, including Microsoft, submitting their innovations to the W3C as potential standards. What a huge difference from the late 90s (or even a few years ago) that is.

Who would win in a fight - CSS samurai or WCAG samurai?

I don't think I'd ever go up against Joe Clark in any kind of competition. I suspect he'd well and truly have the better of me. 'Fraid to say us old CSS samurai might have to hang up our nihontō.

Thanks very much, John!

Next week, I'll post an interview with Scroll's designer, Veerle Pieters, about her print design, her web design and the Belgian web standards scene.