He writes one of the most popular CSS blogs on the web while holding down a full-time job at Wufoo. Tom May chats to Chris Coyier about threats of legal action from Adobe, why forms are sexy and the importance of jibber-jabber
This article first appeared in issue 228 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
If you haven’t heard of CSS-Tricks, you need to check it out. The CSS blog is massively popular and influential within the web design community – as is the man behind it, Chris Coyier. We know this because when we crowd-sourced questions for this interview on Twitter we got responses such as “Ask him why he is so awesome!”, “Why is he such a legend?”, and “Will he marry me?”. So how did it all go so right?
Like many, Coyier’s career began in print: having studied graphic design and multimedia design at university, he began work after graduation in prepress and print design at American. But he’d always been interested in web design, and was intrigued by the notion that people could make money blogging on sites such as ProBlogger. “I thought: ‘I have a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit and I could do something to live that blogger lifestyle,’” he recalls. So he and a friend hatched a plan.
Coyier’s friend was working on an Adobe helpline and realised that the kind of problems people were phoning up about were also being searched for on Google. “So we set up blogs such as Photoshophelp.com, Indesignhelp.com and Acrobathelp.com to service that demand. In our minds, we were on our way to a blogging empire.” But the grand plan soon ran into choppy waters.
“Those blogs were a flop, basically,” Coyier smiles. “Our hearts weren’t in it. Blogging about problems with InDesign was, well, boring.” Worse still, Adobe threatened the pair with legal action for exploiting its trademarks without permission, ultimately taking the offending URLs from them and only offering minimal compensation.
But it wasn’t all bad: something else had happened along the way to soften the blow…
“In 2007, while I was doing these Adobe blogs that I wasn’t really that interested in, I started another one called CSS-Tricks,” recalls Coyier. “I was learning a lot about CSS putting together all these WordPress themes. I was a total newbie and didn’t get a lot of it, but I liked it. And I liked sharing what I was learning.
“CSS-Tricks was at the time our least visited blog, definitely the biggest flop of the bunch. But it was the one that I enjoyed working on the most, and so I stuck with it. And it just grew and grew and grew, while the other ones just fell away.”
The big moment for CSS-Tricks came when one of its articles got linked to by Smashing Magazine. “I was very excited as a small time blogger – ‘Oh my God, I got linked to from Smashing Magazine!’” Coyier recalls. “And of course, I got a big boost from that in my analytics.
“People were responding to this dumb little technique for fading out a page to white at the bottom as you scrolled down. It was a terrible technique: it had some accessibility problems, it was awful,” he grins. “But they linked to me and I got my first bit of traffic. That was the point at which I knew I really wanted to keep doing this.”
I’m in the CSS trenches, not speaking from afar. I think people connect with me for that reason
Since then, CSS-Tricks has become the default destination for huge numbers of designers keen to keep up with new developments and techniques. Coyier attributes its success to two main factors. “The first is that it’s just me. Once in a while I’ll have a guest post but mostly it’s just me talking. And that means there’s a clear, consistent voice. I love Smashing Magazine, for example, but it doesn’t really have a ‘voice’.
“The second is that, as long as I’ve been blogging, I’ve had a full-time job. So I’m in the trenches of web design, not just speaking about it from afar. I get to speak from experience, and I think people connect with me for that reason, at least on some level.”
Currently that job is ‘lead hucklebucker and second designer’ for Wufoo, a web application that makes form building easy and painless for web designers. It’s a role he loves, arguing that, contrary to popular belief, forms are anything but boring. “I really am still excited about forms!” he laughs. “So many interesting things come with it. You literally can power entire businesses and take the website from being this thing where it’s just some text on a page to being interactive and having a full feedback loop. And it really is so easy that anyone can do it; it’s just dragging and dropping a few fields.”
Coyier stresses that Wufoo is not just a service for amateur web builders. “Once in a while I’ll see someone on Twitter saying: ‘Why would I need this thing? I’m a web designer, I can build forms in my sleep. Forms are easy.’ And I’m just like: ‘Ha ha ha ha, no they’re not! Forms are hard!’
“It’s hard to build stuff like logic into a form. It’s incredibly not trivial. Security around forms is hard. Changing your forms is hard. Literally everything about forms is kind of hard. And all those things are kind of easy with Wufoo. I just think it’s an outstanding product.”
The only downside is that, between his nine-to-five job and CSS-Tricks, Coyier has to put in a lot of hours. How does he manage? “I’m single and I don’t have any kids, and so things like that help out,” he smiles. “But there’s no real secret to it. You just get up and you work all day.”
Coyier even manages to make room for the odd side project, although he usually prefers to collaborate with another designer on these. “There’s the time constraint,” he says, “plus I like to have someone to lean on and bounce ideas off and share the load with.” Best known is his 2009 book Digging Into WordPress, co-written with Jeff Starr and currently on its third edition. “I cherished the idea of designing a book because it goes back to my print roots,” Coyier explains. “Jeff and I both use WordPress and had a bunch of stuff to say about it, but our blogs weren’t the best place to publish a lot of that stuff. Do you want to read a bunch of WordPress articles on CSS-Tricks? So it seemed like the perfect topic.”
I get excited about CSS every day. It’s such a fun world to be immersed in
More recently Coyier has collaborated with Paravel’s Dave Rupert to create a Shop Talk, a live podcast about web design, development and UX. “So far it’s been really fun,” says Coyier. “I’d always wanted to do a podcast but it was hard for me to commit to how much time it would take. So I just do the easy stuff and Dave is kind enough to do all the hard stuff, like all the technical work behind it.
“As the title says, we’re just talking shop,” he explains. “Each week we have a special guest, but it’s not a formal interview show. It’s more of a ‘jibber-jabber’ kind of show.”
A full-time job, a blog, a podcast, other projects… it’s a relentless schedule few of us could probably keep up with. But what drives Coyier on is a passion for web design in general and CSS in particular. “I get excited about CSS every day,” he says. “It’s such a fun world to be immersed in.”
Right now he’s enthused by a post by Paul Irish on using the universal (*) selector to set border-box box-sizing on everything. “That got me thinking about what other properties might be similarly useful in applying to all elements on the page, and I wrote a blog post about that,” he says. “It’s a real pleasure to work on layouts where you’ve used that little technique. It makes responsive design easier, it makes grids easier, it fixes a lot of things.”
He’s also excited by SASS (“a CSS preprocessor that isn’t really a grid system, but can help with grids”), which we covered in issue 222. “I’m really into this right now!” he exclaims. “I was slow to get on it. Now I’m like, gosh, I’ll never go back. It’s so great. I love using every feature that they have to offer. It makes me faster, it makes me more efficient, also better and smarter.” Which – if it means CSS-Tricks continues to go from strength to strength – has to be good news for all of us.