An open letter in defence of "tableless" recoders | September 27, 2003

At the moment there is a bit of a trend happening amongst web standards enthusiasts. A number of talented web desingers have given up their free time to build standards compliant versions of their favorite sites.

Along with this has come the appearance of redesign competitions like WThRemix and more recently ReUSEIT. By encouraging people to recode and redesign a well known and well loved web site, the idea of these competitions is to provide "a design challenge for coders, and a coding challenge for designers".

I think this trend is a good thing. That's why I've highlighted some excellent redesigns on this site and was more than happy to become a judge for the ReUSEIT competition.

Unfortunately not everybody agrees.

In a recent open letter to tableless recoders, the author questions these peoples motives and suggests they are doing more harm than good.

However I really think the author has missed the point. He naively assumes that the only reason people are recoding sites is "to show off how good you are at CSS". However I don't believe people are doing tableless redesigns for such base and cynical reasons.

The truth is, the majority of these redesigns are done by CSS enthusiasts for fun and as a personal challenge.

These enthusiasts pick a site because it's a site they love. They are not deliberately trying to antagonize the site owners. After all why would you spend days/weeks of your precious time into a project who's sole intention was to rub the original designers nose in their work. People are just not that spiteful. In fact I'd assume most people would be rather unhappy if they found out their work had upset the original designers.

The fact is, most people are doing this as a labour of love. Love of the site and love of CSS based design.

It's true, some people are also making a point. however the point isn't that the site designers should have done the site using CSS. The point is that the site could be done in CSS. The audience for the redesign isn't the designers and site owners, it's other CSS enthusiasts.

These kind of redesigns are also very community spirited. Big portals like those run by Yahoo and BBC are seen as integral parts of the web community. They have almost become web public services and people feel emotionally tied to these sites. As such I feel it's a great testament to theses sites that they engender such deep feelings in people, they actually want to get involved and help make them (and the web community in general) better.

It's not often you find busy people willing to give up their time and expertise for the benefit of the community. Whether they are passionate about a site, or about web standards, this is something that should be encouraged, not dissuaded. I want to see more people getting involved with the web not less.

Finally, rather than an egotistical display of peoples CSS skills, these redesigns are simply personal challenges. People do them because they are fun, because they are difficult and because it gives them a chance to try out existing skills and learn new ones.

So I think we should applaud this individuals and I personally hope to see more great redesigns in the coming months.

Posted at September 27, 2003 5:59 PM


Stephane Curzi said on September 27, 2003 11:22 PM

“They are not deliberately trying to antagonize the site owners.”

A couple of weeks ago, I had an interview at a well know company where I live. In trying to differentiate myself from other candidate, I redesign a website the company did this summer entirely in CSS.

I though about the positive or negative aspect of redesigning a site somebody just did, I decide to show it only if I have a good feeling about the interview and I did show it.

At the end, I didn’t get the job but I got a small contract out of it. They didn’t take my redesign badly but they might have done so, I think it’s a personal thing, some people might be offended, others will see that as somebody really wanting to show what CSS can do.

oli said on September 28, 2003 2:30 AM

I think Paul Hammond’s comments are amusing in regard to one present redesign: the ReUSEIT project. As Jakob Neilsen says himself:
“I am not a visual designer” and “I didn’t want to spend money to hire an artist”
The competition is being done with Jakob’s permission too. Where’s the insulted/threatened design team here?

Paul’s assumptions about designers and the design process are also flawed. A formal design education stresses self and group critique - the process of improving your design by picking it to bits. The only designers I’ve come across who haven’t liked receiving constructive criticism are ones who haven’t had a design education (self-taught). I agree that this type of designer can be defensive. However most designers love to learn and want to improve. The goal of design is to make a better experience for client and user, designer ego shouldn’t be a factor.

Finally these contests also serve another purpose, to show the business sense of CSS designs. Removing tables for layout and changing from font tags to CSS can make a page load faster, and be easier to edit or redesign. Showing this on well-known sites helps designers trying to persuade managers for commercial work.

Saying the original designers will be insulted is like saying that other Zen Garden designers will be insulted if Andy contributes his design - it’s just silly :)

Peace - oli

Rich said on September 28, 2003 12:09 PM


You are absolutely spot-on with your interpretation of people’s motives.

You linked to my reformulation1 of a Pixelsurgeon page2 where I recoded tables into CSS. My overriding reason for doing this was purely self-indulgent: I love the Pixelsurgeon design and I enjoy taking great designs and turning them into code. I relish the challenge and I like to show people that any design can be accomplished with CSS and meaningful HTML.

So while there might be a sideline in education (preaching to the converted for the most part) the main driver for me is just fun.


Paul Hammond said on September 28, 2003 6:39 PM

Good points, well made.

For what it’s worth, I wasn’t really refering to site redesigns like ReUseit. Like Oli says, they can be very useful for everyone involved.

I was refering more to taking a site and reworking the HTML/CSS so it looks exactly the same, just without tables. I still don’t think this is a good idea, but I can see why people enjoy the challenge. Just bear in mind that this can and does upset the people who created the original site.

I’ve put some more comments up at

Andy Budd said on September 28, 2003 8:14 PM

Thanks Paul for the email, the comment and also the link to your More on “tableless” recoders post.

I feel that competitions such as ReUSEIT are a logical progression from the trend of reworking websites, however I do understand that your article was focused solely on code rewrites.

However I’d have to say as a designer and site owner, I’d be much more upset if somebody came along and visually redesigned my site, than if they just recoded it. People usually have much more invested emotionally in a sites design than they do in a sites code. In fact it’s usually only anal standards fans like myself who really give a hoot about how a site is coded, and even then I’m fairly grounded.

Personally If somebody recoded one my site I’d be quite chuffed. It would mean that they liked the site (content and design) so much that they’d given up their free time to help make it better. I don’t know If i’d actually use it, as recoding one page is very different to recoding a whole site. However I’d still think it was cool.

I know it’s not quite the same, but I regularly get people emailing me about bugs and typos on my site. However I’m not precious about my site (or my feelings) and find these emails of great help.

Paul mentions that when recoding an existing site, it’s easy to miss hidden constraints. He goes on to say..

“I still think that a straight CSS reworking of an existing site without changing the design is a waste of time, for all the reasons given here and elsewhere. If others enjoy it, and are willing to spend their time on it then thatís great for them.”

I think one of the main reasons people actually like recodes over redesigns is the fact that there are constraints. If you’re a visual designer, projects like the CSS Zen Garden and the ReUSEIT competition are great, as they give you a chance to test out you’re creativity as well as you’re CSS skills.

However I know from experience, sitting in front of a blank photoshop canvas can be a difficult thing, especially if, like myself, you’re not a naturally talented visual designer.

Having the constraints of a prebuilt design, turns it from being a creative exercise into a jigsaw puzzle. You know what the things supposed to look like, you’ve just got to figure out how to build it.

I’m lucky in the sense that I get to build CSS and standards based sites at work. However there are a large number of developers (not designers) who are interested in standards, but who never get to build anything other than personal sites using tableless design.

By setting yourself the task of reproducing an existing design in CSS, you’re both testing/stretching your CSS skills and also closely mimicking a real life build process. For developers this is a much more useful learning process that having to first struggle with creating a design. If you had to design your own jigsaw puzzles before you could use them, this would put off the vast majority of jigsaw puzzle fans.

As you know by now, I think recodes are great. However I do agree that site redesigns and recodes need to be done with a level of professionalism and sensitivity to the site owners.

As long as you choose appropriate sites (preferable not personal sites) and take a professional approach, long ma the recodes continue.

Monty said on September 29, 2003 1:02 PM

On the surface I agree with the whole table for CSS exchange “movement” that we are currently seeing. But I would like to hear your thoughts about something I have started to wonder about.

When I first learned HTML, I was told how to “view
source.” I learned so many things from being able to view the code that I can’t image not being able to now. But with all these sites moving away from typical HTML (smaller files) and more towards CSS, how is this going to effect the beginner. If you don’t make your CSS available, like csszengarden does, the only thing the user will see is a bunch of “divs”.

How will this effect the little family site thrown together to show off the latest baby pictures? Or the local little league stats page? If more and more people move their format into the CSS and away from the page, how will this effect the beginner??

My personal site is XHTML transitional so this is not intended as a flame, more of a “lets just throw this question out there” type of thing.


Rich said on September 29, 2003 1:27 PM

Monty - it’s certainly true that it’s harder to learn by example from other people’s style sheets, particularly if they are not nicely organised and commented. It’s even sometimes hard to work out how many and which style sheets are being used.

A tool I find quite handy in this respect is TopStyle1. It has a feature which will open all the style sheets associated with a given webpage - pretty handy if people are doing lots of nested @imports and the like.


Adam Rice said on September 29, 2003 8:33 PM

The CSS is always available—otherwise the original web page using the CSS file wouldn’t be able to find it. Just look in the head of any CSSified page and you’ll find a reference to it, if the CSS is not actually on the page.

Admittedly, it may take a little more detective work to figure out what the designer was doing with CSS. But it’s all there.

Luke Redpath said on October 1, 2003 2:48 PM

For Firebird users, there is an excellent web developer tool bar extension which has a “View CSS” button on it.

Michael said on October 31, 2003 3:16 PM

“If more and more people move their format into the CSS and away from the page, how will this effect the beginner??”

Perhaps I’m being a bit cynical here, but I’d be glad if beginner’s learned before putting stuff up. We’re looking at the evolution of the design process.

Count me frustrated beyond words to lose a contract to some designer whose bloated end code created by a WYSIWYG looks beautiful on the surface but sucks bandwidth more than an SUV sucks gas.

Maybe CSS design is harder to learn, but isn’t the tradeoff worth it?