Why Good HTML is Like a Magic Show

In the movie the Prestige Michael Cain’s character says:

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

So what does this have to do with good web design?

The Pledge

Good HTML should be clean, it should be simple, and when stripped of styles and JavaScript; HTML should read like a simple word document coherently and make sense. If you haven’t coded up your site in such a way then there is no way you can make it to “The Turn”. The question though is what and why is this important? If you style your site with appropriate HTML mark-up you can make it do almost anything. With the right planning ahead of time you should be able to transform your site into almost anything you want it to look like. You will see sites that boast validating HTML 4.01 Strict or XHTML but so what? That’s only a portion of clean code. YES ABSOLUTELY your HTML should validate with the doctype you choose, and you should understand which doctype you choose to use. However for the purpose of this article once your HTML validates you should make sure your content is grouped appropriately with DIV tags (short for DIVision of HTML) you will see articles on the web about divitis and the over use of div tags. The problem is, it is debatable how many DIV tags are too many, in my opinion if you can justify the use of each DIV then at least you understand why it is there. Someone may have a better way of doing something, but that is what learning is about. On my site there are at least 6 DIV tags that really bother me, guess which ones? And why do they bother me? because I used them purely to style content and get around some stupid issues with Internet Explorer 5.5, otherwise the DIVs do not further meaning or division of content, and I do hope to clean up the HTML over time removing redundancies.

The Turn

This is where things get interesting; if your HTML is clean and semantic then you should be able to make it do almost anything. You should be able to take the same site and apply new styles. To the person browsing your site, they shouldn’t even notice that it could be the same HTML with a different skin applied, the best example of this on the web is CSS Zen Garden same HTML and a limitless supply of styles to the site. This is possible because of clean underlying HTML also called semantic HTML. If you want to read further on how some of these different styles were put together then I would suggest The Zen of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web (Voices That Matter). The point being that if we didn’t have clean code as part of our “Pledge” in HTML we couldn’t make “The Turn” happen easily. The other thing for you aspiring web designers out there, having a clean framework means not needing to re-code new HTML up it means being able to focus on designing the elements of your HTML more efficiently for each project you work on.

The Prestige

Just as in the quote above “The Prestige” is the hardest trick in HTML, why would you even want to bring it back? Well for 95% of the traffic to your site you don’t want to. However for that 5% you do want to bring it back for, well that might be the most important 5% of your audience, the search engines. If you have coded your site with clean HTML search engines will be more likely to make sense of your content (some may debate this, but if you think different web browsers have compatibility issues with displaying your content what sort of issues do you think a robot has with oddly formatted HTML?). Clean HTML also enables your site for people who have disabilities, and while that may be a small portion of users and it may or may not be an audience you care to cater too; there is absolutely no good reason to alienate them. Further if you can meet the requirements of that audience you should have an easier time converting your site over to CSS that works well for mobile devices, and print and other media types we haven’t even though of yet. How long before people use a device like a Kindle to surf the web as a standard device? Will your site work with that device? If it was designed with good clean HTML then yes it should at least deliver your message, and that is the point of this article separate your message from your design, because if they can get to your message you’re reaching your whole audience. If your design only works for some people then you’ve limited communicating to some of your audience and if you do that there won’t be nearly as many applause for your site.

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