Jennifer Niederst Robbins

For people who became involved in the web in the early 1990s, there was some element of being in the right place at the right time. The web was too new for people to be considering it as a career. This serendipity was very much a feature in the story of Jennifer Niederst Robbins. Her book Web Design in a Nutshell was one of my own early reference books, and a number of well-known designers and developers credit Robbins' work as being critical to their own start in the industry.

“I was hired by O’Reilly & Associates (now O’Reilly Media) in 1992 as a book designer. Prior to that, I was designing and producing law and medical books at Little, Brown. In April of 1993, Dale Dougherty had the idea to start an online “magazine” funded by advertising on this new part of the Internet called “The World Wide Web.” And because the WWW could show images, he felt he needed a designer. The timing was such that my boss was on hiatus, so she assigned me to the team. This “magazine” was called Global Network Navigator (GNN) and we did our first public demo at Seybold in June of 1993. By October, it was in full publication mode.”

GNN was an early portal for the rapidly growing web, at a time when there were no search engines for finding information. Robbins was the sole designer for the site, creating the brand identity, graphic files and organizing the site. She was familiar with the 30 or so HTML tags that could be used at the time, though did not get involved with coding until she left O'Reilly and it's subsidiary Songline Studios to start her own business "Littlechair, Inc." There she designed and developed, “cute little static sites that required only HTML and images. Lots of imagemaps, table layouts, and frames in those days!”

Robbins is well-known as a writer, and her first book Designing for the Web was published by O’Reilly in 1996. Robbins' boss at O’Reilly was Edie Freedman—the woman who first put the iconic animal engravings on O’Reilly covers— and she encouraged Robbins to write a book on web design for designers.

“I used to break out in hives at the thought of writing a 2-page paper in college, so I thought there was no way I could write an entire book, but I knew I could write emails!

So I made an outline and wrote the each section as though it were an of email answering a question from my fellow designers at O’Reilly.

I’d think “just tell Ted how to make an imagemap,” then I’d write it up as though I were talking to Ted. If you put enough “emails” together and smooth out the edges, you end up with a book!”

Robbins notes that Designing for the Web was released on the same week as Lynda Weinman’s web design book. “She’s a billionaire now. I’m, um, not.”

Web Design in a Nutshell permalink

O’Reilly had a popular “Nutshell” series of books, these books were references to key topics. The type of book that you want to have close at hand while working, especially at a time when online resources were few and far between.

As Robbins began making more sites on her own, she wanted a resource that had everything she needed in one place. Pitching the idea for a web encyclopedia to O’Reilly, they felt it would fit into this series. Thus, Web Design in a Nutshell was born.

The table of contents for the first edition is amazing, it includes HTML and CSS, but also basic server information, interactivity with Java Applets, Flash, and Shockwave, Accessibility, and typography. My favourite subheading being, “You have two fonts”.

Robbins remembers how intense the learning curve was for this book.

“I needed to read everything I could find on a topic and learn it enough to make a decision how to best present it in just a few pages. Not surprisingly, it was the book that not just I, but many people needed in 1998.”

While the book covered a lot, and some of the subjects of the first edition—Java Applets—soon fell out of favor, the growth of the web platform soon meant that it was impossible to cover everything in a printed encyclopedia. After three editions, the book went out of print.

Robbins, however had already moved onto another book aimed at leading beginners step-by-step into creating simple web pages.

She published the first edition of Learning Web Design in 2001. That title is still going strong in its 5th edition and is used as a textbook all over the world.

Today, most of the well-known people in the web industry are known due to public speaking. While there were far fewer conferences back in the early days of the web, Robbins began speaking very early on.

“My first ever speaking gig was at Seybold in 1994 to 700 people! Talk about jumping right into the deep end! It was an hour-long talk about what the World Wide Web was, and how web design was not anything like print design. For the next 5 years I spoke at several conferences, then I took a long break.”

Robbins ultimately organised, and keynoted her own ARTIFACT conference in 2013. ARTIFACT was organized along with Environments for Humans, and went on to produce several events, with many familiar faces from the web industry speakng on that stage.

A speaker on stage with photos of books behind her
Robbins speaking at the first ARTIFACT conference in Austin, June 2013. Photo credit Jeff Robbins

“I see my work running a web conference as a continuation of my role as an educator. Like the Nutshell book, ARTIFACT was the conference I needed when mobile was shaking up all of our processes. I figured if I needed help, other people did too, and again, my hunch seemed to be right.”

I wondered what the early web community had been like, and whether Robbins had been part of any groups of web designers in the 1990s.

“I was not really aware of a web community, certainly not one like we know today. I knew of a few individual web celebrities, like Jeffrey Zeldman, and anti-celebrities (David Siegel), but I was not in contact with a group of fellow web designers and I didn’t belong to any mailing lists where I might have mingled.

My personal community at that time was primarily O’Reilly staff and fellow authors, which is how I met Eric Meyer.

Robbins notes that, while she hadn't really thought about it until answering the question, she spent much of her early writing career isolated from her peers. She finally became an active part of the current web development community after attending the Breaking Development conference, started by Tim Kadlec, in 2010.

Highlights from working on the early web permalink

Robbins drew the globe images used for Internet in a Box

“I have very vivid memories of watching the web explode in popularity from 1993 to 1996 and knowing that I had a front-row seat to something important. I remember going to a trade show in 1994, I think it was Internet World, but I’m not sure, and there were folding tables with paper tablecloths over them with nerds demoing their web server software including “Internet in a Box” produced by O’Reilly.

The next year there were much nicer booths and it was browser software that was the rage. The next year it was BIG decked out booths pushing site creation tools. Around 1996, what used to be geeky trade shows were now packed with “men in suits”. At that point we knew that the web had turned a corner into mainstream and commercial potential.”

Robbins remembers all the little moments, seeing GNN in the second issue of Wired magazine, one of the first times the project and the web itself was mentioned in a publication. She bought a copy for her Mom. Even just seeing a URL in an advertisement, made it seem real. This underground, niche, thing was becoming part of the real world.

“From 1993 to 1995, the web still felt like an underground thing. When you encountered someone else who was working on web sites, it kind of felt like you belonged to the same secret society. I once met a guy who did Flash animation when I was traveling in Europe in ‘96, and it was such a bonding experience that our friendship lasts to this day!”

She remembers how when working on GNN the team had to solve things that now we take for granted.

  • How will people know to click on this?
  • What should an ad look like on a web page?
  • What steps would be required to use a credit card to buy something on a web site and how should it work?

She looks back fondly on the naivete of those early days. Believing that advertising online would be a whole new animal that was information-rich and not just eye-candy. Full-page Flash ads, and pop-ups were just around the corner however, proving them quickly wrong.

Given that her team had to invent how everything would work on this early information portal, does Robbins think things are easier for new web designers and developers today?

“It’s SO MUCH harder today. So hard, in fact, that I believe I no longer know how to make websites and I’ve stopped calling myself a web designer. My Learning Web Design book provides a solid foundation in HTML and CSS that everyone who wants to go into web development should know. And although people can technically still make a site using only HTML + CSS + images, that’s not how “real” sites are made these days.”

She points to the rise of JavaScript, not just for simple interactivity as it was in the early days. Working on the web in 2020 requires a knowledge of JavaScript, but also Node.js, and often frameworks such as React. She believes her role with Learning Web Design is to help people with the fundamentals, those things which have to be learned to make everything else make sense. People will then go on to learn the other things that they need for the specific part of the stack they want to work in.

Robbins is still a writer of books and learning material about the web platform, and explained:

“The strongest thread that has continued through my career is definitely writing books. From the time in 1994 when Edie Freedman first talked me into writing one until 2018, I’ve written 14 titles in all. In the years in which I am not writing books, I’ve worked on a variety of projects and freelance gigs that have nothing to do with web design. For example, I’m most proud of my Cooking with Rockstars show that I started in 2003 and just revived this year ( In my freelance life, I do mostly branding and logo design and I’ve written many branding style guides.”

She sees the ARTIFACT Conference that she started in 2013 as one of her proudest achievements, telling me that it had its roots in the rich experiences she had attending conferences starting in 2000: 13 consecutive years of SXSW, Breaking Development, O’Reilly’s TOC conference, IxDA, and An Event Apart.

“Organizing a conference is a nice blend of education and community-building. Plus, I get to do a lot of fun graphic design work for the marketing materials and swag.

I started my career as a book designer, and it is still my favorite thing to do after all these years. I got to design and do all the page layout for _Learning Web Design_ and it made me so happy. I really love making books on paper, which is ironic, I suppose.”

Jennifer Niederst Robbins interviewed by Rachel Andrew. Published