The Past Isn't Always Pretty

June 4, 2005

I am a designer with a past. A dark, secret, shadowy past of nested tables, inline font tags and spacer gifs. My past is littered with shamefully bloated sites built with disgracefully contorted HTML. I'd like to forget about that past. But what they say is true. The past does come back to haunt you.

Lately I've been trying to get my new clients fired up about web standards, and I must be doing a better job than I'd thought. My clients are talking. Unfortunately, it's to each other. An old client mentioned they'd heard I'd designed "a real cutting edge site" for a newer client. Their tone was kind of hurt and bewildered, a sort of "Why didn't you do this for us?" voice.

Oops. I fumbled around, trying to think of a reply, but couldn't come up with anything I was willing to admit. What was I going to say?--"Sorry, but when I built your site I didn't really know much. You caught me on the low end of the learning curve."

But it's troubling, and ever since then I've been turning the matter over. What am I going to do about my disreputable past sites? Shouldn't I do something about them? Just letting them go on like that, so ill-formed and ponderous, feels wrong.

For one thing it seems unfair to the client, and this does matter to me. I'm fortunate in that I've usually come to like most of my clients. But even if I couldn't stand them, there's still the issue of professional responsibility. If, through no fault of the client, something is broken or stops working on a site I've built, I'm obligated to go back in and set things right. My old sites might not be broken, but they're the next best (worst) thing to it. Finally there's the little matter of my reputation. There are a lot of badly designed sites floating around out there with my name on them. It's downright embarrassing.

After a lot of thought, I've finally determined how to deal with my old sites. I'm going to grit my teeth, turn my back on the past, and keep moving forward. It's not an easy decision. Morally, I'd like to say, "Yeah, you're right. Your site should and could be more compliant and accessible. Now I have a better idea of what I'm doing, I'll get right on it." But practically, I realize that's impossible.

I have a business to run and a living to make. I can't go back and fix all of my old sites because they aren't the best I can do now. Besides, if I get into that kind of thinking, where does it stop? I am (I hope) going to continue to learn and improve as a designer. Each time I learn something new that could have been put to good use on a past site, I can't very well drop everything and redo the site. I'd do nothing but redesign old sites for the rest of my life.

As for my clients, I've decided that when they hire me, they are hiring me with my current set of skills, not a future version. I'll do the best I possibly can for them, but if my best is better three months or three years down the road (and I have to hope it will be), c'est la vie.