Showdown at the HTML corral

The Cool Site in a Day contest between East and West Coasts has already become an anachronism.

Published June 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the Cool Site in a Day competition, teams of designers from the East and West Coasts compete to whip up an instant Web site for charity clients. After the first competition last spring at the Web 97 conference, East team captain Kyle Shannon, of the Web development house, mentioned his fear that clients would approach him after the show and demand, "Why can't you do my site in a day? You did a nice site for those folks in a day."

His team's winning site was, like the winners in the two battles that have followed, a series of about 10 elegantly designed pages filled with pretty Photoshop pictures and "About Us"-style text -- not exactly stretching the boundaries of cool design. Even the very useful e-mail forms on this year's winning site felt positively low-tech compared to the Web application packages being hawked in the booths next door at the Web 98 expo.

Strangely enough, the Cool Site in a Day competition, originally a way to settle the mailing list debate over which coast's designers are better, has become a nostalgic exercise a mere year and a half after its inception. This isn't to say it's not fun to watch (at least as much fun as chess), or that it's just a publicity stunt for its sponsor, Web Review; the nonprofit groups whose sites are redesigned by the teams are infinitely grateful for it. But having only eight hours to build a functional Web site for clients you actually like doesn't leave much time for adding animation and multimedia features or welding on an e-commerce section -- the kinds of features today's demanding clients expect in a site. The best the teams can do, under the circumstances, is to party like it's 1996.

The party started at 8:30 a.m. last Tuesday, when captains Lance Arthur of glassdog for the East and Molly Wright Steenson of Maxi for the West gathered their teams in a corner of the Web 98 Expo floor dubbed the "On-line Lounge." At 9:30, after their software had been loaded and the scanners attached, "Cool Site Diva" Kirsten Alexander flipped the coin and assigned their clients.

West would be working for Compumentor, a nonprofit group that gathers computers for other nonprofit groups. Time was definitely against them; the existing Compumentor site, which was to be overhauled, consisted of hundreds of pages -- forcing Steenson and her team to spend more than two hours consulting with their clients on site architecture.

East was assigned to Hospitality House, which provides arts programs and help to the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Since an upcoming art show was deemed a priority for the site, Arthur made sure the scanner was working before he set his art director, Jason Kottke, to editing the images.

The real value of Cool Site in a Day, as far as the spectators are concerned, is watching the teamwork that lies behind the building of any site burst into plain view. The first order of business for each team was assigning roles. On the East side, for example, Kottke was handed the duty of developing the "look and feel," Steve Champeon was appointed Webmaster and script programmer, Kelly Quain got stuck with typing in content, while David Yip -- normally an e-commerce kinda guy -- handled the HTML coding.

The West team jumped to an early lead, based on what we could see on their monitors. But the piles of content they had to deal with -- and a server crash late in the day -- hobbled them at the end.

The East's developers finished first, turning in a clean site that borrowed its color scheme from an invitation to their client's art show. (Kottke also suggested that the GoLive booth, which peeked out of his peripheral vision, may have had something to do with it.) All of the content was static, except Champeon's excellent use of mail forms to connect users with donatable equipment to the Hospitality House. Time constraints kept the East from optimizing its images' file size for fast download, which hurt them in the eyes of the judges.

The judges liked that the West team's site for Compumentor kept its three distinct audiences in mind: donors, volunteers and recipients. But the size of the West team's task overwhelmed it; the pages looked clean but bordered on looking empty. The West's site was nowhere near as slick as the East's -- which, in a competition that stresses the "cool," was its downfall.

After five minutes of deliberation, the judges handed the Winner's Cup over to the East team, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Derek Powazek, a judge who is also the only West captain ever to win, said later that he was very unhappy at the discrepancy in the kind of sites assigned as clients. And that the West should have focused more. "They should have told their clients, 'Sorry, we only have eight hours. Let's pick the best 10 or 12 pages and concentrate on those.'"

It's not just the strategies that have remained the same over the past three competitions: The software looked mighty familiar, too. Photoshop for images, BBEdit or Homesite for coding and, in a new twist, Macromedia's Fireworks for creating rollovers, but no other WYSIWYG editors or any surprises.

Despite the marvels on display next door, the limits of what a group of designers can do in a day remain circumscribed by the same software used in the early days of the Web. At some point Web Review may realize that Cool Site in a Day is, indirectly at least, dismissing the very tools and techniques that Web 98 is busily touting.

But I hope the competition will last, at least through Round 4 in Boston this fall. Web design needs its competitive events -- and I want to see whether the East can hold onto its lead.

By Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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