Restarting web design ? after 20 years.

brandelune profile image Jean-Christophe Helary ・5 min read

Back when the web had just started (1996), I designed and created the 2nd bookstore site in France. The word then was "web design". There was no "front end" neither was there "back end" jobs. There were no "frameworks". Javascript was in its infancy, Java applets were supposed to be the next thing, ssi and cgi were big too...

The job itself was relatively straightforward (I suspected all those technologies to not make it into the following century so I did not try anything fancy, plus, starting from close to scratch, only mastering regex was a big enough task in itself):

1) Clean up and export a Filemaker database containing about 10k records of the books we had in the catalogue
2) Create various templates
3) Make intensive and extensive use of BBEdit Lite and its regular expressions search/replace function
4) Create some nice and pro looking gifs
5) Make sure the thing respects standards (HTML 4.0 was still a draft then, CSS non existant, layout was done exclusively with tables, etc.)
6) Test locally the thousands of links
7) Upload, test again and wait for customers mails

That worked.

Then I moved to Japan, where I still am, and did half a dozen static sites for various organizations, and then stopped.

Fast forward to today.

I'm relatively fine with my current activity: (very) small business owner in the translation/localization industry. I've done enough stuff in the FOSS world in the past 2 decades that I have my name as a l10n (or related) contributor in a good number of major packages, I've talked at conferences, done seminars, etc.

Now, with machine translation entering the market as a real and efficient actor I find that I want to go back to something more "creative" and especially more valuable: not just be the subcontractor that handles the Cantonese or whatever strings at the end of the development chain, but offer beautiful and well crafted things that will be internationalized.

I started working with a ex-printing industry partner and with her skills we have managed to bring to reality a number of nicely designed multilingual paper brochures. But print is dying and it's not a skill I feel like mastering right now (I can do some Illustrator scripting, thanks to a decade working with applescript, but I don't feel like moving in that direction, I can't draw anything better than stick characters for one...)

Then I met similar (very) small business owner at a local gathering and the contact was very good, and we exchanged cards and we left, and I checked her site and I thought I could help.

It was a badly hacked over-priced WP site, with no updated contents (she was more familiar with the FB interface and did not bother updating her blog on the site).

We decided to work together. She gave me all her access credentials and I started working the code, removing the dead parts, de-linking the useless ones, updating a few lines here and there.

Now I'm on my way to rewrite the whole site as a static pure HTML site with a nice CSS layout. She has published research articles that we're going to publish too. Word with Excel graphs. I moved everything to clean HTML and I'm checking what's the best way to convert the graphs to a web technology (actively checking SVG, and maybe CSS).

And I'm helping her with the online shop too. Taking shots of her products, re-learning photography (everything I know dates from the film era), processing the shots so that they look pro-enough that she can actually sell the goods (there is huge room for improvement in the photo area but it's not hard, I just need to sit with the manual, and take shots until I get the thing right). Now she is starting a separate organization and I'll be doing the site there too.

So that's a lot of changes in the last few months. Very exciting change. And also extremely close to what I was doing 20+ years ago and heading in a direction I like.

The technologies that I did not dare to use are now completely mainstream and are even, in the case of Javascript, cannibalising other older technologies (wasm...) This is truly a fascinating time to restart in this field...

I've ordered a dozen books, I'm reading stuff all over the web, everyday, trying to put that into practice bits by bits between running the company, the 3 kids, life in general, etc. and not specifically in that order...

But... It is a huge amount to digest.

So right now here is what I need, and I hope some of you here can help.

I understand JavaScript is a must, but I'm not sure why, in my context. I've bought "JavaScript for Web Designers" from A Book Apart (trusting the book would be as good as the other titles they have) and it was a major disappointment, so I'm working on Head First JavaScript, but the language itself is not an issue (I can read languages, I understand the basic concepts of programming) I just don't get how is that technology useful for me right now and how much I should invest in it at the moment.

CSS is where I want to rock and I found a huge number of really helpful ressources (the 2 CSS books by A Book Apart are excellent, Rachel Andrew is an amazing role model for somebody like me). But it is huge and I don't see how all the parts connect yet. I don't want to do frameworks too.

HTML... I had the printout of the 4.0 draft in my suitcase when I move to Japan. Now it has grown in something I can't fully grasp, at the moment.

PHP, there is a group of people who are locally very involved with the WP community. We even have one top actor in WP development leaving the West Coast to come live here with his family... So I feel I need to do more in this area, especially in the l10n areas. All the plugins that exist suck but the web must be multilingual now.

I need hints at paths, maybe a mentor (I tried "our" mentor program but the person "assigned" to me did not get back to me), maybe just a "quit reading and code" kick in the butt. I don't know. Or maybe there is something really obvious that I'm not seeing and that is the key to moving forward...

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brandelune profile

Jean-Christophe Helary


In Japan since '97. Translating and localizing on Mac since 2000. FOSS advocate and user. Super proud that I have some code that's been accepted in Emacs :^)


markdown guide

Ah - I remember doing webdev in the 90s too - in many ways it was a lot easier. Dump that Perl script in ~/cgi-bin/ and hope you hadn't messed up any print statements - job done ;-). No worrying about which version of CSS you had to use, which javascript bundler/pre-processor was this weeks must-have ;-)

If it's any use - I've found a few video places that are quite good (for me anyway) picking up current JS/CSS/PHP stuff :

  • Wes Bos has a lot of paid courses, but it's worth checking out some of his free ones like javascript30.com/ , flexbox.io/ and cssgrid.io/ . The podcast he does with Scott Tolinski (who also has a lot of useful video courses) is also really good for hearing about css/js 'stuff'

  • Jeffrey Way over at Laracasts mostly focuses on the Laravel PHP framework and PHP generally, but also covers javascript and css stuff. It's a 'pay for' subscription - but he puts out quite a few free videos too.

  • Brad Traversy's youtube channel is nice for intro's to a lot of modern dev stuff - javascript, css, all-sorts really. He quite often swears too which is always good to hear when dealing with tech ;-)

Anyway - good luck :-). I hope the javascript & css ecosystems don't drive you too mad ;-)


Thank you for the links ! I think I'm in love with the new CSS already. :) Not sure about JS, but I'm going to check !


This is interesting. I made my first website with a guest book around 2000, so I briefly remember what web was looking like.
Seems like you are doing great considering with post titles.
Good luck with life-ongoing learning!


Thank you for the advice.

Now, with the evolution of JS as a general purpose language, I'm wondering what part of it is relevant to my activity, ie as a domain specific language for the web. I do understand that it can be fun to program games to run in the browser, but I'm not into that (for now)... :)