Jennifer Robbins is proud to count herself among the web’s first designers. Literal days after the World Wide Web entered into commercial use in May of 1993, Robbins designed, developed and helped launch Global Network Navigator (GNN), a collection of the web’s best links on one website, and an online extension of O’Reilly Media’s Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog. It was a site of many firsts, the first commercial site, the first web portal, and one of the first site’s to host banner ads. It was updated daily by hand, coded in pure HTML for each update, with Robbins creating branding graphics alongside a dedicated production team for the site.
At the time, there was no official manual for the web. That can be easy to forget these days when the web is filled to the brim with tips, tutorials and blog posts to aid the journey of any newbie developer. In 1993, there were no blogs. There wasn’t even a good starting point. All Robbins had to go on was a loosely collated collection of technical specifications, mailing list threads, and her own creativity.
Robbins had started her career as a print designer. She wanted to see the web move beyond the plain black text on a white background that dominated every site. So she dove headlong into the resources available to her, experimenting with the new technology. Experimentation soon led to expertise in a field not many people knew anything about. As she learned, she began teaching others, the beginning of what has become a kind of tradition on the web: share what you know with everyone you can. She spoke at conferences about some of her techniques and chatted online with anyone who needed web design help. One of her co-workers began emailing her with new questions all the time and she began walking him through the process of web development, one email at a time.
O’Reilly is, at its core, a book publisher. The web was young and new and unexplored and there were very few books that dealt with the subject of web design. Edie Friedman, the editor at O’Reilly responsible for the animals on the front of their books, suggested that Robbins take up the challenge. Initially daunted by the task, Robbins soon realized that she had basically written the book already in those emails to her co-worker. She took her email chain and reworked it as the first draft for what would eventually become Designing for the Web, published in January of 1996.
Designing for the Web was more than just a book about HTML. The web was not yet a sure thing, so Robbins not only had to write a book about web design, she had to make the case for the World Wide Web itself. The book walked its reader through the process of making a website from start to finish, showcasing many of the experiments that Robbins had created for GNN as a way of highlighting all of the things that made the World Wide Web a medium worth building for.
In 1996, there were many web pioneers that envisioned a bright and boundless future for the web. Yet not many had figured out how exactly knowledge about the web’s technology would be spread. Designing for the Web represented a first step in a process of creative exchange that would become a model for learning on the web. It offered a path forward, a format for sharing techniques that was lively and considered and approachable. And best of all, it wasn’t the only book of its kind that year.
Lynda Weinman has wove her way through a multifaceted career, behind a computer screen and in front of a classroom. Her first gigs out of college were in the film and TV industry, working with animation and special effects. It was her experiments in animation that led her to buy her first computer and eventually become a prolific computer programmer. But Weinman always had one true love, teaching others. Many times in her career she found herself returning to this passion, in both traditional and non-traditional settings.
Weinman discovered the web while teaching a few courses on animation at the Art Center College in Pasadena in the early 90’s. She knew that one day, maybe in the near future, it would be something her students needed to know about. Hoping to build some kind of curriculum around the subject, she went to her local bookstore to track down a textbook or some learning materials about building websites, and was shocked to discover there was little more than a few dense technical manuals. There wasn’t a single book that could help her students.
So she decided to write one herself.
She took her pitch to New Riders Press, a design imprint of Peachpit that had just gotten its start. New Riders was happy to gain some ground in a completely untapped market. Weinman’s book, Designing Web Graphics, was published in January of 1996, the same month as Designing for the Web.
Like Designing for the Web, Designing Web Graphics was one part tutorial and one part introduction to the web. Weinman struck a conversational tone in the book, mirroring a classroom setting and making a new generation of designers coming online comfortable with the digital canvas. Giving readers an entry point familiar to them by specifically focusing on creating and preparing graphics eased the transition from print to the web, and thousands of web developers discovered the possibilities of the web flipping through the pages of the book.
While working on the book, Weinman got an email from firstname.lastname@example.org. She found the idea of using one’s own first name as their domain name a particularly novel one, so she snatched up lynda.com. She used it to source questions from designers around the world, and answer questions about her book after it was published.
Lynda.com grew quickly thanks to its friendly and approachable creator and a wealth of information about designing for the web. Weinman had left her job at the Art Center College to focus on the book, and longed for the opportunity to teach again. So together with her husband Bruce Heavin, she set up shop in Ojai California and posted a listing for a web design class to the website. They thought they might get a few applicants to get things going. Instead, their class sold out fast. Students flew in from as far as Europe just to attend.
One class led to another, and another, throughout the late 90’s and into the early 2000’s, with some selling out months in advance. Each class featured a week-long curriculum of focused learning on web design and development. As their workshops grew, so did the staff of Lynda.com, which continued to operate as a place for readers of her book and students of her classes could keep the learning going. The site buzzed with excitement and passion for a craft that was still finding its own in a crowded world. And Wieinman was there to shepherd the community and set it on its proper path.
In 1998, Robbins published her first follow-up to Designing for the Web, Web Design in a Nutshell. In just a few years, Robbins had learned a whole lot and with learning resources still inundated with complex technical specifications, she decided to boil it all down to a 500+ page guide with everything you needed to know. Web Design in a Nutshell still left room for beginners, but it was best suited for a spot right next to the reader’s computer, so they can flip through and find any reference they needed. It took the entirety of HTML and parsed it out for the average user and became a guidebook for a new generation of designers that needed a quick reference.
Back in California, Lynda.com found itself not immune to the dot-com crash in the early 2000’s, an unfortunate side effect of tighter purse strings for everyone in the industry. Lynda.com took a hit financially and courses began to dry up. But amazingly, Weinman’s faith in the web, and its importance to the world, was not shaken. It just refocused her approach. And it’s her next move that has earned her the sometimes-title “godmother of the internet”. Instead of abandoning the web, she leaned in to it even more.
In 2002, Weinman put up a paywall and started selling courses on lynda.com. This was before YouTube, when video was untested on the web. We’re talking about completely new ground, not just video, but video with a dedicated purpose of teaching web technology to web designers. It didn’t matter. It was a bet on the future of Lynda.com that made the most sense to Weinman. She recruited other teachers to record a few courses, and got together about 20 videos to start. Full access to every course was $25 a month.
Of course, the team at Lynda.com had no idea if the site would work. In interviews, Weinman often recalls being trepidatious about the new venture. At launch, the site started with around 1,000 users and extremely slow growth. Weinman’s reputation, however, was not to be underestimated and word did eventually get out. It took more than 4 years, but by 2006 that user base grew to 100,000. By then, there were tens of thousands of design and programming courses available.
Lynda.com changed everything about learning about and on the web. It showed that the web was more than just a medium to passively absorb content, but a medium which could facilitate learning in new and imaginative ways. Weinman was always experimenting with her courses and teaching methodologies and over the years, the site has added new ways to learn and for students and teachers to interact with one another. It was more than just a few videos tossed up on a website. It was a fully fleshed out community, as it had been from the beginning.
In the years that followed its success, others would try to replicate its business model and approach. Not many would come close to match it. A few years ago, Lynda.com sold to LinkedIn, but it has expanded it’s course subjects far beyond just the web. It’s goal, however, remains the same. Give its users an easy and affordable way to learn about the web.
Robbins eventually went back to her roots for a third book, Learning Web Design, published in 2001. The book took its readers through the process of building a website, start to finish, with everything one needed to know. It merged her passion, expertise and direct learning style that had enabled many new designers to get quickly comfortable with the web medium. It also went on to become Robbins most successful book, with five editions to date, the most recent of which was published just this year.
Learning on the web requires a lot of hands pitching in. But crucially, it began with the work of a few passionate users willing to unlock their own hard-earned knowledge. It was a gift that has shaped our community, given it a solid footing, and built a buzzing community of curious developers ready to return the favor. It’s what gave us the web.