Interview: Bruce Lawson

Bruce LawsonI met Bruce Lawson online several years ago when he was with glasshaus, a publishing company that produced books on Web standards, usability and accessibility. Although we lost touch several times over the years, I still look to him as a sort of touchstone on what the Web community is up to in the U.K. Currently, Bruce is conducting some rewrites on previously published books and tech reviews on other books. But his true calling remains all about Web accessibility and standards, just as it did during the glasshaus days. This is why he can be found at The Web Standards Project as an Accessibility Task Force Member.

Before you produce an opinion that Bruce is all business and that he's possibly an accessibility bore, you might visit his blog. His true character shows through his website, which is entitled, simply, "Bruce Lawson." Who is this guy? What makes him tick? I wanted answers to these questions and more...

Since my readers are interested in how much education a creative person must have before they can become a success in any design venture, could you tell them what you studied in school, and why?

My degree was English Language and Literature, with Drama. Staggeringly, I was awarded a first-class degree, which is odd, as I felt I'd done no work at all.

Did you expect to use your English Literature degree in any specific way once you graduated?

I didn't; although I figured that my job prospects were better with a degree, doing it was really an end in itself. I loved reading Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and Eliot â-- so three years doing it full time was a no-brainer. (Hence feeling like it was not work!)

In a previous interview with Accessify, you stated that you worked as an actor and theatre director, then you became a programmer with AT&T before you became a singer, guitarist and Tarot card reader in Istanbul, a volunteer pharmacist in Calcutta, a movie extra in Bombay, a kindergarten teacher and tutor to the Crown Princess' daughter in Thailand, and then you were almost mistakenly arrested for espionage in Moscow. Which one of those experiences influenced you the most and why?

They all influenced me in different ways. The one thing they all have in common is communication. They all taught me that I work best facilitating communication, whether through words, theatre or music.

The volunteer pharmacist job -- working with people who had nothing more than the clothes they stood up in -- taught me to despise people who make a profit by deliberately perpetuating other people's misery and degradation.

The music job taught me that, however short and ugly a man you are, you can always get laid if you play acoustic guitar.

When you first applied for and received the job as an editor at Wrox Press, what were your motives? In other words, did you plan to settle down and create a "real" career at this point, or do you consider any life experience a "career"?

Everything you mentioned above was part of my "career." The settling down was rather forced upon me, as my daughter was born. I needed a real career, in the sense that I needed real money for a mortgage. Mixing computers with books seemed like a decent way to make the mortgage.

After all the work that you put into Wrox baby, glasshaus, with brand development and time put in to create a successful focus, how did you feel when Wrox folded and took glasshaus with it? How did you handle those feelings?

At first I was very resentful, but I came to realize that it was silly to be angry; I'd been paid to set up the brand, and it was a good salary to do interesting things. Unfortunately, we were 2-3 years ahead of our time. (Nowadays, all publishers are putting out books that deal with Web Standards, JavaScript, usability and accessibility.) The great thing is I got to learn about Web Standards, really get into accessibility, and meet loads of cool people.

Are you involved with Wrox or glasshaus now that the companies have been purchased and are back on the ground?

Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory ComplianceYeah, one of the glasshaus editors, Chris Mills, commissions for friends of ED (who bought many Wrox and glasshaus titles). I've just finished a full revamp of an old glasshaus accessibility book, which rocks (Zeldman reviewed it: "Vast and practically all-encompassing, this newly updated classic belongs on every web designer's shelf). I'm also tech reviewing a beginner's guide to html.

NOTE: Readers can purchase Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance at Amazon...

You were also involved with DMXzone for a while. Can you tell the readers a little about your experience with this company and your current participation with their venue?

It was a very happy year, but I don't work with them anymore, as they're based in Holland, and I'm in the UK, I was working from home full-time. Being a sociable person, it was driving me crazy!

Do you plan to write more books? What would be the focus if you do want to publish?

I'd like to publish some of my poetry! I've been into my dad's attic for the first time since 1992, when I packed up my stuff to go traveling for a year or two (oops!) and found loads of poetry and songs of mine that I'd forgotten about. It was like visiting old friends.

I found writing my three chapters of the Web Accessibility book incredibly time-consuming; I must have drafted my introduction ten times. So I probably won't write more books (but would happily contribute chapters on Standards or accessibility). I enjoy tech reviewing, as it's not as time consuming; although I'm a really harsh reviewer, so it doesn't make me any friends!

You were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999, so it seems obvious to me that your interest in Web accessibility is personal. But, my observations often have been faulty. Could you set me straight on whether your interests in accessibility are personal and if they're limited to Web access?

You're right. It is personal. It wasn't at first -- it was just a great emotive subject for a book to launch a brand for responsible web designers, but then as I learned about it more by talking to readers of that book, I realized how urgent it was for me, too. I've no way of knowing how my disability will play out, but in previous relapses I've been blind in one eye and paralyzed in one arm, so I'm gonna do all I can do to ensure that this fabulous medium doesn't become decoupled from its founding principles of being accessible to all.

Outside some current lawsuits against inaccessible websites and total ignorance about Web standards and accessibility in some areas, it seems that the preaching is done and that action has become the standard. Do you agree?

Nah. The converted account for maybe 2% of those who create websites. I enjoy evangelizing; that's why I don't do speaking at industry events, when it's always preaching to the choir. I like the challenge of introducing Web Standards to people who don't know what it means.

What career would you like to pursue if Web accessibility ever becomes a moot issue?

I'd either go back to study (Modern History), lecture in English, or -- if I were rich -- I'd do what my wife used to do and work with underprivileged children. But, as I said above, it's not gonna be moot for a long, long time.

Do you ever feel that you've failed at anything, especially in your work? If so, how did you handle that feeling?

I am constantly chastising myself for failing. How do I handle it? Lie awake at night fretting, drinking a couple of glasses of whiskey to help me sleep, waking up feeling eurgh, rinse and repeat.

What do you consider to be the most memorable moment in your work?

By an accident of timetabling, I was the teacher for the first ever lesson, on the first ever day of school, for a group of Thai 5 year olds, most of whom had never met a Westerner before. I smiled winningly and said "hello everyone." To them, I stood there, unfeasibly tall (I'm 5 foot 7 inches), with my huge Western nose, saucer-sized eyes and ghostly white complexion, baring my teeth and emitting terrifying burbling noises. Fourteen children simultaneously screamed in terror and began to cry; a good proportion had toilet accidents. I'll never forget dealing with that.

If you never, ever had to work again, what would constitute your ultimate fantasy life?

I'd be a musician! Playing my own songs to a small, but devoted, following who allowed me artistic freedom and, simultaneously, financial independence. Ahh, dreams!

Who influenced you most in your life and why?

Mum and Dad. And most of the people I've ever met influenced me in some way.

Do you consider yourself a role model? Why or why not?

Absolutely not -- although I've got a big-mouthed persona, I'm just a guy trying to do the best I can, often getting it wrong (in full view!).

Finally, if you could be a character in a fictional book, who would you be and why?


Good call!

Below: Bruce Lawson faces off with Casanova

Bruce Lawson and Casanova

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