A leading Canadian Web design firm squeezed its usual six to eight week development time into just five and a half hours for one customer.

Toronto-based Devlin eBusiness Architects recently competed in, and won, the Iron Chef Web design challenge at the Seybold San Francisco 2003 conference.

Devlin’s three-woman team didn’t even know the site they had to design was for the USS Arizona Memorial Fund until moments before the competition.

The design challenge is loosely modelled on the Iron Chef TV show in which participants are given a time limit in which to prepare a meal from scratch. The five competing teams were given five and a half hours to build an appropriate site using whatever tools and technology they brought with them.

Devlin was one of five teams competing in the event. The company counts Pizza Hut, Lexus and FedEx among its clients. Its founder and president Catharine Devlin sent three employees to California to represent her team.

“”Inside our industry, we’re well known for our ability to build cool and useable interfaces. One of the fellows who’s organizing it saw some of our work last year and asked us if we would be interested,”” she said.

The event was organized by the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW), a group dedicated to educating and promoting the profession.

“”Good design skills incorporate things such as usability and accessibility,”” said WOW executive director Bill Cullifer.

Given the time constraints, the contest demanded a back-to-basics approach to Web development — core elements, clear design and navigation simplicity. For example, contest rules specified no Flash components. Devlin said the limitations needn’t stifle creativity, but the onus is on function over form.

Team Devlin is made up of HwaYoung Oh, design director; Diana Wang, senior developer; and, Emily Rothwell, team leader and strategist. In an interview prior to the competition, Rothwell expected her role in the contest to mirror her day-to-day duties. She was responsible for coming up with the initial design and working with her teammates.

“”I very much get involved in the initial phases when you’re trying to get requirements for the client — dissect them and figure out the various goals and objectives the client has, then putting the plan together, then the design team goes crazy with your plan,”” she said.

Cullifer expected to see a high level of sophistication in the sites the contestants developed. But the contest is as much about promoting the skills of Web developers as it is an exercise in coding. One of the judging criteria is audience participation.

One of the contest’s goals, said Cullifer, is to “”really elevate what it means to be a Web professional today, and at the same time the side benefits are that we demonstrate to the audience in a live format the value of having a good professional Web designer.””

Cullifer has put together Iron Chef competitions for Web services and information security at other conferences. This was the first one for Web design, but probably won’t be the last, he said.

“”Our possibilities are endless because Webmasters represent a broad range of skillsets,”” he said.

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