Not to crash anyones party, but as far as I know, I actually came up with it first. I was working in San Francisco at Young and Rubicam, a major ad agency. I was part of a division called RPM,
We were in charge of designing for marketing and such. We had Chevron as a client, and they were going to launch an important campaign, it was a car character, like the cars from the Pixar movie last year. This was their new mascot.
We were designing a site for it. I had already gotten pretty good at HTML and worked out the spacer for my design problems, tables didn’t work right, and so many things were not cross browser compatible.
I named it spacer, just a quirky wording I thought appropriate, since it wasn’t actually a space, and if I was doing a text string search, I wanted it to 1. stand out, and 2. not interfere with the word ‘space’ itself.
That’s an interesting update to the story, and it also deserves an update in the wikipedia article on Spacer.gif.
I emailed Joe to ask him if any screenshots, pictures, hardcopies were left from that site, and got this reply:
Hey man. Well, if you looked at my website, you will notice that I moved many times in the last 21 years. I was never very good at saving work samples, what I had saved is in France (if it wasn’t trashed) with my ex-wife, I am in Florida now.
So in response, no samples available. It’s all pure thought anyway. It’s about the idea.
For the Chevron project, I found the cars with a quick google search: www.chevroncars.com/meet/
The red, green, white and dirty car were the first ones launched. We made animated gifs with the eyes blinking, actually, I did, but it was my designer friend Michael who lead me to the ‘gif builder’ program.
We also did web work for Diamond Walnuts and Birdseye Frozen food, I made a site called FrancePlanetTours.com. I shared the spacer.gif solution freely with the other artists, I believe in openness– it would be silly to try and own every idea, and ideas can be stolen anyway.
So here it is. The story unveils itself more than ten years after the technique was invented. Actually it’s hard to understand today what all these spacer.gif’s are still doing on websites that don’t follow web standards. But in 1996 there was no such thing as decent CSS (*).
Tables and images had just appeared in recent browsers, so at that time, putting transparent pixels in table cells was the only way to achieve fancy layouts.
(*) Actually the first CSS recommendation was published in December 1996 but it took three years before the first browser with decent css support was released (Internet Explorer 5 for Mac).