There are now loads of designs at CSS Zen Garden which are absolutely brilliant, despite the site’s crappy name.
Looking at the pages in Lynx, they do a lot better job at degrading gracefully than this site does. Based on that and the fact that its The Right Thing(tm) I have converted bluebones’ basic design to use CSS not tables.
That gracefully degrading CSS is better than tables for layout I am 90% convinced (the other 10% of me worries about the browsers I haven’t checked on). But there’s still the question of whether the loading times of those graphics are worth it (all the designs use quite a few graphics) and whether the visual quality of the designs isn’t a whole lot more to do with the graphics than the CSS (for an example of this see This is Cereal). There are still plenty of people out there on 56k modems or with mobile internet access of similar speeds and 250KB of graphics (which several of the designs have) adds 30 seconds or more to their page load.
Basically the standard pattern of web use apart from a few favourite sites is to put a query into google and visit the most likely looking from the first page of results. Brilliant graphic design and beautiful pages are irrelevant to that kind of use because the images and design are exactly what google and other search engines strip out.
If you are trying to create some kind of brand or continue and offline identity on the web then strong design and graphics may serve some purpose. But for a community or an altruistic site with no brand to push isn’t the cut-down design and quick load times of a site like apache.org, for example, more appropriate?
I have to say my final conclusion is that I’m torn. Visual impressive sites are exactly that, impressive; and surely its better to be impressive than not to be? But you have to look at the tradeoffs. CSS SAVES bandwidth so its a no-brainer but the graphics that go along with it in demonstrating ‘The Beauty in CSS Design’ can make your page 20 times heavier. 250KB of images just can’t be justified, however good it looks.