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Section Index

  1. Prologue
  2. The Web
  3. Text and Hypertext
  4. Purpose: The Offer
  5. Purpose: The User
  6. Content and Form
  1. The Site
  2. Navigation
  3. Congruence, Transparence
  4. Style
  5. Closure?

  What's Related  
  Subsequent Pages - Net & Comp.  

1: Prologue: Fighting the (Hopeless?) Fight

In the beginning, there is the logos, the idea, the word, the concept. Hopefully, that is. An idea needn't be logical, it needn't be perfect, it needn't (or rather shouldn't or even mustn't) be conventional. But it should be visible, and it should be adapted and suited to the work and purpose at hand. The unity of body and soul. Of form and function. En archê. In the beginning. In theory.

A book can be the most amazing and pleasing thing. When you hold it in your hands, when you feel it, even smell it, open it, see the beautifully crafted types and headings and paragraphs, and when even the content is all right, that can be a truly sublime moment should you have the time to indulge into it. A book can be just that: because - usually, i.e., it used to be that way - books are manufactured by professionals. By those aware of what they are doing.

The age of books isn't over yet, it possibly never will be, although never could be quite a harsh word. But books are not alone any more. With the rise of newspapers (some still stylish) and magazines (less than some being stylish), all in the wake of cheaper production costs and a more democratic polity, print media became so vast in scope that some professionals are rather allegedly professional, if even. Just look at tabloids or those tiny "novels" sold at newspaper stands. But all of that is even dwarfed by the world wide web.

To stress it right in the beginning: I do believe in democracy, I believe in the freedom of expression, I believe in the possibility that even in the darkest moments and darkest corners truth may be hidden. I also somehow assume that content should be slightly more important than form. I'm no purist, I may like to have a clean and tidy room and workplace, but at rush hour my desk looks as crowded as possible. I think (!) of myself being a realist. You cannot change the world in an instant, if ever. You have to accept the reality of things to a certain degree. But at some point, this degree is reached, the amount of endurable pain exceeded. So it happens that - after a long and arduous fight with my very own web site, now in its third year and its tenth (hopefully more or less final) layout - well, it happens that when I look at some web sites, I come close to desperation. It is just unbelievable what some (or rather, most) web sites offer in terms of layout and congruence. It is the more unbelievable when this would be the work of (alleged? self-alleged?) professionals. But I believe in evolution. In positive evolution. In the ability of people to grow.

Thus, this is my essay on web site design and style. I consider it to be the even more important part of my HTML tutorials: To write HTML is relatively easy. To build and maintain a web site is only easy when you don't have much of an ambition. But creating a website worth visiting is a hell of a job, requiring both thought and constant care. Don't see it just as a hobby, neither as a pet, but consider it something via which you are judged by your visitors and/or customers. In business this is even more important as it directly affects your sales. Web publishing is publishing. You go public - by your very own decision. Judging by most internet content, it should be relatively easy to create a site which stands out of the mass, which is often rather a mess. Preaching style and user-friendliness may sound like a lost cause, a hopeless fight, but it is worth it. Your web site is your global identity. And you better look good.

May 8th/13th, 2000

2: The Web

Thinking about web design naturally presupposes thinking about the web. Design is always linked to the medium it is applied to. If you carve a rock, the job at hand would be quite different from writing on paper. Painting is different from writing music. Architecture is different from writing poetry. But all these different forms of art and expression are linked together in their aiming for communicating an idea or providing information, thereby utilizing and also progressing various stylistic elements and paths proven to be useful and attractive.

The web is a new medium, but it is not entirely a stand-alone invention. The format is mostly that of written text, supplemented by images or even other multimedial content, may it be sound, video or whatever the future may allow for. Thus what is true for printed media is also true for the web: But the web somehow demands for more effort on the side of the producer. It may be easier in use, but the technology behind has to be mastered by the designer. Everybody who has ever read a book or a newspaper or a magazine knows instantly how to proceed from one page to the next: By flipping the page. The medium explains itself. The net, however, is more abstract, thus holding more potential, but also constituting a greater challenge.

Even the most primitive of actions, like turning the page, proceding to the next or returning to the previous, going back to the start or seeing the imprint, all of these have to be re-created, even reinvented by the programmer. Commercial programs, however expensive and extensive they may be, might be suitable for creating a small internet presence on the basis of some templates. These, however, are neither original, nor could you hope to achieve some more complex aims. If you really aspire to do it, it means to start from ground zero. But that demands for quite some effort and thinking.

The web is a medium allowing for relatively cheap and instantaneous publishing. That's what you think. Everything has its price. If it costs nothing, it is worth nothing. The costs to be paid are not necessarily monetary - on the contrary. On the internet, you often pay by accepting poor design, poor content, long waiting periods, thousands of search results to browse through, outdated or missing data. On the supplier side, free home page providers may seem like a tempting proposal. But in turn, you have to pay by complicated URLs, unwanted ads, poor service and slow server computers. If you want to put a page about your pet into the web, you don't have to worry about this. But then you wouldn't be reading articles about web design either. But if you want to do it right from the beginning, then do it.

The web is a medium of contemporarity, of spontaneity. What you find on the web can be much truer and less filtered than what you find in books. That's both a bonus and a hazard. The big-mouthed sites often get more hits, even if they are just void in all aspects. Don't you let that stop you. Quality pays off in the long run, and less voluptuous and more humble sites like Yahoo!, Alltheweb and the IMDb instead provide you with the content you need. There is almost infinite competition on the web, and if you don't succeed in an instant you may already have lost. If you want visitors to return to your site, make it attractive in as many ways as possible. If you do not catch the fly in your tiny portion of the web, it will land somewhere else. And if your efforts should finally translate into hits and/or sales, wouldn't that boost your confidence? The web is no more difficult nor simpler than any other medium, it is just different. And it demands for professionality as much as any other medium of expression.

May 13th, 2000

3: Text and Hypertext

The internet is something new and something old at the same time. The linkage of proven paths with innovations is creating a new way of reading and writing, a new way of accessing and providing (written) information. The traditional concept of text structure has widened into a more open, more abstract system.

Through writing we are able to fixate our thoughts onto a material surface, thus having to follow certain rules. A book has a certain number of pages, each subsequent page continuing the flow of thoughts from the previous one. You may skip certain passages, but still, there is quite a strong sequential rule at work. Even a contents directory, an index or a scientific appendix would be exceptions to that rule already. Such elements would enable (or even force) you to jump from one part of the text to another, interlinking both sections. This is already a step towards hypertext, and it is rather a modern invention. The most rigid form of sequential text is a streamer cassette: The computer needs to read the entire cassette first before being able to work with the data.

Of course you can recreate such a rigid sequential system on the internet also. No one forces you to use hypertext and hyperlinks. But on the Web, these hyperlinks are - apart from the address bar, of course - the only way to get from one page to the next. You can attempt to restrict the flow of text and to guide the reader into following a sequential rule, but these attempts are rather anachronistic, still the user will be able to go back in the history of his browsing activity. So just forget the idea of not allowing the user to browse just in one direction. The web is not like a book. It still has sequential properties (just as a web page would contain text, and reading would mean to follow the words in the order the sentence wants the reader to), but the basic character of the inter-net is hyper-textual.

Hypertext is a more open form of text, it is above the usual understanding of text, coming much closer to the post-modern idea of the discourse. A truly hyper-textual piece would open up your potential infinitely, allowing you to "click" on each and every object in order to be brought to a different site, related to the one you came from. Each object would visibly open up into a discourse, true hypertext thus would be endless and - finally - incomprehensible just because of its sheer scope. Each drop would indeed lead to the ocean. But the hypertext found on the internet is (still) a much tamer version of this ideal.

Hypertext on the internet also means a lack of control on the provider side. Links leading outside of your web site, off your territory, will lead the user into different surroundings, into a different system. Thus the internet user has to be flexible, has to adapt to the new surroundings if he (or she) wants to succeed in finding the desired content. You may be able to create a corporate design for your own pages, but there cannot possibly be a corporate design for the entire internet. The net is chaos, loosely held together by an utmost minimal amount of order. In this infinite web of text and hypertext, it is even more important for a webmaster to create something making a good and solid and appealing appearance. A first glance at your site may be all you get. To ensure it won't be the last, you better do your job right in both content and form.

May 20th, 2000

4: Purpose: The Offer

Every piece of communication has two basic sides: A sender and a receiver. Both have an influence on the finished result, they share their responsibility for the common cause. A provider of information thus has to take into account not only his own preferences and capabilities, but those of the audience as well. Apart from poetry and true art, where this could be motivated by aesthetic considerations, it is no use being cryptic and obscure, or proving able to write in a rare or extinct language when the audience for such an activity would be rather small, even if the scriptor's capabilities may seem to be reflected in such an act, but that only seems to be so; or using dozens of technical gimmics, however advanced, to make the site more hip. I would rather deem such a behavior selfish somehow, or narcissistic. To just make a show out of one's faculties isn't in any way a decent approach, it is just screaming out loud: "What a piece of work am I". That's not art, it is prostitution and arrogance.

Any writer, artist, composer, reporter, designer etc. is dependent upon his or her audience, not only out of monetary reasons but per definition. Why should I write something and publish it? Why should I write something at all? Maybe a personal diary can be written for oneself, but I'd rather doubt that. It is rather probable that even the production of such a personal journal has in mind a future reader, and be it the kids or grandkids. The reader may be concrete in some cases, like in letters, so that you'd know your receiver. But in the case of larger publications, the reader rather becomes an abstract institution, not easily graspable but a mystery to most, even to the one writing this article. But a text itself is something supposed to be read. Otherwise, the sole production of it would make no sense. Words are said to be heard, written to be read. If you write for a newspaper, you can be sure it won't be read just by yourself. Same with a book. Same also with a web site. A text cannot distance itself from neither its writer nor its reader (or, producer and perceiver). A web site is a document available to an audience. Thus the text will demand for certain properties if it is supposed to be understood and perceived properly.

There isn't really something like a personal web site. Once you put it onto the web, once you make it public, it belongs to this public as well as to yourself - and since you write for an audience, you should not be so surprised about something like that. Your text, your site, and both its form and content carry a certain proposition and create a certain expectation. Of course no one expects Grandma Alice to produce a masterpiece of contemporary art when she puts together a site about her cat, Petsy. Of course no one expects little Joe, of eight years, to write Shakespeare on his site or to design it decently instead of childishly, i.e., in a way a child would (and should!) do it. In such cases, expectation and reality meet, so there's no problem with that. And if expectations are exceeded by reality, the better. The problem only arises when expectations are not met.

If an art student has a web site looking like produced by a complete retard, that's a problem. If a law firm makes heavy overuse of animations and strange fonts, that's a problem. If a designer's site looks like mayhem, that's a problem. If a researcher's site isn't well structured and its content flawed, that's a problem. If a commercial site looks like a random selection of buttons and gimmicks, that's a problem. A web site is your business card. It is your reference. It can be your resume. It is the best and easiest way for you to shine. Or to deter a possible audience or clientele. You don't do it for yourself but for the audience. All of you having a web site will know how it feels to get traffic. It's like a drug, it is the pay-off for all the days and nights and weeks and months and years of work. And it can directly translate into sales or advertising profits. The word "content" thus has become one of the catchy phrases of today's web society. "Form", however, is usually ignored. And when content suddenly means out-smarting each other with a deadly overuse of unnecessary gimmicks and stuff, even the last reason for visiting a web site will disappear because risen complexity doesn't mean risen user-friendliness. It is easy to do an overkill with such toys as streaming video, web cams, Java and ActiveX. But if the foundation of all of that is missing or fatally flawed, your contribution to the web will become an annoyance rather than a worthwhile place.

One aspect of your web site is the offer you make to your audience. The audience is your legitimization, it is your reason for creating your web site. Your offer is closely linked to your agenda, your hopes and needs, it is the manifestation of your artistic or academic or business interests. The offer you make is your own, it has to be your own, it has to be original in that it has to be obvious as coming from you. Your idea has to be visible and strikingly obvious. You may not lay bare your innermost hidden thoughts, but that's not what this is about anyway. You control what you show about yourself or about your business. But what you show has to be consistent in itself, understandable and structured and designed the way it would work best. The audience is not your enemy. Feedback - negative or positive - is your best friend. Target your offer to your audience, and try to look at your site from a stranger's perspective. For the second aspect of your site will be the user.

PJK June 5th, 2000

5: Purpose: The User

There is no prototypical internet user, neither as there is the prototypical reader of a book. Anyone could possibly reach your web site, although the user in question would at least have to be someone with rudimentary computer knowledge. Also, he or she would have to be able to read and write - literacy is a key prerequisite for using the net. But in today's Western society, with literacy rates way up, this isn't any more a decisive criterion. Anyone from a university professor to a redneck could arrive at your site. And it is you who decide whom to tailor it for.

If you'd try to imagine the possible user you could simply start with assuming that he or she is interested in the things you offer on your site. That would be true for those hitting it directly by search results or from links pages. So I myself would not be surprised if I received feedback from a common Trekker or X-Phile. But you will also get traffic from people who don't know what awaits them, or your site may be that large that even those coming to it with a purpose would have a lot of other things to see. So it is important to clarify what awaits any of them, to lay bare the site structure and thematic surrounding.

The imperative has to be to keep any user as long as possible on your site. Don't let them leave. The way to do this is to offer as good and interesting a content as possible, to give your site a layout as fitting and consistent and balanced as possible. You will only get long-term traffic by making an offer which would animate your visitors to come back. For that, you need to be different than the rest of the net. Yours is only a tiny portion of the entire global network, and it's a hell of a job to do it right. Be prepared to do it, and be prepared to let this task grow over your head.

If you think creating and maintaining a web site is easy, think again. It might be easy when you aim for it being cheesy, but I guess that's not your intention. And even for a site being deliberately cheesy, that's not so simple either. A web site is a complex entity demanding for logistics, planning, thinking and inspiration. Certain things can be planned, others can only be hoped for and used when they appear. The first is thinking, the latter inspiration. Both conspire in creating great content and design; both you need to give your user what he wants. Of course you cannot look into your visitor's head. But you can probably assume that he prefers quality work instead of cheap effects. And even if he (or she) doesn't look for quality, the difference will still be noticed.

Just as there is a difference between an elegant palace and a rotten junkyard, there is a difference between a good and a bad web site. When you write a book, you do an outline of the chapters and the story and characters first. When you paint, you draw a sketch. When you make a movie, you do a storyboard. But when starting a web site, why do most people appear to just go for it without any plan? The lack of taste is rarely on the side of the audience; it is on the side of the supplier - whose task is to produce a solution fit for his business or agenda. As either of those targets requires the approval of an audience, the objective should be clear.

PJK June 5th, 2000

6: Content and Form

Even a bad site may have its positive features, and the negative aspects may lurk in different places. Some sites may have great content but truly bad design, others excel in form but are void in contents. Neither version can be called a completed job. And though everything is relative, and everything has to be seen in its proper context, there still is something like good or bad design. It is not really a question of personal taste. It is rather about communicating your vision to the audience. That either works, or it doesn't. What works is good, what doesn't, well, take a guess. That's a deeply pragmatic approach, indeed, but that's not a bad argument either.

Before we come to design more exhaustively, there has something to be said about content. The content of your web site is like the story of your movie, like the screenplay even. It isn't just some letters filling the blank screen, or rather, it shouldn't be. Without a story, you have no movie (counting more artsy and abstract stories, too). Without adequate content, you have no web site. The content has to be related to what you want to communicate. Is it a personal web site, then it should be about you and your interests. Is it a topical web site, it should feature something on that topic. Is it a corporate web site, it should offer all the important information about your enterprise. That sounds simple, even cheap. It ain't. Lots of wanna-be web sites don't even seem to be able to fulfill the least of what they promise.

Content has to be relevant, it has to be up to date (unless it is supposed to be of an archival function, but then you should make sure to give a date to a text). That means, updating your content on a regular basis. If your offer is supposed to be recognized, it should be an offer of some worth, some immediacy to the audience. At your news stand, you wouldn't want to buy a news magazin from last year, and at a book shop, you wouldn't want to buy the same old stories over and over again. The internet is similar. Content, in order to be recognized, has to matter.

Content must also be recognized for what it is, it has to be put into a wrapping that stays true to what it encloses. There is really little or no need to create great content while not thinking about layout. Form and content are basically one, they are linked to each other, determine each other, form a unity. When you buy a car, you see it firstly from the outside, you get a visual impression. Unless money is a very desperate condition, you wouldn't even think about buying a totally rusty machine, however luxurious the interior, or however good the motor inside. You just look at something else, not assuming that under a pile of junk there could be anything worthwile. So you go for the shiny exterior rather than for the puny one. That may not be the most perfect option either, you still have to check the interior and machinery, the content, but the form sells, or rather, it makes it much more easy to sell.

August 5th, 2001

7: The Site

A web site rarely consists just of one page, it's rather a set of web pages that form a web site. These pages should be linked in some way, should be accessible in an easy manner, should fulfill the promise of hypertext, i.e., they should actually be navigable via a sufficient number of cross-references. Yes, there are sites that post links as text, not linking a URL or an e-mail address with the respective target location. If you want to do a poster, or a text handout, use paper. The internet is something else. It's not just a world wide web. It's much more about hypertext. And even then, there's still PDF.

Your site should be recognized as such. It should have an identity, some kind of common look-and-feel. That needn't be a strict corporate layout, though for larger sites this would be an absolute necessity. Yet you should have some common elements on each of your pages, making them stick together. Visitors should know where they are, they should know they are on your site, they should know when they've left it.

There are some very simple things you should stick to. Firstly, the name of your site. It should have a name, even if it be "Carl's Site About Imported Beer". The name should deliver a fitting description of your site, a theme or motto or affiliation. For larger and more complex sites, you could think of a shorter, catchier name and a longer motto as a subtitle. Look at what successful companies are doing. Short name, catchy motto. Or, even better, a short and catchy name. Sometimes, a name is everything, especially if the name can make your site look bigger than it is, make it seem more important. Importance, however, isn't gained by overstating your case. The key is almost always a healthy dose of understatement, with a keen conscience of what you're doing, and a strong belief in your capabilities. You should doubt yourself. But not openly. Look firm. Look up, not down. Those rules also apply to web sites.

Secondly, you may want to think about some kind of logo. That can be purely textual, a graphical rendering of your title, or a real graphical symbol used in combination with your text logo. If you have a logo, you should make use of it. On the same spot on every page, if possible. Thirdly, navigational elements - those will be discussed in the next chapter.

The key to your site, however, is the start page. The start page will probably be the last thing to be found on the net, as search engines look for content, not for structure. That doesn't devaluate your start page, on the contrary. It makes it even more important in relation to your other pages. Tie your start page closely to your other pages, centralize your site structure so that the user will almost out of necessity have to browse back to it. The start page needn't or even shouldn't be a complete site map, but it should contain a basic outline of what's there. A site map should be an additional page, desperately necessary for larger web sites. The start site, however, should be a one-glance navigation instrument, as well as a one-glance introduction to your site. The start page is like your front porch, or like the reception room in your office. Make it tidy, simple and effective. And if you are going for absolute beauty, you may create an additional entrance page; followed by the start page. Just take my site as an example for that.

August 5th, 2001

8: Navigation

Ships without sufficient navigation instruments can easily get lost at sea. Hikers who go into the wilderness without a compass and a map may very well get lost, too. But those are cases where the lost persons have some responsibility for having lost their way. Yet people who get lost on web sites, don't do so out of their own mistakes, at least not in most cases. People usually get lost on web sites due to a faulty web site architecture.

A web site can be like a maze. Treat it like that. Help your visitors find their way in and out. That's very easy in most cases, too easy, some seem to think. Of course you yourself know your site by heart. An outsider doesn't have that kind of privilege - so you should provide them with some guidance.

The most important things to know in a maze are: Where am I? How can I get back? How do I get to place XYZ? All these questions can be answered by sticking to some kind of rudimentary corporate design. That could be nothing else but providing your pages with your logo, linked to your start page. On the start page you would find your navigation, or a link to a more complete site map. That's it for simpler sites.

For more complex sites, you have to think like a city planner. You have a center of town, that's the start page. And you have various neighborhoods, each 'hood deserving a small city center of their own. Create sub-start-pages for different sections, thus providing your site with a hierarchical structure. On top of that structure, there should be your start page. Going down, you would meet the section start pages and deeper down the individual content pages. Always make sure to show the way back, or rather, up. The "back"-button of the web browser is no sufficient alternative at all.

You can also create alternative navigations throughout related sub-sites. But all those elements should be secondary to your main thread of navigation.

August 5th, 2001

9: Congruence and Transparence

For larger sites, i.e. those with more than perhaps 20 pages, a corporate layout should constitute an utter necessity, for a whole range of reasons. The larger the site, the more diverse the content, the easier a possible visitor could lose perspective, could get lost. Overview and a sense of place, however, are the key elements for making a visitor feel at home at your site. When the content changes, the layout must stay the same, must be predictable, more or less. While uniformity may seem a bit of a narrow frame, seemingly restricting your urge to express yourself, it can rather be of some help to actually further your sense of expression. A constant layout can actually canalize your thoughts, relieving you from the pain to make everything different, and letting you concentrate on the content, not the form, once the form has been established.

That is not to say that such a form should be totally uniform throughout the entire site. Yet certain elements should be in the same place on every page: your logo, some description as to where you are (like a location bar helping a visitor backtrace the logical structure), and a footer consisting of text links to your most important pages and/or sections.

In the greater scope of the internet, establishing a corporate layout is becoming an even more pressing necessity. It is quite easy to just leave your site by clicking away or entering a new URL. In an ordinary internet session, a user would browse through various sites, eventually perhaps hitting yours. If you want them to stay, or dig deeper into your content, you should make the stay as pleasant - and recognizable - as possible. Your site, that means all pages, should stick out in contrast to others. And they should look as competent as possible - making visitors trust your sincerity to provide them with what they are looking for, and making them want more.

You need to build the visitor's trust, making them value your presence as worthwile - which is especially important if you want them to do business with you. A transparent and decent web site architecture will make the best impression to that end. And even if you are just planning to offer some information or opinions, with no real commercial agenda, you would want to look as appealing as possible. Professionality is never a bad choice.

August 6th, 2001

10: Style

The key to achieving professionality seems to be maintaining a fine line between utter seriosity (equaling boredom) and some kind of a playful need to express your artistic side. A corporate layout needn't be boring, needn't be repetitive. It can be designed so that it includes some elements of variety. Make parts of your site stand out against others, provide different sections with a specific, yet still integrated touch of difference.

The fancier the tools at your disposal, the more difficult it usually gets to restrict yourself to the absolute necessary. It is nice to have animated gifs, frames, flash or shockwave elements, background sounds, lots of colors and backgrounds etc. to choose from. That doesn't mean you should use all of that, or any. Every technical gimmick needs a reason to be applied. That reason should be determined by the objective of your site, the bandwith you want to use, how long you want your visitors to wait till your pages have completed loading, and whether or not you intent to look like a complete retard. And no, proof-reading is none of the tools you should ignore.

Style has nothing to do with extravagant tastes or some élitist kind of high-brow, neo-aristocratic attitude. Style is something beyond those kinds of attitudes, nor is style an item of luxury. Not just in web site design, but here specifically, style directly translates into your success.

August 6th, 2001

11: Closure?

So now you have your web site, now it is done, now you can lean back and watch. Think again. The web is about immediacy, about up-to-date information, also about the possibility to send feedback to the author. An active web presence isn't just one that is technically available. It needs regular maintenance, additions, corrections, dedication.

Also, technological standards change over time, the solutions of today may not serve tomorrow. But that shouldn't dissuade you from your web site project. Technology is always already outdated the time it has come into existence. There's always something newer, something better. But some things that work have a relatively long life, so for the next years, you should be okay with your solution. However, the bigger your site gets, the harder you should be thinking about a technically more advanced option than just HTML files, like database solutions, active server pages and things like that.

You may think a web site's quite a hassle, and maybe it isn't worth it. It is. It's also the cheapest way to get heard, to make your ideas available to the public. And it is the one solution you can control in quite an easy way.

August 6th, 2001

© Phil John Kneis. all rights reserved   · - internet diary · poetry · serial photography
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