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Web Design for the 21st Century

  • June 23, 2003
  • By Mark Asher
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"Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge."—Daniel J. Boorstin

Reflect for a moment on the Great Internet Buildout of the late 1990s. It's not hard to wax philosophical about the Web's beginnings, when anyone with a few hours of HTML experience was immediately hired to design Web pages. And who can forget the results? Web sites of the Boom were often a cyberspace food fight of eye candy and over-hyped technology.

These days, most site design is focused on improving and upgrading existing Web sites. As the economy continues to sag, more emphasis has been placed on maintaining what already exists, rather than breaking new ground. So productivity, ROI, and other measures of efficiency have found their way into the lexicon of Web design.

This focus on productivity translates into Web site designs going back to basics. With the end-user in mind, the core purpose of Web sites is to provide information or make transactions quickly, simply, and without the distraction of long animated introductions, distracting visuals, or multi-hyperlink black holes.

Let's take a look at the basics of good Web design, as well as some of the current tools and technologies available to assist you in creating powerful, usable Web sites. We'll also look at some concepts that are out there on the bleeding edge of design theory and browser technology, just to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Good Web Sites Start with Good Web Design

In the heady days of the Buildout, Web designers went straight to page design, building the overall concept and user experience one Web page at a time. Only after all the pages were built were they connected together—the result was usually a mess.

In today's world, most Web designers begin by developing a concept before creating their actual Web pages. Several techniques have evolved to assist in developing a concept, such as wire framing and site architecting. In any of these cases, a designer defines a starting point and then builds out the various parent/child relationships between pages, documents, external links, and so on. In addition, a separate "link framework" can be defined to point to documents or external destinations. And, of course, programmatic elements such as dynamic markup language, database connectivity, and Web service support are now defined before anyone begins building pages.

Like a symphony performance, where the music binds each instrument together in harmony, so does the concept definition bind each participant (graphic designer, copywriter, programmer) together in design harmony. And just as the conductor keeps time and manages the performance, the project manager uses this concept definition to coordinate resources and insure that the Web project moves through its various milestones as scheduled.

Current Web authoring software programs, such as Adobe GoLive, provide Web designers with information architecture, user experience definition, and other design tools. With this kind of toolkit, you can architect a better user experience up front. Whether you create this roadmap for yourself or for a team of graphic artists, designers, and copy editors, a well thought-out Web site design will ensure that your symphony doesn't hit any sour notes.

If you want a glimpse of the future of information architecture, check out a new application by UC Berkeley's Group for User Interface Research called DENIM. This application "sketches" designs and then assists you in hooking them up together, exporting the designs as HTML.

1% Perspiration, 99% Presentation

It seems ironic that a communication medium with the potential to provide rich information to billions of people is designed around tables. Tables are optimized to display tabular data in rigid boxes defined by height and width—which is great if you're reading a spreadsheet but awful if you are trying to have an interactive experience. Sure, we tried frames for a while—we all know which way that went. So what are designers left with?

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) seem to offer the most promise for unchaining design from the restrictions of tables. Simply put, CSS enables designers to separate the style of information from its structure. Typographic elements (fonts, sizes, and so forth), colors, and other design elements are divided into a separate set of HTML that is leveraged for all the data on a page, which helps avoid fatter elements such as image maps. CSS is reusable across multiple pages, which adds to its versatility. CSS Level 2 (CSS2), an upgrade from the original CSS spec that's been in use for several years now, adds additional control and functionality such as "@media," which allows the designer to set specific styles for a specific media type.



Click here for a larger image.

CSS1 took some time to become widely adopted because there were (and continue to be) browser incompatibility issues. While a lot of problems have been fixed, it is still advisable to do thorough browser testing before deploying a CSS-based design. As for CSS2, well, it's still new enough that there are lots of deployment problems, so tread lightly.





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