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Web Design Basics

  |  January 24, 2002   |  Comments

Some people design Web sites that often actively discourage the fundamental activity the Web was designed for. And what is that? Reading.

Web design is primarily concerned with the organization and presentation of text-based content. This requires metadata, classification, navigation, search, layout, and graphic design skills.

A previous article, "Information Architecture Versus Graphical Design," not surprisingly, drew negative feedback from graphics designers. It was rightly pointed out that Web design must embrace both disciplines.

However, I wanted to make a clear point: The role of Web graphic design has been vastly overhyped. It has a function in information architecture, but a minor one. Much more important are the skills of metadata, navigation, and search design.

One designer berated me for not understanding the link between information architecture and graphic design. He accepted that text-based content was indeed the raw material from which most Web sites are built. I was impressed by his argument and decided to visit his Web site.

The Web site was unimpressive. The home page was a playground of moving graphics. Beside the main body of text was a series of large arrows that alternated between moving from left to right and fading in and out of focus. Because of all this movement, trying to read the text on the page was made more difficult.

I have come across this repeatedly from a great many graphic designers. These designers are wedded to what is cool -- to what sparkles, shines, and moves. They design Web sites that often actively discourage the fundamental activity that the Web was designed for. And what is that? Reading.

Let's repeat the word: reading. People spend most of their time on the Web reading. They read a Web page (it is called a "page"). They read search results. They read their way through a purchase process. They read a discussion forum. They read their way through "chat." They read the instructions that allow them to download audio and video.

When designing a Web site, you need to focus on two things over and above everything else:

  • Helping visitors find the information they need as quickly as possible

  • Presenting this information in the most readable format

In Web design, you should plan for rigidity in the organization of the content and flexibility in its layout. For example, once you've placed the "Home" link in the top left-hand corner of your Web site, it should stay there for the next 10 years. That's because your regular visitors will get used to navigating their way around your Web site. Changing navigation will confuse your regular visitors, who, by definition, are your most valuable customers.

Flexibility is required in how content is laid out because the actual content on a Web site should be continuously changing. This week you might wish to push one particular product on your home page. Next week it could be three. Some of your documents may be 500 words long. Some may be 800 words. This requires malleable and flexible page layout. That's one reason why the three-column layout is popular.

If you want to know if your Web site is well designed, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How quickly does it download?

  • How easy is it to navigate?

  • How well does the search work?

  • How readable is the content?


Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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