The Internet's World Wide Web makes it easy to create an attractive digital monument to who you are and what you're all about. But this wonderfully enabling technology also can make it easy, for individuals and organizations alike, to create monuments that are just plain ugly.
Whether you're putting together a homespun home page made up of just a few screens or overseeing a multi-leveled, multi-media-rich corporate site, you should keep in mind the principles of good Web design. Keep in mind that when it come to the Web, nothing is set in stone. But there's a definite consensus about what works and what doesn't. You can find many of these kinds of design tips on the Web itself.
It all boils down to respecting people's time, valuing the Web's diversity, and striving for consistency and creativity.
• Respect people's time. Until high-speed Internet access from the cable and telephone companies becomes widespread, don't bog down your site with over-large, bandwidth-clogging graphics. Confronted with huge images that paint on their screens at glacial speed, many visitors will quickly move on to another site.
One rule of thumb is that no single graphic should be larger than 25 to 50 kilobytes, and no single page should include more than 200 kilobytes of graphics in total, unless absolutely necessary. If you need to include a large, detailed image, first provide readers with a smaller, thumbnail-size version, so they know if seeing the larger image is worth their time.
The same principle applies to multi-media elements. Give visitors the option of receiving any sizable Java applets or Shockwave movies.
If part of your site still is under construction, don't create a link to it yet. Those "Under Construction" signs just waste visitors' time.
• Value the Web's diversity. Surfers use a surfeit of computers, screen resolutions, browsers and connection methods. A mistake some companies have made is farming out their Web designs to advertising agencies that create sites that look great on a 21-inch monitor over an internal Intranet but are virtually unusable for most dial-in Internet users.
Though graphical browsers from Netscape and Microsoft get the lion's share of the attention these days, many people still use text-based browsers such as Lynx. And some people who use graphical browsers disable graphics for faster surfing.
So, if you use clickable images or image maps as navigational tools, make sure you also include text-based links on the same page. Also, test your pages using different browsers and screen resolutions to make sure that what looks slick with one doesn't look incoherent with another.
• Strive for consistency and creativity. Starter documents, or templates, in Web design programs make it easier than in the past to create a professional-looking site. Among other things they help you impart a consistent style for headlines, text, navigational aids and headers and footers. But if you don't add any originality to the stock design, your site may look cookie-cutter boring.
On the other hand, don't be annoying in trying to be creative. It's easy to overdo it with busy backgrounds and glitzy ornaments. A colored or textured background should never make the text difficult to read. Likewise, dancing buttons, blinking text and other bells and whistles can draw too much attention to themselves and detract from the overall effect.
Web design today is in a similar place that desktop publishing occupied when it emerged 10 years ago. Ordinary people now have extraordinary tools to look good. But these same tools, if not used wisely, can make you look exceedingly bad.
• Keep things in perspective. Some of my graphic designer friends might argue this point, but bear in mind that content is king. This is just the latest rendition of the old appearance versus substance dualism. Both count. But, ultimately, what you say is more important than how you say it. No matter how good your design is, the key to a Web site's success is the information you provide.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.