One mistake that many people make with their first websites is that they try to treat their websites as they would print media. This means that every effort is made to control the visual experience and little use is made of hypertext and the interactivity the web offers. For example, Dutch building company Verwelius has a website that must be an exact translation of a print brochure. In no particular order, here are some thoughts on web design, hopefully particularly useful for those more knowledgeable about print design:
- Sites can’t control the order in which viewers see their pages. With printed documents people usually read them starting at the first page and ending at the last one, but this is rarely the case for websites. For many small sites, the majority of their traffic comes from Google and other search engines. Search engines direct users to specific pages, so often users will never see the ‘front’ or ‘main’ page of the site. Therefore, every page should be able to stand on its own without any context that following a pathway the site creates developed might give.
- Every user will see the site differently. Some users have 800 x 600 pixel displays and are running Internet Explorer 5.5 in Windows, others may view the site using Firefox 2.02 on a Linux machine with two 2560 x 1600 pixel displays. Operating system, screen resolution, web browser type and version – all these things can contribute to make the same website look differently on two different machines. Thus the design demands are very different for a web designer than for a print designer. A print designer making a brochure, for example, knows almost all the display details beforehand: they know the weight and type of paper, the colour tones, the paper dimensions, the printing process, and they know that, baring printing errors their fonts and images will be displayed correctly. There is no such certainty in web design. Thus the layout and design of a web page should be one of ratios and relationships, rather than specific distances. A successful web design acknowledges the inherent uncertainty of what the page will be displayed and embraces flexibility.
- Sacrifices will have to be made. Fonts are nice and a well-designed font used to support the text it is displaying can be very powerful. Unfortunately there are very few fonts that can be found across all computers. While various workarounds exist, there is no complete solution. Using a digital non-text format that allows including fonts, such as Flash or even plain images, is at best an inadequate solution as it often has a negative impact on usability.
- The designer has much more power than in print. This may seem counter-intuitive after the previous points but whatever may be lost in fidelity to the designer’s original aesthetic vision is, in my opinion, more than made up for by the interactive and multimedia elements designers can create on webpages. Most users won’t notice that you’ve gotten that line spacing exactly perfect and consistent on all browsers but they will notice interesting, useful and interactive site features. Users can switch around a page’s contents, change font sizes, and turn the background bright purple. The webdesigner is an enabler, helping people gather and experience media in an optimal way.
- HTML means HyperText Markup Language. When a designer writes a web page, they are writing in a specific language (HTML) how hypertext should be marked up. Put perhaps more simply, they are creating hypertext – that is, text with rich characteristics, including links to other text and media. At the simplest this means that liberal use should be made of links (though this would be too much). The relatively frequent use of links enables web site viewers to easily find the content they desire and allows the designer to provide additional information without cluttering up the page or forcing it upon those who are not interested in it.
- Let Users Leave. In a misguided effort to keep users, sites sometimes open links to third-party sites in a pop-up window or within a frame. While both methods are sometimes useful, it is best to avoid them whenever possible. That way users’ expectations for hyperlinks are not contradicted and users are not annoyed. If your site is good, then users will come back.