Web page design

First published in the Solicitors Journal, July 1996.

Time was when most Web sites looked pretty boring. It was exciting enough just being on the Web as a newbie using a basic Mosaic browser, and the lack of design evident in most Websites was… well …just the way it was.

Then came the phenomenally successful Netscape which has transformed the face of the Web. With an 80 per cent share of the browser market, Netscape has made most of the running, introducing new features in versions 2 and 3; before the paint is even dry version 4 is being released in beta.

While HTML purists may wince at the mangling the original standard has undergone, few would argue that the sophisticated publishing demands of the new marketplace could wait for the development of HTML through committee. It is undoubtedly the case that the Netscape extensions have done much to improve the look and feel of many Websites.

At the same time, with the increasing commercialisation of the Web, more professional designers have been brought in and many sites now sport a gloss to rival the brochures and magazines they seek to emulate.

Are looks all-important?

But are we, as consumers, really better off for this new layer of design? Are looks all-important? Do these designs actually work?

One of the fundamentals of Web publishing is that the publisher does not have control over how the pages are viewed, and what the end-user sees is often markedly different from what the designer saw when creating the page. A Website may be attractive and effective when viewed on a large, high-resolution screen, with the latest beta version of Netscape running on a turbo-charged processor and accessed over a high-speed ISDN connection; that same site may fail dismally to impress the average user with equipment of a more modest specification.

Even the most basic of page design elements – the fonts used for text and headings – can be altered by the user’s browser, significantly altering the ‘original’.

The way a designer can exercise control over pages is through the use of graphics, but here of course, we run into the biggest problem affecting the Web – download speed. Even one small graphic file can be several time larger than the basic HTML text file for the page, increasing download time substantially. Many’s the site I have left in frustration because of interminable delays while graphic after graphic loads; many’s the graphic I have never seen because I have cancelled ‘Auto-load inline images’. I am not alone.

We’re now coming across many sites using Netscape frames (independently scrollable areas on screen, each holding a separate Web page). This is not new – frames have been around all of nine months! Now, this must be a good idea, mustn’t it? Well, not in my experience. All that happens is I am now forced to view a page in an area about half the size of the full screen and the ‘Back’ button doesn’t do what it should on some sites.


And finally, a look back at some really naff design features best avoided – all beginning with B:

  • baubles – coloured balls have had their day
  • bangles – coloured rules likewise, particularly the rainbow kind
  • blinking text! – you’ve said it; a misguided notion if ever there was one
  • background colours – maybe OK in high resolution; otherwise they can be Very Ghastly and Awful, white excepted
  • background textures and images – whoever thinks it’s a good idea to make text more difficult to read needs their head examined

End byte

The Society for Computers and Law is publishing a number of features on its Website to tie in with its new Internet Interest Group meetings