Virtual visionaries net a new identity

Layout - Designing Online Identities - Web Design Basics - WWW Design: Flash - Personal Web Sites
October 10, 2003

Construction of websites is one of the few areas involving design where experts and non-experts alike are expected to share and contribute to the same public arena. Design professionals with decades of experience, computer experts with detailed technical expertise and novices with web-authoring software can all produce webpages that represent a window on their work to a potential global audience. These books tackle design on and for the web from a number of perspectives. They range from collections of minimally critiqued web pages that act as source books, through "how to" collections of HTML techniques, to profiles and interviews with artists and designers who use the web. All five books share a broad design-oriented perspective and are large-format, lavishly illustrated, full-colour texts.

Elisabeth Heinicke's Layout: Fast Solutions for Hands-On Design tackles issues of web design from a comparatively technical "how to" point of view. It is part of Rockport's Web Tricks and Techniques series and provides constructive advice on controlling various aspects of layout on the webpage. It is divided into six sections concentrating on basic HTML techniques, controlling layout with tables, techniques for facilitating navigation, use of frames, opening with splash pages and cascading style sheets (CSS). The book assumes some knowledge of HTML and would not be appropriate as a primer in the language. Detailed discussion of HTML language issues is delegated to a support website.

The organisation of the book is a little haphazard. For example, in the section on text and fonts, there is a brief discussion on appropriate nesting of HTML tags. While this may be useful information for the web designer, it tends to lead the reader to ask repeatedly "where did I read about X?". Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by the lack of an index.

Of most concern is the book's somewhat dated approach to page construction.

Heinicke's liking for tweaking HTML font tags using transparent Gif images to control spacing typifies an approach that leads to unmaintainable code and is reminiscent of the vogue in webpage construction five years ago. For a book that is concerned primarily with layout, the lack of any detail on how this can be controlled with CSS files is glaring.

A contrasting approach to web design is taken by Clay Andres in Designing Online Identities . Here, there is very little discussion of technical issues of page construction, but rather an emphasis on the way page design decisions influence our perception of the brand or product they represent.

The book deconstructs 30 or so relatively high-profile websites, all of which have been selected to illustrate a particular aspect of branding a product or service. The first five chapters of the book consider different objectives of the web-design process, such as brand recognition, the navigational context, content delivery and customer experience. The second half of the book looks at different approaches to branding offered by "classic brands", "boutique brands", dotcom, e-commerce, self-branding and non-profit brands.

Of the books reviewed in this collection, Andres' is the most explicitly North American in outlook. Its selection of websites from the SuperBowl and Coca-Cola to the Washington Post all benefit from a knowledge of these US-based, sometimes transnational brands. This raises one of the problems with web branding in a global internet context - how an internationally accessible information resource can be made relevant to all users. It is a pity this aspect is not considered.

While discussion tends to steer clear of technical page-creation issues, it does raise some important considerations, such as the fragility of relying on "cutting-edge" DHTML type techniques that require high maintenance as web browsers change versions. The usefulness of the book lies in Andres'

ability to generalise these issues and present a coherent argument about how many aspects of graphic design and web technologies can be employed to control the user experience when interacting over the web.

Glenn Fleishman, Toby Malina and Jeff Carlson use a similar approach, cataloguing a set of real web pages to provide the structure for their narrative in Web Design Basics . The book covers three separate aspects of design - the use of colour, type and navigation. Each section is given a short one-page introduction, the substance is made up of large format, full-colour reproductions of pages from the web with short references (URL, illustrators, design firms, programmers, programming platform and so on) and two or three-sentence commentaries highlighting a particular aspect of the page. Typically, each book page concentrates on a single site, with one or two reproductions from it.

A collection of this nature that contains very little explicit analysis by the authors relies heavily on the quality and arrangement of selected sites. If chosen and ordered well, complex and useful ideas can be explored. Apart from the three major sections of the book, there is no obvious ordering or structure to the selected sites and the narrative associated with each page is largely independent of all others. This makes the book best suited to browsing since much searching is required by the reader wishing to concentrate on a particular aspect of colour, type or navigation. The two-page index listing the website companies illustrated, rather than any design themes or techniques, limits the book to use as general inspiration rather than a source of reference.

One weakness in the collection of chosen sites stems from the problems of representing dynamic electronic media with ink on paper. Discussion of the use of colour is illustrated by screenshots that clearly have a different impact when seen on the printed page. While the URL of each illustrated page is given, almost all either have changed since being printed, or no longer exist (many seem to be from about 1997-98). This makes parallel online exploration difficult or impossible. Without detailed coverage in the book, it is hard to explore the dynamics of navigation without an online source. This contrasts with Andres' collection, where the detailed commentary gives more purpose to the illustrations.

Somewhere between the parsimonious commentary of Fleishman et al and the detailed analysis of Andres lies Daniel Donnelly's WWW Design: Flash . Again the format of this book is that of an anthology, with some commentary and creation details for each selected site. Unusually, the examples are structured by geography, containing sections on Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. This is one of the few collections that allows the reader to examine the effect of national cultural influences on a supposed global borderless medium.

The text tends to steer clear of the arguments for and against using Flash in webpages, although it does acknowledge the blandness and repetition offered by far too many Flash sites. The examples chosen in this collection tend to be selected precisely because of their diversity and in many cases unFlash-like appearance. Overall, this is a useful collection of examples with sufficiently detailed commentary to make the book a worthwhile design resource.

Finally, Personal Web Sites by Joe Shepter takes an altogether different perspective on website design. He explores the subculture of personal websites created by designers and artists selling nothing other than their web identities and representation. They are not explicitly portfolios, nor are they homepages. The book likens these sites to graffiti - "another art form that is easily dismissed... something few people take seriously, but is as refined an art as any and requires many skills".

The book considers 32 artists' work, along with profiles and brief interviews. It explores the interface between art and design, and structures the work into six sections: emotional, narrative, experimental, exploration, collaboration and portals. High-quality colour illustrations, along with discussion of artists' motivations and purposes, provide a compelling insight into the web as an artistic medium. It gives the reader a glimpse of this often hidden and rich source of truly original creative energy.

Jo Wood is senior lecturer in geographic information, City University, London.

Layout: Fast Solutions for Hands-On Design

Author - Elisabeth Heinicke
Publisher - Rockport
Pages - 160
Price - £35.00 and £25.00
ISBN - 1 56496 902 9 and 859 6

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