Great sights but few insights

December 12, 1997

WEBSITE GRAPHICS. By Willem Velthoven and Jorinde Seijdel. Thames and Hudson, 192pp, Pounds 29.95. - ISBN 0 500 01788 3

Design as cookery is the metaphor chosen by Nathan Shedroff for his introductory chapter, "Recipe for a successful website" Visually, the book itself is a feast, but less rewarding in nourishment and depth of flavour.

A book on this subject is needed desperately. Most of the books about the construction of pages and sites for the World Wide Web are confined to technical instruction; it is a pleasure at last to see the visual design of websites given the importance it deserves. Each of 40 websites, grouped in six categories, is illustrated in full colour, with extended captions and a commentary.

It is the commentaries that disappoint, through two weaknesses: one arises from the book's structure, the other from the authors' reluctance to question their own assumptions about the nature of design.

The structural difficulty is that the 40 sites are reviewed by eight contributors, none of whom has an opportunity to develop an argument. This is not overcome by the introductory articles, which might have synthesised key points from the reviews but instead are discussions of general themes: the resulting book is not so much edited as assembled. Interesting remarks made in the commentaries are not developed. So Geert J. Strengholt comments on the Ars Electronica site: "The clarity of navigation successfully prevents you from getting lost" but there is no indication of how this impression of clarity was achieved. Max Bruinsma's introduction to the Art and Culture category hints at promising territory: "It is striking that this new medium is so often used in a nostalgic and melancholy way," and, "There is one thing you cannot do in hypermedia: improvise (directly) with the material", but these issues are not pursued.

The other reason this book is less than the pleasure it might have been is its reluctance to consider the implications of the Web for our attitudes to design. Willem Velthoven promises much with his title, "Designing senses: a proposal for an approach to interactive design", and there is certainly potential in his idea of interaction design as providing the computer with additional sense faculties, but his concluding suggestion is no more than that websites could, by storing profiles of users, provide them with custom facilities on successive visits.

What are the key issues facing website designers? One is surely the tension between the graphic designer's desire to dictate the exact look of the screen, and the flexibility originally intended for the World Wide Web. Designers with a print background are horrified when they discover that users may resize the window, set different text sizes, and choose not to install fonts. Another is the "depth" of websites: the designer who considers only the look of each screen and not the site structure and the interactions which take place there is not a competent web designer. In print, the structures are normally given, but in the Web they must be invented. And what of maintenance? A website design must not be so brittle it cannot adapt and grow.

These issues are covered, if at all, by passing references. Sophie Greenfield comments on the Espritdomain site (www2. espritdomain.com/setup/ base.html) that "The Nautilus shell serves as a powerful graphic and metaphoric structure for the Esprit website". This is not really a comment on the structure but on the graphic: the shell is surrounded by an elegant spiral array of clickable options, which presumably must be recreated from scratch whenever there are changes to the organisation of the site.

Even the vital issue of balancing eye-candy with efficiency, trying to achieve more with less data, is hardly touched on. The structure of the book hinders the emergence of comparisons, so that no contrast is drawn between sites which use huge graphics and are only designed to work properly in one browser, and others as elegant as Poem Navigator (www.khm. de/merel) which exploits the usual furniture of the Web page - specifically tables - to make something new and surprising.

The book serves two valuable purposes. It provides a snapshot of website design now, and as such will be invaluable to historians when these sites no longer exist. It also provides designers with a rich store of visual material which dispels any idea that the Web is too uniform and inflexible to allow the designer significant opportunities.

One has only to look at the differences between the grid-based "virtual brochure" approach of the Audi site (www.audi.de) and the deep, darkly textural photographic pages by Auriea Harvey (www.entropy8.com) to witness the extent to which this medium has been brought within the designer's grasp.

The book does not succeed in identifying what constitutes good website design, but it is a valuable signpost to a range of sites which anyone interested in the future of the Web ought to look at, even if they dislike what they find there.

Stephen Boyd Davis is principal lecturer, design for interactive media, Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University.

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