Article for netConnect, a supplement to Library Journal, by Leo Robert Klein (pub. date 7/1/2000).
Slashdot (1), the popular news and discussion site for programmers, web developers and peripatetic librarians, recently hosted a discussion on web design with Jeffrey Zeldman. Zeldman, billed by Slashdot as a "Web Design Luminary", is well known for his work on A List Apart(2) and the Web Standards Project (WaSP)(3) among other things.
The topic after all was web design. How could something so seemingly innocuous as web design provoke such a reaction?
One reason might be that increasingly web design, at least among the online community, is something that everyone has an opinion on. Time was when issues like design and layout passed many of us by without a second thought. It's hard to imagine a letter to the editor at Time or Newsweek bemoaning the "cardinal sins" committed by either magazine over the past fifty or so years on the subject of design--on other subjects, yes, but not design. It's harder still to imagine such a letter concluding "and because of this you ought to be hounded out of business."
In the library context, flyers went out, pathfinders were printed, people would check for typos and that would be it. Few pieces would ever come back marked "aesthetically unacceptable and impossible to use."
But now we are all designers in a sense. That is what the Web's success has made of us. We're likely to have an opinion either as developers or users on good design, bad design, no design. It's in our blood. We are all connoisseurs.
The irony is that the medium is so new and the goal posts so much in flux that hard and fast rules are hard to come by--assuming that hard and fast rules for something like design are at all desirable.
The truth is we are all amateurs. There is nothing on the Web today which we can point to with any amount of assurance and say, this is the final word. We simply don't know. Instead, we toss about like tourists in the Nineteenth Century looking for a Baedeker to show us the way. Only the Baedeker has yet to come out. Maybe it never will.
So while we are all connoisseurs, at the same time our sensibility--the sensibility we need to appreciate the subtlety and nuances of our trade--is still under construction. Hence the rancor, much of it mindless, at Slashdot.
People love simplicity. Simplicity sells. When we go to a Web guru we don't want to hear that the world is complicated and full of contradictions, we want to hear what it takes to make our web site a success and if it takes ten steps instead of ten thousand so much the better. Thus we naturally gravitate to those with a simpler message if for no better reason than we are beginners and looking for a place to start.
We also naturally gravitate to those whose message appeals most to our way of thinking, to our own tastes and predilections. The Web has a wonderful way of being all things to all people. To people interested in databases, it's a result set with sundry trimmings. To geeks used to the rigors of a text-based Unix operating system, it's a kind of glorified telnet with hyperlinks. To kids, it's a place for games. To library users, it's a cornucopia of full-text articles.
To somehow come up with a universal formula encompassing all these needs and expectations is a daunting task--particularly where there is no established body of work to draw on. In the absence of such a body, any authority is as good as any other--all being equally fresh to the topic--and quite a few are bound to appear rather silly as time goes on. This prospect should deter any would-be arbiter out there. Ironically, just the opposite is true: the vacuum in our experience seems to encourage pronouncements of sometimes breath-taking proportions.
Disputes over the relative merits of one site over another abound. A case in point is a dispute on one of the designer lists a while back on what was the better site, data-driven automobile site Edmunds.com or Ford.com. Edmunds.com was clearly better, ran one side of the argument, because it told the potential buyer more about cars--even Fords. Ford.com was better, ran the other side, because it wasn't selling facts and figures but the "idea" of a Ford.
This kind of form over function debate has gone on since the dawn of time but some in the Edmunds.com group weren't willing to leave it at that. Marketing, particularly flashy marketing with all the bells and whistles, has no place on the Internet, claimed one individual. And why? Because the Internet is new and just plain different.
It takes a certain leap in faith to believe in this country (of all countries) that marketing, flashy or otherwise, will have no role on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is "new and just plain different" and the wisdom of the ages no longer applies but we can suspend our disbelief only so far.
The above statement is an example of the daily, almost hourly, discussion taking place all over the Net on what we should expect from the Web either as developers or users. It is also an indication of the distance the discussion sometimes runs from reality. In fact, it's something of a drop in the bucket as far as assertions go. Let's take a look at a few more examples.
The Web is Like Nothing We've Ever Seen Before
This is in fact where the statement above on Edmunds.com draws its strength. The corollary is usually, "And forget whatever you know up to now." Typically the statement is used as an encouragement for listeners to drop their preconceptions in order to make way for the preconceptions of the speaker making claim to it.
My Code Validates at W3C.org
For some reason, this one comes up every once and a while in the context of Web design. It's hard to say why. The W3C.org is a standards body heavily involved with everything from HTML to Cascading Style Sheets. They offer a validation service which ought to be the friend of everyone developing Web pages(5). The service makes no claim to validating design however--only code.
Flashy Graphics are a Gimmick
This one is really code language. It really means the speaker ought to be spending more time with graphics and the tools of producing graphics. A person with a bit more experience wouldn't obsess about it--file size, yes, but "flashy"?
The problem with most of the above and with a host of others like them is that they can only go so far. They tell us very little about the process of actually designing and developing a web site once we get beyond the "design by numbers" phase. Nevertheless the tendency is to fill up whole guides on Web development with nothing but a series of "Thou Shall Not's" and then to attract followers all clamoring for an exact adherence to whatever the rules happen to be. This hardly makes for an environment open to innovation and growth. It's also awfully difficult to build a site around such a bible and sword approach.
Far better are rules that admit of more shades than pure black and white--rules that will grow as we grow and not poop out at the earliest opportunity. These would include:
Know Thy Tools
Web development is a trade and like any trade it consists of a number of tools which help the practitioner get on with the job. If anyone knows a carpenter or construction worker, they'll know what care is taken in choosing, maintaining, and using the tools. Forget platform wars, people will argue till they're blue in the face over what drill or hammer is better. The same goes for the tools of the trade of Web development. They needn't be learned all at once--in fact, one after the other is usually the best procedure--but allowance should be made for identifying those which are most helpful and for becoming at least to a certain extent proficient in their use.
Appropriate Means to Appropriate Ends
What this entails is thinking about the job at hand--its purpose, the kind of people likely to be using it--and from there selecting the most appropriate means of developing the idea through things like navigation, imagery and choice of technology. In a library context, it shouldn't be surprising if the approach to designing a pathfinder or online quiz is going to be different from the approach to designing, say, a request form or a page on circulation policy. Part of the joys of flittering from one library site to another, is seeing just how these common challenges are handled. If there were just one unique solution, the world would be a far more drab place that it actually is.
This is the counter argument to the non-starter mentioned above, The Web is New so Everything You Know is Useless. Many will be relieved to know that everything they know is not useless. In fact, any Web site--but most particularly a library Web site--is a reflection not only of the professional expertise of the individual or individuals actually developing the site but of the professional knowledge of the people making up the institution. Otherwise, in what way could a library Web site be considered "library"?
On the more immediate level of the designer, this entails an eye for visual coherence; it entails the ability to arrange the various pieces of a page or site be they text or image in a way that successfully expresses a purpose; it entails the ability of the designer to successfully translate this purpose, as mentioned above, given the tools at his or her disposal. Such an ability is hardly exclusive to the Web. In many ways it's as old as the hills--as old as humans have had eyes and have felt the need to express on a flat surface what they see both in the world and in their imagination. It can come as easily from keen observation at a local art museum as from a day-long attendance at some dreary Web conference.
Part of Jeffrey Zeldman's response to his ill-tempered critics and their talk about cardinal sin at Slashdot bares repeating:
Just as in programming, design is about decisions. A designer never sins. He/she makes informed decisions. If you get to know the work, you may understand why those decisions were made. If you never bother to engage with the work--if you merely believe that all design must conform with a small set of rules written by one or two people--you don't understand the nature of the thing you are criticizing.
To understand the "nature of the thing" then requires a certain amount of flexibility. It requires that notions like "commandment" and "sin" be left out of the debate if only because having a splash screen on our site, just to take one example, says nothing about our moral character one way or the other. By treating these issues with the proportionality and thoughtfulness they deserve, we ensure for this new medium a mature and robust future.
(2). A List Apart. <http://www.alistapart.com/>
(3). Web Standards Project. <http://www.webstandards.org/>.
(4). Jeffrey Zeldman Presents. <http://zeldman.com>.
(5). W3C HTML Validation Service. <http://validator.w3.org/>