Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rule #1 - The Web is not on paper

People who have done design work on paper documents often have a hard time making the transition to the web. The web is a fundamentally different medium, for better and for worse. A good designer will use a medium--any medium--to its best advantage, and will minimize its weaknesses.

You cannot control layout on the web; trying to do so will ensure that some readers will not be able to use your pages at all. HTML is a structuring language that lets you give hints about presentation, but the final presentation is a combination of your document plus the reader's browser, the reader's preferences, and the reader's window size for the browser. All of these latter items are out of your control.

This doesn't mean that everything you know about layout is useless; you can still do things such as flowing text around an image and adding white space. For examples of pages which use white space, and yet are durable enough to work well in different browsers and in different window sizes, take a look at WebTech Net Solutions' website. Feel free to look at the source, too; you'll find that the HTML mark-up is pretty conservative.

The web is a hypertext environment. Paper documents can only begin to approach the possibilities, through such things as indexes, tables of contents, and cross-references. Web documents can bring these tools to life by providing live links that go immediately to the referenced topic.

At present, the web is accessed almost entirely through computer screens. This does have its drawbacks; screens have much lower resolution and sharpness than paper. They are also harder for many people to read for other reasons. Typographical controls should be approached with great restraint, especially when it comes to body text in your documents. Readers should be able to select a font style and size that are comfortable for their reading conditions; as a designer, if you override these choices, you may be degrading the reading conditions for the most important person in your life--the person who reads your pages.

Another important use of the web is searching, and how you code your documents does affect their accessibility to search engines. <meta> tags are important for providing the right information to search engines, but the search robots will read the rest of your document as well. Some things simply won't be available to the robots, such as text in images (alt text is important here) and words which are split by mark-up embedded in the words (e.g., drop caps).