Network: Web Design

The Web requires those who create for it to think beyond the edge of the page
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The Independent Culture
Today I want to talk about a pressing issue for Web designers everywhere: how to get a job doing this stuff. Despise it or not, we all have to make a living, and the Web is increasingly being used to do just that. If you are coming to Web design with an amateur's zeal, just finished your degree in design, or have been in the business for years, working on the Web presents challenges not found in any other field.

We are used to seeing design on the static surface of paper, but the Web requires those who create for it to think beyond the edge of the page. You have to know how to construct a synergistic design that brings the information to the visitor with minimal fuss and download time. Sometimes, if you already have experience in design, this means unlearning tried and tested methods used in other media.

The Web has generated a new hypertextual medium. However, it is still being developed, and there are often no cut and dried answers to our design problems. This is hard for many people outside the field, especially in the business world, to grasp. They want a website that works anywhere, at any time, and knock the socks off anyone who glances at it.

It does not help that often the people hiring and supervising these Web designers really do not get the Web. More than likely, managers will come from fields outside of the Web (print, TV, CD-Rom) and their expectations are based around the abilities of older media.

There is plenty of work in the field but, ironically, many employers want to see "job experience". I've even seen job ads looking for "10 years' Web experience" - obviously written by somebody without a clue about the Web, which has been in existence for about six years in total.

If you are new to the field, you need to build a portfolio of Web work any way you can. Start by creating your own self-promotional website, and take on pro-bono work for small organisations such as schools and charities. They'll be happy for the support, and you get the practice.

So, how do you get a job as a Web designer? Here are the important skills and talents you need, in addition to basic design skills.

HTML It goes without saying that you will need to know HTML, and there are more sources for learning it than I could possibly list here. One of my favourite sites is the Bare Bones Guide to HTML (http://werbach.com/barebones/).

Scripting You should at least be familiar with what CGI is, and know enough JavaScript to liven up your site and also control its layout. I learned a lot from the JavaScript Tip of the Week site (http://webreference.com/javascript).

Graphic formats and colour Some graphics should be JPEG, others GIF. A good Web designer has to know how to get the best quality while keeping file sizes as small as possible. This balancing act takes some experience and a lot of testing. Lynda Wyenmann's site (http:// www.lynda. com/) is indispensable for understanding and dealing with graphics and colour.

User interface design With printed materials, the user interface is straightforward: table of contents, index, page numbers. The Web requires a lot more thinking, though; you can't just link pages together with no thought as to how they will be accessed. Netscape's DevEdge recently published an enlightening article on this topic (http://developer.netscape.com/news/ viewsource/archive/editor7_9.html).

Cascading style sheets CSS will soon become as indispensable as HTML to Web designers, partly because the big browser manufacturers are now pushing it as part of "Dynamic" HTML, but mostly because it takes Web layout beyond the simplicity of basic HTML to the levels expected by professional designers. Next week I will begin a multi-part series exploring the nuts and bolts of CSS: what it is, what it does, and how you can use it in your Web designs.

Note: I recently suffered a catastrophic system crash and lost all of my e-mail for the last three months. If you have written to me recently and not had a response, please write me again, and I'll try to get back ASAP. My new e-mail address is: indy_webdesign@mindspring.com

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