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Network: Web Design - He who prepares, wins

Designing a website is a lot like putting together pieces in a jigsaw puzzle
YOUR BOSS wants you to create a website with about 15 pages. The catch is, she needs it by tomorrow afternoon. What do you do? Panic? Quit?

No. Just follow these four easy steps, and your site will be up and running in no time:

1) Plan

Before you even glance at your computer, you first need to sit down and plan out several aspects of the site. Designing websites is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece must fit and link together perfectly to form a uniform picture. Ideally, the elements sit together on the page - text, colours, backgrounds and graphics - each component in the overall design fitting together seamlessly. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you can't force the pieces together. Well, actually you can, but you get the same results in both cases: a big mess. Planning your site before you start coding away may seem like a waste of precious time, but it will save time in the long run.

Define the audience. I can't stress this enough: know your audience. Even for a small project, you need to know who is going to be using it and what they are looking for so that you can better serve their needs when planning the site navigation and layout.

Define and gather the content. The content is the meat of your site (www.webbedenvironments.com/60.html). You need to collect all of the text, graphics, and anything else that will be included on the pages of the site.

Define the navigation. If the site is only a few pages, then you can get away with a single navigational menu. But you may need to separate the various pages into sections and use a main menu and sub-menus. Look at the content and see if you can group different pages together into like categories. These categories will form your main menu, with each page represented in sub-menus.

Create a quick flow chart of how the visitor will navigate through the different pages of the site, giving a brief (just a few words) description of what will be going on each page. You should also include the name of the HTML file for that page so that you can reference the flow chart later when you are putting the site together.

Sketch what a typical page should look like. You can do this in a graphics program, such as Photoshop or Freehand, or you can use pencil and paper. You don't have to go into a lot of detail. The important thing is to plan where the various elements of your layout are going to fit into the page (www.webbedenvironments.com/65.html). For speed, you should try to make all of the pages in the site conform to the same layout.

Get feedback. It's important to get input at this point from whomever you are making this site for to make sure that this is what they want. There is nothing worse than coding a hundred Web pages only to have your boss tell you that it's not what she wanted.

2) Create

Now you are ready to code. Create a template: using your favourite HTML editor, follow the sketch that you made in the planning stage. Create the menus with links, add logos or other graphics that will appear on every page, and use dummy text for your content. This will help you see how the text works on the page before you put in the final content. You should also include notes in your HTML showing where the different parts of the page begin and end. After you have finished testing the template, and are satisfied that it works perfectly, save it as TEMPLATE.html. Creating a template not only saves you time while you are creating the site, it does so later if you need to go back and add pages.

Set up your file structure. Make a copy of the template file for each page in the site using the flow chart you created as a guide. You can now test your navigation and make any adjustments.

Add the content. If you are lucky, all of the text and graphic content is already in digital format, and all you will have to do is copy and paste. If not, I hope you have a good scanner and can type quickly. The clock is ticking.

3) Test

Go through your site with a fine-tooth comb.

Navigation. Check each link to make sure that it not only goes somewhere, but that it goes to the right place. Most good HTML editors will warn you if a link is invalid, but no program can know whether you slipped up and used the wrong URL.

Look for spelling mistakes and typos. Again, most HTML editors will have a spell-checker, but they cannot catch everything.

Before the site goes live, get feedback from the people you are making the site for. Have them check for mistakes as well. You are probably sleep- deprived from staying up all night to finish this thing.

4) Deploy

The final step is to put your site out into the wild. But even though you have tested the site while it sat on your hard drive, always test the navigation again when it is online.

General Tips:

Don't try anything new. Go with what you know. You are under a deadline; now is not the time to teach an old dog new tricks.

Use as few graphics as possible. Graphics can eat up a lot of your time. Use HTML text for your menus and titles. If you want to add a little colour to your pages, use table background colours and Cascading Style Sheets.

Use CSS to control typography. Use it instead of tags to control the appearance of text on the screen. This can save you a lot of time, not only because it will cut down on coding, but when your boss says she wants the headers to be green instead of blue, all you have to do is make a change in one file instead of every page.

Jason Cranford Teague is a senior information architect at iXL and the author of `DHTML for the World Wide Web'. If you have questions, you can find an archive of this column at Webbed Environments (HYPERLINK http://www.webbed environments.com) or e-mail him at jason@webbed environments.com