web design:

Rather than thinking about each 'page' in a Web site as an individual entity, we should be thinking how the burgeoning field of Web design can help us to find our way around the new medium and get the most out of it.

If the title of this column caught your eye you probably already know the ins and outs of the Internet's most popular offshoot, the World Wide Web - either that or you are a severely confused arachnophile. I don't need to tell you why the Web is the most significant new communication medium to come along since paper, or how, in the short space of five years, it has irrevocably changed the nature of information transmission. You know all about that.

You probably also know, then, that there is an awful lot of rubbish on the Web as well. The problem is not just that the Web is a whole new medium, but that it is changing and evolving constantly. The rules seem to be different every week.

Back at the dawn of the Web, life was pretty simple. "Slam some

's" into your text, code links to other pages, and voila, you have a Web page. But today the Web is about more than just stringing a bunch of HTML pages together with some vague links, a drop shadow under the title, and a gif animation of an envelope popping itself into a post box. An effective Web site needs to be a unified whole, where the parts (navigation, graphics, layout, functionality and content) work together seamlessly to facilitate the location and synthesis of useful information. In plain English, it needs to be a Webbed environment.

The fact is that without content, the Web is nothing. Without information and ideas to link together in a meaningful form, we might just as well play with a Rubik's Cube. But it's the designer's job to create the environment which visitors to a Web site will use to find this information. An attractive and easy-to-use environment, on the Web, is as important as well written text. It doesn't matter if you are working on a major corporation's intranet or simply putting snapshots from your holiday in Tuscany on to your home page: if it is hard to use, people are not going to care about your content.

A Webbed environment is the interface to the Web site's content. That is, rather than thinking about each "page" in a Web site as an individual entity, self-contained and static, we should be thinking how content fits into the interface and how the interface gets us to the content.

A successful Webbed environment works with the visitor by providing the following three things:

Clear structure and navigation - getting around a Webbed environment should feel natural to visitors.

Attractive appearance - the look of a Webbed environment will communicate to the visitor what the site is about before they have to read anything.

Useful features - interactivity is the name of the game on the Web, and the features of a Webbed environment - such as search engines, list discussions, even the navigation - should react to the individual visitor.

Now you're probably saying: "Of course, clear structure, attractive appearance and useful features will make for a brilliant Webbed environment. Tell me something I don't know." But be warned - these things are easier read than done. Why? Mostly because designers think of these as separate ideas. You come up with the structure, toss in a few nifty features and then put a graphic or two on top as garnish. But invariably this leads to a jumbled mess of endless buttons, links, title, subtitles and form fields. The content gets lost within all this noise.

This new medium necessitates a rethinking of design. Traditional design is based on static, linear pages of paper where you can access any page just by flipping to it - that is, as long as you are physically holding it. The Web is hypertextual, non-linear and interactive, but we are still experimenting with how to find information in this strange new world. And we still have a long way to go.

This column will attempt to help designers, programmers or anyone interested in the Web to understand this new medium. I'll be covering the technology behind the Web, useful techniques and interesting resources as well as the occasional soapbox speech regarding Web-related issues.

Like the Web, I want this column to be interactive, a focus for the discussion of the issues important to its readers. You can write to me with your questions, thoughts, gripes, suggestions, concerns, whatever. Each week I'll post the most interesting of these letters online (I'll announce the URL later) and use them as the springboard for future articles.

So go ahead, write to me about whatever you like - unless it's about spiders, in which case you should immediately seek professional psychological advice.

mshadow@dircon.co.uk

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of How to Program HTML Frames: Interface Design with JavaScript (pounds 37.50, Macmillan).

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