Web design

Joe Gillespie was creating pages for the Web even before the first graphics-capable browsers were developed. So he knows that good design isn't just about pretty pictures, fancy type or hi-tech bells and whist les
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A few weeks back I mentioned that a regular feature of this column would be to talk to the people who are creating the Web paradigm. Where better to start than London's own Joe Gillespie, creator of the site Web Page Design for Designers (http://www.wpdfd.com)

Gillespie is one of the few people in the world who can honestly claim to have had more than four years of Web design experience, creating pages for the Web even before the first graphic-capable browser (NCSA's Mosaic) was available. Like many others, his design experience started with print- based media in the early 1980s, but by 1988 he was designing hypertext using Apple's Hypercard.

Since then, Joe has worked extensively in the online environment, including the original development for one of the first online newspaper sites, for the Daily Telegraph. In 1996, he started one of the best instructional Web design sites available, Web Page Design for Designers, to "help other print designers move over to Web design and, hopefully, to avoid some of the many pitfalls in doing so". Web Page Design for Designers is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to learn how the Web works.

Jason Cranford Teague: Let me start by asking, what about the Web initially attracted you to the medium?

Joe Gillespie: The fact that I was pioneering a new medium. I have the fairly unique combination of graphic design and programming skills, and multimedia and the Web are a natural fit for me.

JCT: Most literate people are familiar with the linear model of learning. How do you see the Web and hypertext changing how we process information, and what role do you think Web designers have in shaping this new hypertextual literacy?

JG: This new ability is more often abused than not. It is great to be able to jump instantly to a related, hyperlinked article in principle. Very little thought is often given to what happens after that. Does the user return to continue the original thread, or are they led increasingly further away? Within a site, a good interactive designer can control this flow, but if the link is off-site, it is much more difficult.

JCT: So how do you contend with hypertext that might take the visitor out of your site?

JG: I believe that a strong visual identity is necessary to tell the surfer that they are within the bounds of the site they are at. A jump to a different site, with a different identity, should be like a very overstretched piece of elastic constantly trying to pull them back.

It is unfortunate that a lot of Web sites are designed by people who have no skills in visual communication. They can produce Web pages, add bells and whistles, but don't understand the basic principles of "house style" and how a visual identity can unite disparate elements and provide synergy. This is what true graphic design is about, not just pretty pictures and fancy type.

JCT: What do you mean by "house style?"

JG: In a newspaper, the house style relates to the typographic style of the pages. You can tell from any page in The Independent, the Guardian or the Times which paper you are reading without looking at the masthead.

With a powerful identity, you can take a tiny part of it in isolation, and the recognition will still be there. Cut a Coca-Cola logo into 12 pieces and any one of those pieces will still be identifiable. Cut a 3in square out of one of the newspapers I mentioned and you will still know which one it came from.

Web pages need this strength of identity even more than newspapers do because of the ease of hyperlink jumping between different pages and sites.

JCT: What is your opinion of the new standards coming out of the World Wide Web Consortium, such as Cascading Style Sheets?

JG: Of all the new Web page technologies, Cascading Style Sheets is the one that actually improves the readability and style of a Web page. Most of the other DHTML techniques you can take or leave.

At present, CSS are virtually unusable because of the plethora of different implementations across browsers and browser versions. The whole point of CSS is that they should degrade gracefully in browsers that don't support them. They don't! A style that looks fine in Internet Explorer can become unreadable in Netscape. So a rock-solid standard for CSS from the W3C is very welcome indeed. It remains to be seen how well the different browsers embrace it.

JCT: How do you see the Web changing over the next several years?

JG: The Web is like a new toy. People are playing with it, trying out this and that technique, finding out what works and what doesn't. Every week sees some "devastating new technology" that will totally change the face of the Web - for another week. This is very much akin to Darwin's Theory of Evolution - survival of the fittest. Trying to predict how this will go is fairly futile because we can't use something vital that might come out next in the equation.

The Web will mature. Bandwidth will increase, but immediately be swallowed up with some new bandwidth-hogging technology. It is interesting to note that the Web, just like early multimedia, is always one step ahead of its capabilities. So the experience never matches up to the hyperbole, and that's a shame.

Twice in the last few weeks, I have tried to order goods from online shops. Neither of them worked. I had to ring up other suppliers to place my order conventionally. I don't want to be told that "This site is optimised for Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 and requires Active-X" or "You must download Shockwave 9 to view this site". I have Java permanently switched off on my PowerMac and my NT machine because I know it will crash both of them.

The ubiquitous search engine is another example of something that doesn't work - yet. So, over the next few years, more than anything, I would like to see existing things work better.

E-mail Jason Cranford Teague at indy_webdesign@mindspring.com.

Chris Gulker is on holiday.