Web design: Frames are the best and most universally available tool at our disposal for creating dynamic, interesting and useful Web interfaces

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Recently, a well-know Web commentator laid out what he called the "Seven Deadly Web Site Sins". Number five was simply one word: frames.

This commentator insists that even when done well they are bad. But I've got news for him and any other frameophobes: the Web needs frames and, if you do much with Web design, you are going to have to use them.

The thing you have to understand about frames, if you want to get past the paranoid aversion some people have to using them, is that they are just another design tool. Like any design tool, if frames are used well, they can improve your Web site, but if used poorly they can make your design look like pile of poo.

Design with frames is still in its infancy, and they present unique problems. Though far from perfect, they are the best and most universally available tool at our disposal for creating dynamic, interesting and useful Web interfaces (not just Web pages).

Designers often hate frames because they run foul of the "pitfalls of frames". These are problems that are singular to frames and are what are likely to turn people off using them. Here are a few simple things designers can do to get around these obstacles to good Web design:

The evil micro-scroll: A "micro-scroll" occurs whenever the content for a frame is just a little (five to 10 pixels) too big for the area of that frame, so scroll-bars have to pop-up to allow access to the rest of the content. The visitor clicks on the scroll bar and all that happens is that the frame shifts a little to reveal the last few pixels.

Not only is this highly annoying, but precious screen space is taken up by completely unnecessary scroll bars. Two ways around this. First, you can use the SCROLLING="no" attribute with the frame. Second, just resize the frame until all of your content fits.

Black-hole frames: All too often I come across framed Web sites with a small piece of content in a huge frame. For instance, a title graphic in a frame with several centimetres of empty space sitting all around it. On paper, this type of negative space might look fine, but on the Web it just sucks up your attention and means less space for the content the visitor will actually be interested in. Solution: make sure the frame fits the content.

Floating scroll-bars: I'm not exactly sure why this is, but there is something very unnerving about disembodied scroll-bars. They appear when frames on four sides have the same background colour. Any scroll bars that pop up in the left frame of this configuration just seem to hover in empty space or lead nowhere.

Try to give frames that are likely to have scroll bars a distinct background from other frames on the screen, and always make sure your frames appear to be connected to something.

`Two' many frames: The most frequent comment I hear about frames is: "Any more than two frames is too many frames." Saying this is like saying that any more than two colours in a picture is too many colours. There are no hard and fast rules for how many frames to use; it all depends on the what is needed. Frames can be used purely for design purposes to create some stunning effects, but you might need several frames in order to pull off the design.

My content in your site? I don't think so! Finally, one gripe about frames is that someone might use your stuff in their site and make it look like their work. You can prevent this using JavaScript to detect whether your document is being displayed in somebody else's frames; it will "extract" itself if it is. Check out my frames Web site (http://www.mindspring.com/ moonshadow/frames) for the exact script. If you are using somebody else's material in your frames, always ask their permission. Most people are cool about it and are often even flattered.

Those are some of the things that can go wrong with frames. Next week I'll be looking at some of the great things you can do with them - above and beyond just plonking in content.

mshadow@dircon.co.uk

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