Weaving an intriguing web

The constraints of designing for the Web are cautiously being tested, and designers are finding that their skills do have a place on the Internet. Michael Evamy reports

SBHD: The constraints of designing for the Web are cautiously being tested, and designers are finding that their skills do have a place on the Internet. Michael Evamy reports

Say you’ve been sitting in an airing cupboard for three years. You’ve been insulated from all the hoo-hah surrounding the Internet. As a means of acquainting you with this mind-bending phenomenon when you emerge from hibernation, someone shows you Wired, the handbook of the Net-surfer and the info-geek. You might get excited. You might want to get back inside the airing cupboard. Either way, you would probably think that this self-conscious and lavish magazine was reflecting the visual standards of the Internet ; the magazine is like that because that is what the Internet is like.

Fact is, of course, that most of the Internet looks no more interesting than the inside of that airing cupboard. No-one logs on in order to admire today’s hot typeface or a nice bit of spacing. It’s the information, stupid, as Wired would say. Wired attempts to communicate visually the perpetuating excitement of the concept: the buzz of global communication without limits.

The question of whether design – structuring and polishing the presentation of information – would make an important difference to the consumption of information on the Internet is still a long way from being answered. However, a handful of consultancies have been testing the constraints of designing for the Internet.

Despite all the handicaps faced by designers now, the emerging world of virtual documents could be startlingly similar to the paper world, with a similar richness in the kind and quality of information presentation. Not what the cyber-geeks had in mind at all. In fact, conventional design objectives such as creating advantage for the information provider by “capturing” readers run hard up against what most people feel the Internet should be about.

The World Wide Web is the most accessible network, offering an unrivalled clarity and level of interactivity. Users log on, tap in a WWW address, and gain almost instant access to one of tens of thousands of on-line sites, where there will be text and possibly pictures and video clips. Users can move easily through depths of documents, or sideways to other sites by clicking on blue “hot text” or on customised icons.

However, the Web is resistant to the charms of the creative designer: What is fashioned on the designer’s screen is not what will appear on the user’s. Typeface and typography will all be governed by settings in the user’s own browser software, and the line breaks by the size of the user’s screen. Layering or interaction between text and image is extremely limited, and in most cases copy simply appears as line after line of flat, electronic text. Long download times for complex images mean that many users are limited to only viewing text.

The huge success of the World Wide Web has attracted growing numbers of corporate subscribers to its services. Around 17 000 people accessed Barclaycard’s Web site in its first fortnight. This commercialisation, in turn, has prompted design groups to forge their own sites, despite the difficulties in stamping a visual identity on to their own pages.

Imagination launched its own Web pages on 11 April, targeted at marketing professionals, designers and students. The site includes a welcome page, news and diary, plus information on the consultancy and its in-house resources. Articles by senior staff are also published and discussion of issues encouraged. Colour pictures and montages illustrate the pages, although users with lower-powered modems can access specially-designed text-only pages.

To try and wrest some control of the typography back from the user, Imagination has attached an instruction to its home page which advises users to switch to Helvetica Neue if they wish to see the pages as they were designed to be seen.

But after viewing the Web, you might ask why it’s necessary to make such demands on the user, or to design pages at all – beyond organising text in readable chunks. There is no context in which Web sites appear in competition – there is no virtual newsstand upon which they vie for the reader’s eye. Lode Vandermeulen, Imagination’s head of multi-media, maintains: “Sites are in competition in a visual way. The Internet a year or two ago was just text. It was only when the Web came out, and started combining graphics and text, that more people got interested. The fact that you can see pictures or graphics or download music makes it interesting. I find the most successful sites are always the best-designed ones.”

Information Design Unit also has its own Web site and has been designing guidelines for the Government’s Web pages. IDU’s Rob Waller believes that the priority must be to make information accessible. That is what the Web is there for. “We see the design problem as a matter of being able to organise a document well, so we feel that it brings our skills to the fore, where language and design are working together.

“On paper documents you can put the intro and foreword and all that blather at the beginning, and the real content only starts on page ten – that’s acceptable to people. On the Web that’s totally unacceptable. People never get there. You need very strong relevance cues to show people what’s in there, why they should read it, and where to go.”

That takes time. The client or information provider has to decide whether to simply make their document available or to spend a lot of effort making it more usable before putting it on the Web. “Data-dumping – dumping a document on the Web without restructuring it – is frowned upon. Some say that’s all very well, but if it’s going to take you six months to do it, and you’re writing for a relatively small audience, they’d probably rather they had access to something than nothing at all. So [the Web] approaches the world of paper documents, where there are a number of different document genres, from memos to glossy reports,” comments Waller.

As design software improves, the gap between commercial documents and academic or public information files widens. There’s nothing wrong with “glossy” virtual documents, until the popularity of Web sites starts to be governed by style instead of content.

Once the original concept of the Web is lost, corporate clients will demand from designers the means to retain Web users on their pages by discouraging mobility – what interest has a bank in informing potential customers of deals on offer at a competitor site? The Web may end up as a host of dead ends.

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