Spin doctors

How do you design for a medium in which viewers select their own typeface and colours? Confirmed anoraknaphobic Fay Sweet spoke to three Web weavers about mastering design on the Internet

In the world of realists, cynics and Luddites there’s another interpretation of WWW. It’s the Well Worn Whinge about how slow the Internet is, how boring the sites are and how the whole thing is going to implode in a massive “brownout” that will leave 35 million anoraks sadder and lonelier. Yes, the beast tends to lumber a little slowly at times; yes, there are some boring sites, but, just as you’d steer away from the old fart in the pub, you give them a wide berth; and yes, there is some concern that the system is straining under the pressure. But, all that said, there is plenty of impressive stuff going on – and that’s coming from a confirmed anoraknaphobic.

The Internet has expanded at a breakneck speed over the past two years Рin 1993 alone the Web is reputed to have grown at 341 634 per cent (according to Internet chronicler Robert H Zakon, as quoted in the excellent .net magazine). In 1994 surfers had access to some 250 000 pages Рa number that has now grown to 20 million, e-mail is becoming a fact of life in many offices, and there can be few marketing managers who have not slipped into a cyber caf̩ to see what all the fuss is about.

This year looks set to be another major one for technological progress. Innovations awaited include the plug-in Virtual Reality Mark-up Language (VRML), which provides a way of creating a 3D interactive virtual reality environment within a Web page, HyperText Transfer Protocol – Next Generation (HTTP-NG) a device for sending HTML info over the Web at ten times the current speed, and Java, the new programming language which allows moving pictures to be easily incorporated within Web pages.

While much Web material is US-generated, the UK is also producing excellent material. Fine artist and digital demon Simon Biggs (http://www.easynet.co.uk/simonbiggs/) has a small but perfectly formed site which includes previews of his new book and CD-ROM Book of Shadows. Designer, TV director and video artist George Snow has also made his mark with his own distinctive site (http://www.pavilion.co. uk/valleverde) and he’s just finished a site complete with gallery for London Electronic Arts (http://www.easynet.co.uk/lea).

Then there is the brilliant Web site of the publisher Ellipsis (http://www.gold.net/ellipsis/). Designed by co-owner Jonathan Moberly, this is simple and stylish. As might be expected of Ellipsis (formerly Artemis London and famous for its tiny square architecture books) the site has an architectural bent. Currently showing is a sample of the company’s guide to modern architecture in Tokyo. At the end of March the site will include excerpts from the History of Architecture CD-ROM that’s due to be published, plus samples from the Ellipsis guide to Prague. And not to be missed is the very latest Webmedia-designed site for the BBC Design Awards (http://www.bbcnc.org.uk/tv/m&a/ design_awards/) which contains competition details for designers and an outline of the schedule. This will be followed in June by an updated site allowing BBC viewers to vote for shortlisted entries.

In the corporate world, Sainsbury’s (http:// www.j-sainsbury.co.uk/) and Touche Ross (http://www.touche.gbnet.co.uk/) have logged on, as have the Royal Mail (http://www.royal mail.co.uk), Paul Smith (http://worldserver. pipex.com/paulsmith/truebrit/index.html) and even Buckingham Palace (http://londonmall. co.uk/palace/). The sites vary enormously in quality – Sainsbury’s, for example, is one of the most tedious, but the variety is staggering. For some of the best of British designers and a selection of their favourite sites, scroll on…

Trickett & Webb

When Trickett & Webb was asked to work on British Telecom’s latest annual Environmental Report, a dual paper and Internet approach was adopted right from the start. “Having designed the project with this in mind, we were able to use the same files for each application,” explains senior designer Colin Sands. The main difference between the two was the necessity to devise a plan of how the pages in the Web site would work together.

For Sands, the easy navigation of Web sites is of utmost importance: “The hypertext links must work logically to make movement through the text as swift as possible. The BT document was extremely text-heavy – visitors to the site were likely to want that level of information and so that’s what we dealt with.”

The largest image file is for the Visual Summary – a huge map of illustrations, graphs and charts that contains the distilled essence of the report.

This appeared in the print version as a wraparound cover. “Picture files are still a bit of a problem at the moment,” says Sands. “Illustration is quicker than photography and bold blocks of colour are fastest of all. But just like DTP ten years ago, it is sure to get quicker.”

While Sands is also among those looking forward to the arrival of Java, he adds that the appearance of Pagemill software has been a real boon to Web site design – “it allows a more intuitive design that is already in HTML so we don’t have to send it off to be coded.”

To complement Sands’ technical input, Tricket & Webb director Brian Webb’s contribution to the BT project was graphic design-based. “I think of these sites as a piece of communication on a very long loo roll – you can choose to scroll up and down or jump about from sheet to sheet. The essence of what we are doing is to solve the problem of making the communication work. The strangest thing, however, is that visitors to the site can select the type and background colours – unless we make text into picture files we have no control over that.”

For the near future Trickett & Webb is planning to load its 1996 calendar – filled with brilliant Internet-themed illustrations – on to a Web site. Sands’ favourite sites include http://www. delphi.com/XFiles/ – based on the TV programme; http://www .yahoo.com – “it’s a good place to start searching” and http: futurenet.co.uk – “also a good jumping-off point for other things.”

Dean Frederick, Netmare

Way back in the Dark Ages – about two years ago – Dean Frederick’s mates were getting well wired. “All the geeks were there, really getting into the Internet and raving about how amazing it all was, but I couldn’t have been less interested,” recalls Frederick. “Then eventually I had a go and, although I could appreciate that the Internet had the potential to be a fantastic medium, I couldn’t believe how terrible it looked. It was a real challenge to make it work.”

Today, Frederick has won recognition as one of the most innovative and inspired Web site designers around. His impressive client list includes BBC Radio 1, MTV Europe, McLaren F1, the Health Education Authority and Supergrass. Netmare is one of a tiny handful of companies solely devoted to Web site design.

Frederick’s roots are in fine art and music. After studying at Hornsey art school (now part of Middlesex University) he spent ten years in music production and songwriting. “I’d always combined audio visuals too. Even when I was a kid I used to record things. I’ve never seen sound and pictures as separate.”

By mid-1994 Frederick was learning the finer points of digital design. “I was making free sites for friends, then I realised I could widen the scope and make a profit.” Netmare was formed with co-director and graphic designer Galit Zadok – “her corporate design experience has been invaluable,” says Frederick. “I’ll look at something and think it’s great and then Galit will come along and raise all sorts of questions – like whether it’s legible.”

Last year Radio 1 asked Netmare to provide a Web site for its experimental multimedia day staged in late March. “It was a brilliant project – we were involved in everything from designing the graphics to working with the radio production team,” says Frederick. “It was a tremendous success – within half an hour of going live there were 70 000 people on line. The BBC had to upgrade its server system as a result.”

According to Frederick, there are two main reasons why companies want to be on the Net – “involvement and presence. It is viewed as a new and exciting area and taking part will benefit business”. He adds that because most of the client representatives he sees are drawn either from marketing or production departments, Netmare uses flowchart software to describe how a site may be structured.

His advice to clients is always to think long-term. “The worst thing is to run up a flag and then… nothing. We discuss how to develop a plan over at least one year.” On the design language that is developing around the World Wide Web, Frederick’s advice is “small is beautiful.” And there is no formula. “We are entirely content driven – questions about whether the user can be expected to scroll through the pages or not depend entirely on what they are looking at. Visuals are key of course, but we do offer text-only options because some people get very impatient waiting for pictures.”

For 1996, Frederick predicts that the combination of two major pieces of software – Java and Shockwave – will start to make their presence felt on the Net. Both are aimed at increasing speeds and enhancing the Net experience.

Finally, his nominations for the three best sites of the moment – Newbury Bypass at http:// www.foe.co.uk/action/newbury/index.html – “because it’s telling the story that the media isn’t”; The Surrealist Compliment Generator at http://pharmdec.wustl.edu/jardin.script/ – “because it’s wild” and Supergrass, which includes an e-mailed, day-by-day diary of the current tour at http://www.goodcleanfun. freud.co.uk – “because we did it”.

Ruairidh Lappin Associates

Having studied the curious combination of pure mathematics and fine art at college, Ruairidh Lappin is very well equipped to cope with both the digital shenanigans and aesthetics of Web site design.

After an early graphic design career that, since the days at Newcastle Polytechnic, has included spells with David Davies and Peter Leonard, Lappin set up on his own a couple of years ago. Graphics remain the core of his work and his Internet debut was made recently with work on the Thomas Cook Web site. The project’s concept and management was handled by 1/2/1, part of 20:20 interior design company, while Lappin completed the design. The site incorporates some nice touches, including a highly stylised world map to enable users to point out where they’d like to holiday and travel quotations that flash up on-screen as the page builds, all with good use of bold colouring.

“I first looked at the Internet about a year ago and instantly thought there really wasn’t much there. Since then things have improved rapidly,” observes Lappin. “A lot of companies are getting on in a sort of knee-jerk reaction to their competitors setting up sites. However, we are always quick to point out to clients that by setting up a site they are in effect becoming a publisher. And that to sustain interest it is vital to offer a variety of pages and to update the information. The opportunity to get feedback should not be missed either. We always try to encourage long-term thinking.” Lappin’s latest foray into the Internet is the launch of the Web’s first design magazine – Pulpit (http://www.pulpit. com) – which went live at the beginning of March and is a joint project with sponsor Unipalm Pipex.

For the rest of the year Lappin reckons that the arrival of plug-ins such as Shockwave and programme language such as Java should present all sorts of opportunities for Web site designers. “These will open up the prospect, for example, for real-time interviews to be incorporated into Pulpit’s pages.”

His nominations for the three hottest sites are http://www.word.com; http://www.hotwired.com and http://www.cnet.com.

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