Wonder web

Fay Sweet goes surfing and selects some favourite sites. She also talks to Web designers and finds out that good ideas, carefully selected type and well-organised information are crucial

FIVE years ago the Internet was as dry and boring as the crumbs in an old duffle coat’s pockets. To be fair, the crumbs probably had a bit more character than most screen pages. In those days the Net was ruled by techies and academics whose only brush with design was the occasional bottle of “designer” beer stuffed with a wedge of lime.

It’s still possible for Net surfers to come across acres of Web pages with a premium boredom factor. Pages can take an age to download, they are tedious to navigate, and once you’ve endured an age scanning them there’s nothing on-screen that’s worth a second glance.

Although the technology has promised so much, few have mastered its complexity or potential. “In the early days many Web sites were designed by IT departments of companies which were desperate to establish a site – any old site,” says Russ Sellers, new media director of design consultancy Blueberry which is currently working on the Design Council site, due to go live in early September. “But we have seen clients realise that simply being on the Web is not enough. Now they appreciate the value of a well-designed site and come to us for advice.”

Big pictures, old data and dodgy links are all big no-nos. “Very often the design process begins by showing clients some really awful sites, to give them an idea of what to avoid,” Sellers adds.

“Since the early days the concept of a site has changed dramatically,” he says. “Now sites must be more functional and interactive, with more bells and whistles to attract and hold the user’s attention. As a result, prices are going up: a good site can cost anything from between 10 000 and 2m. But the benefits increase, too.”

Blueberry began life as a traditional graphic design company, but has now established a new media division. “We like to have designers and programmers – or Webmasters – sitting side by side so that they can sort out problems quickly and maintain the flow of the job,” explains Sellers. During the design, the pages in development are password-protected, but they can be viewed by others in the studio and the client to ensure content and navigation is right. Once the site is complete Blueberry offers after-care service, which involves managing the site and monthly updates and checks to ensure links are working properly.

According to senior designer Jonathan Hubbard of Newell and Sorrell, the worst Web pages are those with a confused message. “Big picture files and boring imagery are a problem, but more serious is the Web site that doesn’t know what it is saying. I’ve seen plenty that have the entire history of a company followed by a bit of blurb trying to sell you something – and who’s interested in that? Our approach is to grab people early and hold their attention.”

Currently working on its first live Internet project for Waterstones, due to appear in late August, Newell and Sorrell is among the consultancies that has chosen to buy in programming expertise. “We like the approach where the designer works unhindered by technical concerns,” explains Hubbard. “The pages are being constructed by the specialist company IHL, and if something proves particularly troublesome the technicians consult with the designer – and together they find a solution. We didn’t want to go in with a negative approach, knowing all the technical things we had to avoid – the design and brand values had to come first.”

The Waterstones site is inspired by real-life shopping patterns. You navigate the site in the same way as you stroll through a shop: there will be opportunities to browse various sections, read book excerpts, quick-search through a booklist of 60 000 titles and then make your purchase. In future the site may incorporate live chat events with authors.

Unusually for those concerned with Web page design, Ajaz Ahmed of AKQA insists that ideas are the key to Net success. “No ideas equals no visitors,” Ahmed sums up. AKQA (http://www.akqa.com) has amply demonstrated its fluency with the Web medium, having established such prize-winning sites as those for BMW and Virgin Radio. “It’s possible to come across really brilliant sites, such as the ones for FedEx and Altavista, which communicate really well but are not fine pieces of design. Something that is aesthetically brilliant is useless unless it has a reason for being.”

With the development of so many excellent sites, AKQA has pieced together a brief list of golden rules. Not surprisingly, good, fresh ideas come top – for example, the BMW site incorporates the opportunity to download a BMW screensaver, take a look at the spec for new models and hunt down a bargain second-hand motor. The Virgin Radio site looks great and is crammed full of gadgets, but I lost patience exploring all the nooks and crannies on that one because it involves downloading RealAudio software which can take five to ten minutes. I’m sure other users will feel the same.

Another golden rule is to bin the idea that the printed page can be translated to a screen image – “it just doesn’t work,” says Ahmed.

And golden rule number three is to avoid the use of trendy type for each and every site regardless of client and objectives. Ahmed says: “too many Web site designers think that because the medium is hi-tech, they have to use a face that’s hi-tech. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Meta for example.”

One of the most ingenious approaches to designing on the Web has been devised by Didier Madoc-Jones of GMJ, which has just launched an entire Net within the Net called Archinet (www.archinet.co.uk). The site is aimed at anyone involved with or interested in the construction industry. “After seeing so much data scattered about in so many places, we thought ‘sod this, we’re going to organise the Net’,” explains Madoc-Jones. The result is that by calling up one single location, Archinet acts as the gateway to dozens of architectural practice profiles including the likes of Sir Norman Foster, Nick Grimshaw and Will Alsop, a diary of events and daily information on competitions. Also due for launch is a massive on-line product selector featuring almost 4000 companies. “Our reasoning is that the only way of making the Net attractive to more people is to make it a useful tool,” says Madoc-Jones. Although GMJ is financing the creation of this monster – architects’ Web sites comprising three or four pages are free for the first three months – rewards will soon be reaped for rental charges and for the creation of substantial sites.

Plans for the future include linking up with the rest of Europe, then the Far East… and next, in true Web spirit, the world.

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