End-of-semester reflection on web design

According to the syllabus today marks the last formal class meeting for IT 578, which is an introductory course in web design and Dreamweaver. Our project sites are due exactly one week from today. My site, a publishing portal for teen writers, is no where near complete and neither is my understanding of the complexities of web design and web site development.

One thing I am certain of is this is an intensely visual medium. I may be stating the obvious to some people, but I don’t think the casual Internet audience can really appreciate this fact until they juggle the myriad choices and decisions that go into the creation of the user interface and navigational matrix. (Now, that sounds just plain geeky!)

These last six weeks, I have been completely consumed with aesthetics, leaving myself very little time for the development of actual content. The last four days alone I have obsessed over the appearance of my hyperlinks, for gosh sakes! How the color and format of the links actually contribute to the instructional value of my site, . . . well, it is just too ridiculous. Yet, here I have been since Sunday night, changing and re-changing their color and behavior until finally deciding to go back to the original default settings!

The authors of the style guide used in IT 578, Patrick Lynch and Sarah Horton, begin each chapter in their text with quotes from some surprisingly literary sources – even Henry David Thoreau, who famously admonished Americans to “Simplify, simplify!” and who questioned the value of telegraph lines and transatlantic cable. (Relax, it’s just Cliffs Notes! If you want to read the original, see “Economy” from Walden.) I don’t know if Lynch and Horton are going for a sense of irony, or what, but Chapter 6 on editorial style begins with this quote from the Hitchhiker author, Douglas Adams:

First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII – and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.

I have thought about how I would teach a course in web design to high school students. I don’t have the artistic sensibility to do it justice. Ideally, I would like to teach the development portion, in which I help young people compose the editorial content with consideration to style, brevity, and some journalistic principles thrown in for good measure. Another teacher could work with the students on the technical side of things, including graphics and visual presentation. It would be cool if a course was taught in tandem like that. I wonder if it’s done that way anywhere?

In true web fashion, I will conclude this reflection with a Top 10 list. This list is composed of facts as well as general impressions and observations about web design that I hope to remember should I ever again have the opportunity to construct a site from the ground up. So, here are the Analog Girl’s Top 10 Principles of Web Design, in no particular order:

  • You can never give the audience too many ways to navigate your site.
  • Throughout the development process, check your site frequently on different machines and in different browsers.
  • Every web page should include these five elements: title; creation/revision date; link to homepage; homepage URL in footer; and the site administrator’s contact info.
  • Make your page titles into “pearls of clarity.” Each page must be able to stand alone, apart from the context of the site.
  • Use white space for emphasis. Pure, subtle, elegant.
  • Make links descriptive so the reader knows exactly what he or she is going to get. In other words, avoid “click here” and other empty phrases.
  • Pay attention to factors that will make your site more accessible and readable. To that end, the World Wide Web Consortium provides 10 quick tips for web designers.
  • Animated gifs suck. And there is a word to describe over-use of multimedia — “Flashturbation.” Love that one!
  • Remember, it’s the WORLD Wide Web! OK, while I like the elegance of the international date stamp, I don’t know how I feel about completely purging idiomatic expression and regional language from the web. Where’s the color and humanity in that?
  • Know and respect your audience. It is the quintessential rule of good writing, and it’s no less true for the web.

These last two items on my list of observations about web design may seem mutually exclusive, but I think it’s the tension between the two that makes it all so exciting! Here is a great conversation about the problem of language in digital learning environments on Julie Lindsay’s e-Learning blog. The comments that follow her post are quite illuminating.

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