Putting the Brakes on Web Design

I wrote this article back in March 1999, when Web-on-TV devices were all the rage. It was largely a response to the tendency of web designers to concentrate too much on visual aesthetics, all too often at the expense of content, usability or robustness. My hope was that the emergence of Web-on-TV devices, and the associated contstaints of TV-based display would encourage designers to re-think their approach and develop more streamlined, fit-for-purpose pages.

Sadly that didn’t seem to work out, perhaps not least because Web-on-TV never really took off (though it may be making a partial resurgence as Interactive TV gains momentum). Even now in 2004 the web still suffers many of the same problems. There is hope, though – I sense that we are indeed moving towards the simpler, more text-oriented, sites envisaged in this article; only this time, the driving force is accessibility and standards compliance.

The article was published in New Media Age magazine.

I wonder sometimes whether web design – which so often (wrongly) seems to be treated as being synonymous with graphic design – has all got a bit out of hand.

Web authoring technology now enables us to give in to our temptations to produce stunning visual designs and complex layouts, but at a time when the network infrastructure isn’t quite able to keep pace with the results.

Originally graphics were used sparingly to liven up text-based web pages. Then, as modems became faster, they were used to add aesthetics, layout, sophistication. Now graphics are fundamentally entwined with the functionality, we don’t seem to care about connection speeds, and the result is too many sites which simply do not work if the graphics – for whatever reason – are not downloaded.

Of course, the web would be a dull place – albeit perhaps a lot more usable – if web pages contained only text. But there’s a difference between using graphics and knowing when and how to use them. Part of the problem is that sophisticated page layouts often require complex HTML which browsers may not render until the entire page has downloaded. Thus the user often has to wait some time before they see anything at all or – more importantly – are able to navigate further. We seem to have got to a point where functionality and usability are subservient to appearance.

I suspect we may soon see a backlash against this, and a move towards simpler and more streamlined pages. There are two things in particular which I think will drive this.

Internet users will increasingly voice their frustration at having to wait for pages to download by going elsewhere. Site owners will realise they are losing visitors and will change their approach.

Internet and television convergence will open up the web to a much wider audience. Web sites will eventually be more commonly viewed on television sets – a very different medium to the computer screen. Colours bleed more; live text is automatically enlarged for legibility; navigation is much less subtle; that eight-point bitmapped type which looked so great on a Mac might as well not be there at all.

In a nutshell an awful lot of web sites are going to look really bad on television. To avoid the cost of re-purposing sites for viewing on TV, page designs will need to be flexible enough to look good and work well on both computer screens six inches in front of our eyes, and televisions six feet across the room. This will often mean the use of text rather than graphics – which, coincidentally, makes for smaller file sizes and faster downloads, thus making it more likely that users will actually get to see the page.

Of course, all of this will no doubt itself be followed by another backlash – a return to bandwidth-hungry, graphically-rich content as the web evolves into something perhaps more akin to television. Our justification will be that increased bandwidth and better compression techniques make download speed much less of a problem. But then, we’ve been hearing that for years…

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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