The Flesh and the Soul of Information. On Quality and Superstitions | WebReference

The Flesh and the Soul of Information. On Quality and Superstitions

  On Quality and Superstitions

Being aesthetically neutral, academic style in Web design may, however, bring on accusations of the site author's indifference or even disdain towards the viewers.  "If they didn't bother to amuse me with graphics, why should I care to read their stuff?"  So goes the reasoning of indignant Web surfers---or rather, Web authors fear that their readers may get indignant by thinking so.  And they (authors) immediately set to work, for all they're worth, decorating their pages with items dictated by the current Web design "fashion."

I've already had occasions to mention some of the most repellent features of the resulting style: distracting animations, large font sizes, fancy fonts, naturalistic effects, material backgrounds, and (probably the nastiest) icons and parrot-like horizontal rules borrowed from free-for-all Web art collections.  It really takes only one step to go from the perfectly sane academic style to this disgusting carnival almost unanimously hated by the two usually contending parties---both professional designers and those who value content and structure above all.  The problem of poor design is overly annoying indeed; I could say, for example, that I generally have image loading off in my browser not because my dialup connection limits available bandwidth, but solely to protect my brain from the muddy stream of jitney graphics.

Don't forget, however, that content and presentation cannot be viewed but in conjunction with each other.  All my experience convinces me that good design and good content typically come together, and when one of these components is neglected, the other one suffers.  By "good content," I don't mean one which is particularly useful or interesting; as an editor in a publishing house, a Web designer usually has little choice of what is to be published, but he can control how.  And yes, in too many cases both professional and "in-house" Web designers find it necessary to engage in a purely editorial work in order to regularize a huge pile of medley material.

The content flaws that are most common on hastily compiled sites include abundant typos, wrong capitalization, misuse of spaces around punctuation marks, line breaks where they should be forbidden, etc.  Of course all sorts of bad and unclear writing also belong here, but I'd like to stress that there are many errors that can---and should---be corrected even if you're not the author of the text, and normally even without consulting the author.  Please don't disregard this aspect if, as a designer, you're not directly responsible for the quality of text; when I run across such annoyances, I do not discriminate responsibilities, and part of my irritation goes directed towards the design (and the designer) as well.

However, typos are not the most terrible side of poor web content.  Much worse is inconsistency: more often than not, authors are not certain about what part of the text is a heading, what level of heading it is, where an instance of a displayed text starts and ends and to what other bits of text across the site it's analogous, whether quotations used in the text are worth separating into a structural unit of their own or not, and so on.  By answering all these questions one by one, you'll find yourself not only improving quality of your content, removing duplicated fragments, straightening out interrelations of parts---but also, at the same time, doing a consistent design!

The big advantage of this method is that when you start thinking about the structure of your content, you're automatically introducing structure into your design as well---and, as I wrote, a structured design (be it academic style or something more sophisticated) is always the best option available.  As I suggested in the article on modular design, unless you've got some serious artistic ambitions, the rule to follow is quite simple: do not introduce any design feature that is not absolutely necessitated by the underlying content.

The idea of structure being the crucial link between content and presentation is, as we can see, not only a theoretical corollary but a valuable practical guide.  Few things are as stimulating for human perception as a sensible organization imposed on the chaos of material---organization which is not immediately obvious and dull, but instead complex, multifarious and multi-level, rightfully established in both content and presentation aspects and uniting these aspects into a whole.  Quoting Charles Goldfarb, the original inventor of SGML: "A smart designer can exploit structure to create more attractive and compelling web sites that are more easily maintained as well---much as a clothing designer prefers to work with well-structured bodies!"


Created: Apr. 19, 1998
Revised: Apr. 19, 1998