September 1, 1997  

Balancing Graphics and Content
When Enough Is Enough

By Stephen Lawton

If you're making chicken soup, you might use a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper, but never a teaspoon of cayenne. The same ingredients, however, might be fine in another dish. The key to good cooking is knowing what to use and when, and the same is true in Web site design. To showcase your design savvy and gratify the user's eye without upstaging your content, you need to know when to use cutting-edge technologies on your pages and when to go with basic HTML. Here are a few things to consider when designing a site:

Who is visiting your site?
A business-to-business site might need only basic product and price information. Here, speed is important, and heavy graphics could overwhelm the static content. For an entertainment- or commerce-oriented site, flashy graphics might be appropriate to draw in and keep visitors, but don't make the items or information difficult to reach. Bottom line: Graphics should never overwhelm the content they support.

Are you limiting your visitors' use of the site?
A graphically intense site designed for a UNIX-oriented visitor, for example, could be frustrating, since many UNIX desktops use the character-based Lynx browser. For Windows and Mac visitors, your content should be as compelling in Microsoft Internet Explorer as it is in Netscape Navigator.

Are you betting that your visitors will have the latest technology, such as a browser that supports style sheets?
While the latest HTML 3.2 tags might allow you to enhance your site, older browsers simply ignore the tags, which can result in missing components from the page. You'll want to make sure your site works sufficiently well for users with slower modems too.

Are your graphics equally pleasing on all platforms?
Assuming your visitors have the appropriate browsers and hardware, make sure you create your images so that colors are consistent on all browsers.

"Everyone wants to be flashy," says John Hynes III, Webmaster for NetWizards, a regional ISP based in Burlingame, California. However, he cautions, "plain HTML usually is sufficient [and] easier to navigate."
      Too many animated GIFs can detract from the page, turning visitors away rather than drawing them into the content, he says. In fact, Hynes says he avoids Java and other bleeding-edge technologies for his corporate customers, noting that many Internet users simply do not have the hardware or software capable of taking advantage of the new code.
      The No. 1 issue that Webmasters face when enhancing their sites beyond standard HTML is whether the new technologies will work with all browsers. Technologies that look great in the latest release of Navigator or Internet Explorer might look terrible in Lynx or the graphical browser used by America Online customers, Hynes notes.
      Grace Colby, vice president of design at Art Technology Group in Boston, says that knowing your audience is the priority. Colby oversees ATG's design team, which has created site interfaces as diverse as Sony Station and Harvard Business School's curriculum management system. Since audiences can be wildly different depending on the site, she chooses the balance between design and content on a site-by-site basis. "You need to think about [the users'] expectations, their knowledge of the technology, their motivation to be on the site," Colby says.
      Today, technology still limits design concepts, says Doug Eymer, who heads Eymer Design in Boston. While the designer might be able to storyboard a flashy design, the design might well be inappropriate for the site. There must be balance, he says, between the technical ability to create the site and the client's need to offer flash when potential visitors' technology just isn't up to the task. For that reason, he explains, he tends to stay away from Java, JavaScript and other advanced technologies at this time.
      But Colby says it's possible to rise above the technical limitations of both the medium and users' hardware and software. "Our designers need to know what the limitations are and what we're aiming for. But it's important not to be too limited by that at the design stage." She says that if a design concept seems to stretch the bounds of the technology or the audience's capabilities, the engineers work with the designers to solve the problem of implementation.
      Eymer adds that designers still do not have the same type of checklist that print designers use. In print, design rules have evolved over the years, and a designer essentially knows what the finished product will look like at the outset; with Web sites, that's just not the case.
      There are ways, Colby says, to realize the visual style you propose without frustrating users, and that's the challenge of designing for the Web. While content remains key, "having a compelling site is definitely important, and you can design around the limitations."

Stephen Lawton is former editor in chief of SunWorld Online, NetscapeWorld and Digital News & Review.

ATG (617) 859-1212
Eymer Design (617) 345-5434
NetWizards (415) 259-9526

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