This article was published as the first newsletter article of the “Outbox” newsletter on my site of the time (see on the Wayback Machine), on March 12, 2001


In the Beginning There Was Text

March 12, 2001

In my six years or so of working in the online world, I’ve run into a lot of versions of what makes a good web page. I was there early enough to first view websites in a text browser. No images, just text with some hypertext links. Seeing Mosaic (precursor to Netscape) for the first time was like Dorothy landing in the Land of Oz: all of a sudden the (web) world had color. I can assure you I never went back after that.

For an advertising guy, seeing a visually rich web environment made me feel at home. Suddenly there was an opportunity for PRESENTATION in addition to information. As a writer I would certainly have appreciated the access to information that the GOPHER, ARCHIE and VERONICA text-based tools offered, had that been all that was available. I learned those things first, thanks to MUM stalwarts Ken Daley and Jim Karpen, but when they showed me Mosaic, it took me away and I never went back.

The visually-enabled environment of Mosaic was primitive by today’s standards. This was BEFORE Netscape 1.0. I doubt that we even had colored tables. Or tables at all. I don’t know, I don’t know anyone who designed in Mosaic. Probably the key HTML tags were there, for images, headlines of various sizes, and bold and (maybe) blinking text. But now we have come a long ways.

The process of coming a long way was largely due to a demand by visual artists for more control of the visual presentation online. It was hellish to work with in-house art directors trained in print back in those days, since you had to tell them that no, they couldn’t have the typeface that they wanted, there was no guarantee what size the text and headlines would be, or exactly how wide the page would be. No one had exact control of the web page presentation.

That was controlled by the USER’S COMPUTER. In other words, the user could control the display of which typeface at which size not to mention the monitor settings on their own computer, so no designer could be absolutely sure exactly how their stuff would look out there.

Very painful for people used to print. In print it looks like it’s supposed to look (assuming your print artist knows how to work with the Pantone color chart, proofs, etc.).

Once We Got Visual, We Got Way Visual

So, a large number of technologies have evolved to allow visual artists some control of how things look online. Cascading style sheets (to control font treatments), Javascript (to create activity and movement, rollover buttons and moving graphics), Flash (animations), and of course the use of Adobe Acrobat files to go all the way to the exact look and feel of some print document (complete with hypertext links, in some uses).

Based on all of this, now we have a fairly rich visual environment online. We are still fighting bandwidth limitations, so graphics still need size trimming/optimization, but new tools have been created to make this formerly tedious process quicker. So, you can now see websites where there is not a text-based hypertext link on the page. The entire thing is often a display of some graphically generated visual wonderland, complete with splash-pages, fly-by titles, roving graphics, and pop-up menus.

In Rides the Guy In The Black Hat

Into this bawdy atmosphere of design prodigality steps the dark clad, ministerial usability expert.

In his version of the web, it’s not the flashy ad agencies that own the web, it’s the user. You can almost hear them shouting. HELLO OUT THERE! HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE USER?

The answer is, of course, no.

Who’s Party Is This?

The rush to a web presence has ignored many principles of good business sense, and good design sense. We haven’t always had good design people working on web sites. Often we have a programmer doing it. Or some young kid who has picked up some HTML but has no design training.

You can have people designing sites with a good logical structure, but no visual design. You can have the opposite. You can have good logical structure and good visuals, but the structure has relevance to the company, not to the users needs.

Then you have the other players who also feel that they own the web: Marketing and IT.

The marketing guys want to sell stuff. They are looking for customers. The IT guys want things to work technically, to be structured properly to interact with any databases, and not crash the servers. Everyone wants and needs consideration.

Everyone is in a learning curve about everyone else’s area.

The marketing guys have to learn that they web is a gifting environment: the web started with free sharing of information, and that has always been somewhat at odds with the shut up and buy my stuff sales model. Marketers have to learn from their customers, to co-create products, services and even their own websites.

The IT guys have to learn about users needs to get information in a format that makes sense to people, not experts.

The designers have to learn a whole new site of design constraints, and to act appropriately in designing sites that serve the information-seeking needs of the user.

The usability guys have to lighten up and realize that the marketers are part of the user base, and there needs to express and explain are valid considerations. Sometimes the user benefits from being guided to a task other than the original one they came to the site for, in order to fulfill some other need that they have. As long as that task #1 is still easy to accomplish.

I’ve worked in companies where the IT ran the world. I’ve seen places where marketing was everything. Certainly design has galloped rampant over common sense and utility in zillions of sites. And I’ve seen sites that were so usable that no one would want to date them. No visual appeal, just text links.

Fading Out: One-Man Bands

What’s needed is a balance. I don’t believe that any one person owns the web, any more than any one person can design a complete, full-featured site anymore.

To be a complete webmaster nowadays you have to be an expert in Photoshop, Imageready, Illustrator, Flash, Dreamweaver, Director, Final Cut Pro, Media Cleaner Pro. Raw HTML, Javascript, Java, Active Server Pages, PERL scripts, CGI scripting, C++, Cold Fusion, any number of databases, web servers, mail servers, firewalls, and who knows what else.

Not to mention usability testing, ergonomic principles, design theory, color theory and applications, international color preferences and language coding specifications, accessibility issues for specialized web devices such as PDA’s and web readers for the blind.

Who owns the web? We all do. We all are users, using it to express, to sell, it learn to research, to investigate, to display, to integrate, and to research. It’s a user society and it takes a mini-cross section of that group to come up with a balanced site architecture and visual/information design that serves such a diverse group of users.

You need a team. The larger the group of people that you are trying to serve, the bigger your team may have to be.

If you don’t have a big team, you may at least need to wear a lot of hats. But don’t think that you’re done until you have a few other people try on those hats for size. Get some feedback at least, and there’s hope that you’ll own the web.,. at least your little corner of it.


-Paul Stokstad