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The Non-Designer's Web Book

by Robin Williams and John Tollett

Reviewed by David Harris

Washington Apple Pi Journal, November/December 1998, pp. 29-30, reprint information

The Non-Designer's Web Book is not just about Web page design, but contains chapters describing in plain language what the Web is, how to do an Internet search, the salient differences between print and Web publishing, designing and making Web pages of your own, and how to get your pages online for all the world to see. As the authors say, readers of this book are likely to be either experienced designers, who will be able to design circles around 75% of current Web designers already on the Internet, or those with little or no design experience, who will be able to design circles around 75% of current Web designers already on the Internet. I liked this book and got good tips for improving the pages I had already created. At times I also found somewhat irritating the emphasis on designing for commercial (as opposed to personal or other) sites, with the authors' preferences in style (e.g. blue links are the sign of an amateur) extended to near-absolute dictates. In addition, most chapters of the book have little lesson plans for what the reader should look for on the Web, and a quiz on what they have learned. This is probably a good approach for some people; in me it just roused performance anxiety.

Web pages are just text files; the HTML text tells Web browsers how to display them. I have created all my own pages just using a word processor, but the authors persuasively recommend using Web-authoring software instead. As they say, if you use a page-layout program such as Adobe PageMaker or QuarkXPress, it converts everything to PostScript code for screen display and for sending to a printer, but all you are interested in is the page appearance, not the code. Imagine writing PostScript code to create printed pages! Although present Web-authoring software creates pages with code that sometimes has to be touched up by a person with some knowledge of HTML, it is probably the wave of the future nevertheless. This book illustrates how to make your pages using several popular software programs such as Adobe PageMill or Claris Home Page (does that still exist?). The authors show how to format text, add background colors or graphics, make links, add pictures, use tables and frames. They also discuss how to organize your planned Web site, collect materials, and understand file types.

I found the chapter on print vs. Web publishing and how it affects design to be illuminating. Web publishing has the advantages of immediacy (changes can be made rapidly), full color at low cost, with small file sizes, the possibility of adding sound and animation, links to enormous amounts of information created by others, and interaction with the user. It allows the designer to reside in a remote location such as Santa Fe, and not have to be in close physical proximity with producers or clients. Print, on the other hand, is cheaper and more portable, doesn't require costly user equipment, and is more reliably WYSIWYG. It downloads much faster, too.

The chapter on design principles stresses the four rules of alignment, proximity, repetition, and contrast. Now these are ideas that I find hard to absorb just by having them stated. Illustrations are given (and the illustrations are one of this book's delights) by which I gradually came to understand most of the points presented. I changed my own Web pages, for instance, to include the same small graphic on each relevant page as a link back to its "home" -- that's repetition. It ties pages together so the viewer can see a common theme. Proximity just means keeping related things close to each other. Alignment is one that I found a bit harder: they state it doesn't mean everything must be aligned along the same edge, but that it should be aligned all flush left, center, or flush right. "Choose one alignment and use it on the entire page...if you choose to align the basic text on the left, then don't center the headline." This dictate is illustrated by comparative examples of Web pages with somewhat random alignment, and the same page aligned following their recommendations. In most cases I agree that their choice makes for a better-looking page -- especially if it's for a commercial site. And it makes sense to write a book mostly for those who will be designing to convince someone to buy a product or a service. But I don't agree with their strictness, especially if you are designing something a little different. I'd recommend a little experimentation.

The chapter on How to Recognize Good and Bad Design has many illustrations taken from the Web, with details changed to protect the guilty. I agree with many of the examples of what not to do, such as text that's nearly the same color as the background, distracting background graphics, links that mislead, enormous graphics that take forever to download, animations that won't stop, having to scroll sideways to see all the page (and when you do scroll usually not much is added). They also deride things I don't mind, such as nearly-full-width text, tables with borders, links within text, under-construction signs, etc. Take a look at the chapter and see what you think. I must say I took some of their ideas to heart and changed many of my pages -- yes, I use Blockquote (to indent text) a lot more now. But not everywhere.

The chapters that most filled in the gaps in my technical understanding were Color on the Web and Graphic Definitions. Indexed color, browser-safe colors (that most browsers will present identically), graphic file formats (mostly GIF -- yes, with a G sound -- and JPEG), getting pictures or making your own. They even tell how to make a gently textured background, or an animated GIF (but make it turn itself off).

Here's a tip that I used: for those backgrounds that consist only of a color swipe (with or without textured borders) down the left or across the top of a page, create a GIF that's as small as 10 pixels high, by 1000 pixels wide (for the vertical format). Make the left side a different (browser-safe) color. Your browser will replicate it down the page to make the entire left side colored, and if it's 1000 pixels wide it will extend full width on most monitors. File size for this kind of GIF is very small and it will load quickly.

The chapter on Typography on the Web promotes ideas that Robin Williams has written about in her previous books. One of the recommendations is to set your browser's default proportional type to New York (designed for screens) instead of Times (designed for printing). I did so and found that, even when the font size was changed to compensate for the change in font, New York looked worse on my monitor than Times. So there! On the other hand I agree that curly quotes are nice at least in areas where the type is large, and I was pleased to find the HTML codes to produce those quotation marks and a few other uncommon characters. The authors do recognize that total control is impossible on the Web, and that one should design pages with that in mind.

Advanced Tips and Tricks includes fun with tables, pre-loading graphics, PhotoShop tips, and so on. I did find nice hints on how to add padding space around graphics (you can also make use of hidden text to widen margins or to make tables behave), and how to make a link open in a new window.

The last three chapters are about testing and maintaining your Web site, uploading it to its final destination, updating it, and how to get it noticed (assuming you want the whole world to know). All these are useful for those without much Web experience.

I'll end with a complaint about one thing that surprised me throughout this book, considering the authors' attention to literary and design correctness: Web is not capitalized. Now there are many webs, but there is only one World Wide Web. It should be capitalized.

The Non-Designers Web Book
Robin Williams and John Tollett
Peachpit Press, 1998
Berkeley, California
ISBN 0-201-68859-X
Paperback $29.95


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Revised December 13, 1998 Lawrence I. Charters
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