On Web Design

David K. Smith, 11 October 2017

I've been taken to task by some "professionals" on my page design and coding style. It's been called old-fashioned. Excessively rigid. Uncreative. Boring. And a bunch of other things I don't care to repeat. Surprise! I've been doing this since the early 1990s, and I recently retired from a six-digit job programming advanced database-driven web applications. I also have a degree in graphic design. So I know exactly what I'm doing, both in front of and behind the camera.

While most young-uns may think the Internet has zoomed past me, all it's really done is gotten needlessly complex. I've always maintained that the Internet is, first and foremost, a source of information. Indeed, that's the reason it was invented. And while it's all well and good that it's gone on to provide entertainment and other services, content was, is, and must remain the single most important element. Page design—including the type fonts used—must service the core mission of conveying that content. Fancy page layout and, in particular, fancy fonts only serve to reduce a site's usefulness. Trust me, having worked as a typographer for years, not to mention having written and published tens of thousands of pages, I know what I'm talking about.

It's been long-known that animated elements in a page diminish one's ability to read the text. Back in the late 1990s, when animated gifs were all the rage the first time around (they're unfortunately enjoying a renaissance), they were often frowned upon by professional designers. But since the internet has become largely monetized, the problem has only gotten worse, because most ads are animated, and some even have sound. And ads are never going away; indeed, some sites go so far as to deny access for visitors who use ad-blocking software. Oh well, guess I really didn't want to look at that crap site after all.

As for my own page style, specifically the 600-pixel width, I offer advance warning that no one can convince me to change. Recently a web developer complained to me that, when viewing my sites, most of his screen is "white emptiness." Yet on his own website, the text runs the full width, making it painful to read when viewed on a large monitor—a perfect example of sacrificing readability for the sake of design. Newspapers and magazines have these things called columns that make the text easier to read. And, if you pay attention, most grown-up web developers who understand the concept of readability keep columns of copy to between 500 and 600 pixels in width, and fill in the rest of the page with graphics, sidebars or (shudder) ads.

So, why don't I use columns to fill up the page? For starters, I must remind the wide-screen owners that not everyone is blessed the way you are; there are still plenty of folks with little old 600 x 800 screens—I personally know a few, believe it or not. Which means I'd need to code pages to optionally display different numbers of columns depending on screen size, and that's way more work than it's worth. So, when you're faced with "too much" white space, how about reducing the size of your browser window? That's what I do (and I have one of the largest monitors made). Why must I fill up your screen? Why do you insist on a full screen? Filling space for the sake of filling space serves no purpose. Anyway, my page design seems to be well-suited to mobile browsers—an unintended double-bonus.

But table-based page layout? Seriously? Didn't that die out with the dinosaurs? As it happens, the much-ballyhooed CSS method of page layout is prone to failure: even the latest browsers do not consistently or reliably interpret CSS, and consequently many websites—including big-name, high-profile commercial sites—completely explode into a laughable jumbled mess. Are people actually being paid to code such crap? Somebody needs to take away their pacifiers.

Many sites now go though spastic transformations as they load, with text changing font, size and weight five or six times before settling down, while graphic elements resize themselves and jump from place to place on a page. I sometimes feel as though I should take Dramamine before surfing. WTF? Not to mention that pages are taking longer and longer to load, even with broadband, often due to entirely unwanted auto-play videos rammed down our throats. Proof that man fills all available space (and bandwidth) with excrement.

Getting back to code, I've found CSS is serviceable for such things as font styles and other low-priority formatting tasks, but that's about as far as I'll trust it. All the rest I still do with tables, because they've always been rendered reliably—from the earliest days of the Internet—and I'll place bets they always will. Have a look at my code: you won't see anything but a few standard tags. Anyone who needs more is over-designing a page, which diminishes readability.

Back in the day, better coders proudly displayed "optimized for any browser" on their home pages. After all, since content is king, it should be available to anyone by any means. Since then, I'd thought we'd gotten past the nonsense of browser-specific websites. Boy was I wrong! I've recently hit some sites that warned they could not be viewed in anything but the very latest browser version, and I was only one version behind! Well, I guess they really don't want my business. What kind of drugs are these people on, anyway? Who in their right mind would deliberately exclude a non-trivial percentage of their potential eyeballs just to make some gizmos spin? Give me a break.

I've been told that my pages are boring. Do I need dancing bears to hold someone's attention? If a visitor is bored, then it's a function of the content not being in alignment with the their interests. And if people who might be interested don't stick around, then it's a function of the quality of the content, not the page design. To that end, I always do my best to generate the highest quality content possible.

One last bullet point: I don't use a web development application to generate my pages. For one thing, they have waaay more horsepower than I'll ever need, given that they're geared for gadget and plug-in happy people. For another, most of them generate garbage HTML. Non-man-readable code makes page debugging next to impossible. I just use a simple text editor that understands HTML enough to color-code the tags. That's all I'll ever need.

It's ironic that a common complaint in the early days of the Internet was that most of it was worthless; yet, as developers pile on the plug-ins, add-ons and other gizmos in an effort to "improve the user experience" (buzzwords like that make me wretch), the percentage of worthlessness is instead increasing. I often wonder why I bother to publish anything online. Ever the optimist, I suppose.

Are you still with me? Then you're my target audience. Are you nodding in agreement? Good. Shaking your head? Well, thank you for hanging in there all the same. Sorry, but we'll just have to agree to disagree. One thing you cannot deny is that you could easily read all of the content. That's my goal.


Copyright © 2017-2018 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.