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Authoring and Design for the WWW


Web design for non-designers

What do designers do?

Design theory and design criticism are both huge subjects beyond the scope of this handbook, but it is important to understand roughly what designers do. We need to look at this in general terms, touching on the fundamental principles of information design, and then how it might apply to the Web.

Are Web designers needed?

In the early days, the Web was conceived of as a simple medium, dominated by text which was formatted automatically according to the rules of HTML, and therefore had little need for designers. Indeed, there was very little for them to do! Now however, there are far more possibilities, both in terms of the look of a Web page, and its interactivity, and the skills of a designer are more likely to be needed.

Design is not magic

Designers do not necessarily have any special gifts and mainly work not by inspiration, but on the basis of their training and experience. It is perhaps fair to say that many designers do not think what they are doing' in the sense that they have a theory of design which tells them what to do. Designers make many decisions intuitively based on their training and their observation of the work of others. Nevertheless, there are some core principles which inform what the designer does, even unconsciously.

Clarify, amplify, modify

A minimal role for the information designer is to clarify what the author intends through the use of layout and typography choosing the size and weight of fonts, as well as which fonts to use, and positioning the elements within the available space.


By making headlines and subheads of different sizes, the designer clarifies which items are most prominent, or identifies items as equally important by giving them headlines of equal weight. By this means, the hierarchies inherent in the text are represented graphically to the user.

Parts of a text are parenthetical to the main argument, and so are moved into separate items' on the page. This is very common in magazines, where it is assumed that readers will not want to read hundreds of words of undifferentiated text, so certain items are boxed off from the main body.

In practice

On a Web page, much of the visual presentation of hierarchies is taken care of by the rules of HTML. If a paragraph is given the status of being tagged <H1>, it will be the boldest thing on the page, whereas <H2> will be less prominent and so on. In addition, paragraphs of equal prominence can be given identifying bullet-points automatically, simply by identifying them as items of an 'unordered list'.

Placing parenthetical texts in separate graphical areas of the page, is exactly the sort of thing which HTML has traditionally been poor at. It has not even supported columns, where one column might be used for the main text and another for parenthetic text. Nor has it allowed the placing of graphical boxes around text, or the use of identifying blocks of tint or colour behind the text.

In addition to simply making clear to the user those things which are evidently in the text, the designer may also choose to amplify the messages in the original.


A recent fad in the advertising industry has been to pick out key words in a paragraph of copy, and present those words in different fonts, styles, sizes or colours. These words seem to jump off the page, calling disproportionate attention to themselves from the reader.

In practice

While the designer cannot currently choose different fonts in HTML, it is possible to alter the emphasis (and even the size of words in most browsers). Of course, HTML also has a very prominent built-in emphasis of its own, which it uses for an anchor, clickable hot-text which leads to a hypertext link. Many designers would like to modify the stridency of this highlight, and changes to HTML have allowed the author/designer to dictate what colour and other indication is used for these anchors.

We have discussed clarifying and amplifying the messages of the content. If designers are servants of the author, we may question whether they have any business modifying the content, not by copy-editing it, but changing its flavour' through design? In many ways designers do this all the time.


Designers can make a text look friendly or intimidating, informal or academic, traditional or modern, by choosing particular typefaces and styles of layout. It is not necessary for readers to recognise a typeface to be influenced by it. It might be argued that information should be pure', unaffected by typographical and layout choices, but this is impossible to achieve. Even completely unformatted typescript makes an unavoidable visual statement about itself before the user begins to read.

In practice

Within HTML, no choice of typefaces has been possible. For an internal Web service, an intranet, there is some possibility of setting users' font 'preferences' for them in a settings file, but even this is not proof against the user subsequently making their own choices. The desire to have more control over all aspects of the appearance of the page is one of the factors driving towards solutions like that of Adobe Acrobat (p104).

The designer may mould the author's thought by providing some sort of template, however informal. So for example, if the author writes a description of a course according to some pro-forma or style guide, clearly the design will alter the sorts of things which can be said. The designer may want to constrain the amount written to fit comfortably within a single screen which does not require the user to scroll the window in order to see all the text.

In practice

With an increasingly modular approach, and perhaps also with a greater regard for the information needs of the customer' than previously, it is likely that templates will be created for many sorts of HEI information. In technical terms, this may provide huge advantages: rather than writing Web pages explicitly, if all module descriptions are stored in a database of identically structured module descriptions, than any enquiry about courses can simply trawl the database and present the relevant information to the user in a page made in answer to their specific query.

Good designers will always subjugate their own ego to the intentions of the author.

Designing with a purpose

Web documents serve many purposes, but this often includes the provision of substantive information. If there is information on a web page it must be there for a reason information must have a motive behind it. The motive tells the designer to present it: what features of the information to emphasise and what to omit. Information must have an active role for the user: perhaps to make the user aware of something they never knew about, perhaps to answer a question already in the user's mind.
The motive may be:

Many information graphics in particular have no clear rationale. Selecting, editing and designing information with a particular effect on the user in mind is an aspect of user-centred design

Design and pleasure

Perhaps all pleasures in HE should arise from intellectual satisfaction alone. However, if we see it as in any way our remit to motivate students, then one of the potential attractors available to us is the appearance of the many texts, both academic and institutional, which they use. Some academic textbooks seem to revel in a frosty, staid look, which is perhaps seen as appropriately serious. But any designer should be able to produce designs which combine gravitas with friendliness and accessibility (see for example the Death Resource case study, p75)

It is not the role of good designers to make a poorly written text attractive. Nor should designers feel they need to add spurious material to the core content. Edward Tufte (1983, 1990) illustrates some notable examples of crass information design where the superfluous contributions of the designer significantly detract from the content. His books should be required reading for all information designers.

If one of the roles of design is to please the user, then whom should it please and how? This is often overlooked on an assumption that there are absolute standards of attractiveness.

Visual presentation must be appropriate to

In practice

As always, the Web raises interesting new problems as well as solutions. If symbols are used as helpful identifiers for information, then they must be available to all users, and not made impractical by a lack of suitable browser software or speed of network.

A more subtle issue is raised by hypertext structures. Suppose that we choose to colour-code all the pages within a certain group (using HTML's background colour feature). Within that group we make reference to another page. The user sees it as being within the context of the current sub-section and is disorientated on finding that it does not in fact conform to the coding scheme. The developer knows that this is because the page is also cross-referenced from another subgroup! An inexperienced hypertext designer, accustomed only to the less interlinked structure of paper documents, may find themselves unable to handle these new design problems.

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