Creating Killer Web Sites

best-selling web design guide with graphics emphasis

Design guru David Siegel posits the notion that web sites exist in three ‘generations’. First generation sites, created in the mad rush of the early 1990s, were not much more than text files with hyperlinks – and they were inescapably linear:

most had edge-to-edge text that ran on for pages, separated by meaningless blank lines. At best, they looked like slide presentations shown on a cement wall.

Second generation sites were basically the same, but with with icons replacing words, tiled images replacing the ubiquitous grey background, and banners replacing headlines. His claim for the idea of third generation sites is that they offer a new visual experience in which the visitor is ‘pulled’ through the pages using metaphors and “well-know models of consumer psychology”.

For instance, he’s in favour of ‘splash screens’ – entry pages which act as an advert for the sites they introduce. Then he wants sites to offer an ‘experience’ rather than effective data-sharing. The site maps he reproduces in the latest edition of Creating Killer Web Sites have pages on which there is only one link to anything else. He even promotes the idea of ‘exit’ pages which tell the site visitor that this web experience is over.

Having visited his personal site with its splash screen of the Andy Warhol ‘Marilyn’ prints several times, I find them simply an unnecessary impediment to accessing the valuable advice he makes available beyond. None of this sits easily with the idea that any page should be no more than two or three clicks away from any given point. And why introduce an extra stage in the navigational process which yields no real information? This ‘guided tour’ approach to the web experience works directly against the sprit of hypertext, which should give people the freedom to follow whatever links they choose. Why then has he been such a powerful influence in the last few years?

Well, the truth is that apart from this rather idiosyncratic notion, he has a lot of very useful advice to offer on the practical aspects of site design. Not only is his book elegantly produced, it’s packed with tips and tricks which have proved enduringly popular. Much of his success as a designer is founded on his background in typography and graphics, and he makes no bones about the fact that he wants more control of layout on screen.

His most useful guidance, it seems to me, is focused on the aesthetics of page elements and the visual experience of reading on a monitor. For instance, he maintains his crusade against the horizontal rule

but has abandoned advocacy of the single-pixel gif trick to control white space. He’s now in favour of the non-breaking space < > and he has the honesty to admit that many of these devices are ‘hacks’ to achieve effects denied us by the browser.

Text should be held in a narrow column [like this one] and should be limited to what can be read in about a minute, or four to six screens, before offering a new page. He’s against the use of bullets: “They are ugly, identical, and convey little meaning…design around them in all cases” – and he produces plenty of elegant screen shots and page makeovers which support his arguments.

He’s equally adamant on the use of indents to separate paragraphs – “no matter what it takes to make them” and the use of the

tag is designated as Deadly Sin number one. I think he’s just a little quirky in this, because this strategy is clearly striving to imitate the appearance of the printed page where it may not always be appropriate – on screen.

He deals with the most fundamental issues of page layout using clear language, and he illustrates the HTML techniques to achieve each effect in a way which anybody could follow. There’s no tricky programming or Java script to be mastered. My notebook was full in no time of coding tips, URLs, and bibliographic recommendations which I’m itching to follow up.

It’s slightly disappointing that the admirable clarity of his approach in early sections of the book is not extended to those on typography and ‘site makeover’. Here he assumes that all the manipulation will be via graphics, and some chapters are dense with PhotoShop techniques which are not as general as his advice on page layout. There is nothing on choice of fonts or the use of the tag, which is still controversial enough to warrant comment. He assumes you’ll already know a lot about the creation and manipulation of images. Yet how many readers outside design studios would be able to make much of advice such as “I flatten this entire page and use adaptive color reduction with no dithering”?

Fortunately, there are full-page reproductions of the HTML code for his designs, which is helpful for analysing and understanding the effects he is discussing. He also has an honest and breezy style – “Hang on. This is going to get messy” – and he spells out the truth of rapid and uneven development:

Designers are facing new challenges: how to design sites during the awkward transition from version 3.0 and 4.0 browsers to the version 5.0 and [more important] 6.0 browsers to come. The limitations of 3.0 browsers require designers to resort to workarounds and tricks

This frankness is one of his key strengths. He admits that he doesn’t know how to write his own cgi scripts, and en passant like a young enthusiast he recommends interesting free services and software – such as Gif Wizard, which will optimise your images – as well as very clever tricks for pre-loading the image for a page in advance of its appearance.

In the latter part of the book he offers predictions for the future – cascading style sheets, then XML will predominate – plus some rash promises on details: “I predict that in late 1998, PNG [a graphic format] will take over. With any luck, GIF will be eradicated like the SmallPox virus by the end of 1999”. We’ll wait and see.

I think it’s clear why Creating Killer Web Sites has become a best-seller. Apart from the fact that it’s very stylishly designed and printed, it concentrates on reproducing the sort of graphically advanced page designs which many people would like to create. Strictly speaking, this is really for site builders who wish to maximise the visual novelties of their design whilst minimising the strain put on bandwidth resources. However, it has so many fascinating insights and practical tips to offer, it’s a design manual you can’t really afford to miss.

© Roy Johnson 2002

David Siegel, Creating Killer Web Sites: The Art of Third-Generation Site Design (2nd edn) Indianapolis: Hayden, 1997, pp.306, ISBN: 1568304331

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