This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
Copyright 1996-1999,
Thom Lieb

No portion may be reused without the author's permission.

Return to
Table of Contents

Further Reading:
Steve Outing, "Surprising Trends in News Web Site Design," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 22 June 1998

Steve Outing, "A Tale of 2 Newspaper Web Redesigns: Part 1," Editor & Publisher Interactive ($)

Matthew Cutler, "Designer Label," Webmaster, March 1997

The Sun Web Site Design History

David Siegel's High Five

Creating Killer Websites Online

Mindy McAdams, "Back to the Drawing Board," American Journalism Review.

Cool Site of the Day

The Useless Pages

typoGRAPHIC (typography primer)

Fine-tune your GIFs with a visit to the GIF Wizard

WebTV Developer Resource

To learn more about
this college editing textbook or to order
an educational review
copy, please visit
McGraw Hill.

Editing for the Web

Appropriate Design

When desktop publishing software became widely available, people everywhere thought they were designers. The fact that they were not became painfully obvious when they began producing hideous documents cluttered with dozens of typefaces.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again." The ability to concoct Web pages fairly easily has a lot of people with no sense of design thinking they are artists. So it's not uncommon to stumble across truly ugly Web sites, such as the Dip-a-Dee Donuts site.

Fortunately, good Web design doesn't require the right set of genes or a degree from the Art Academy. Merely keeping the following principles in mind can help you produce a great-looking Web site (or at least speak intelligently with your designer).

Good design equals credibility. Just as errors in fact and style can undermine reader confidence, so too can poor design pull the rug out from under writers' and editors' best work. Jakob Nielsen of Sun Microsystems writes:

People have very little patience for poorly designed WWW sites. As one user put it, "The more well organized a page is, the more faith I will have in the info."

Simpler is usually better. Because most Internet users still connect at relatively low speeds (28k or 56k), designers need to keep sites simple to speed loading time. Some sites that debuted on the Web with splashy designs have since rethought their approach and redesigned, offering only a smattering of small graphics. One of the best-known examples of a site that redesigned is CNET.

Good print design is generally good Web design. Mario Garcia, who made his reputation helping to redesign hundreds of newspapers around the world and now works on Web design, too, believes that the same basic design principles apply to both. "Eighty percent of print design transfers to the Web," Mario Garcia told a seminar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Attention to typography, contrast and color are as important on the Web as on the printed page, he said. And the need for white space also transfers: Too many Web sites seemed crammed to the max with words and graphics, with no area offering the visitor's eyes a chance to rest.

Design should reflect the unique personality of a publication. With an entirely new medium at their disposal, you might think that Web designers would come up with all manner of design. The truth is far different, however, as any visit to a number of online newspaper sites will show you. Far too often, designers model their sites on other sites they like or on print media on which they have worked, rather than starting with a blank slate.

Mario Garcia laments that few newspaper Web sites are taking advantage of the new medium. Garcia believes it will take several more years for designers to learn to use the medium effectively. A few that seem to "get it now" include the Chicago Tribune and Eureka, the Web site for El Tiempo of Bogota, Columbia (one of Garcia's clients).

Not surprisingly, some of the best design on the Web is the work of young people with little or no print background. For example, the winners of the College Press Network's Best of the College Press competition were praised by judges as having much to teach the pros. Mary Hoppin, one of the contest judges, told Steve Outing of Editor & Publisher Interactive that she was struck by the "vibrancy" of the top entries from the college press. "It's really nice to see at the college level, design and content that really does compare favorably — and in a lot of cases is superior to — the kind of content that we see at Web sites that are professionally produced," she said.

Designers shouldn't rest. Even when Web site designers break new ground, they often seem content to sit on their laurels for long periods of time. Writing for the online edition of American Journalism Review, Mindy McAdams notes:

In the rapidly changing environment of the World Wide Web, new functionality is introduced several times each year. Design options that were impossible 18 months ago are now passé. But newspapers seem to be stuck in their old print habits, looking on design as something that stays the same, something you finish and then don't think about for a few years.

Graphics help snag visitors. In his studies of Web users, Garcia has found that they love graphics — but only as a way to get into the page. "Graphics are extremely important on the first page to mesmerize the visitor," Garcia said, calling such graphically rich opening pages the "foyer" to a Web site. "Beyond that, graphics are important only for navigation." Web designers must balance their visitors' craving for big graphics on introductory pages with concern about loading times of the pages.

Too much choice isn't a good thing. Many site designers obviously believe that if a few choices are good, a tremendous number of choices is even better. So their pages are cluttered with dozens of buttons, pull-down menus and other devices, with no clear indication of what choices are the most important or useful. Take a look at the ZDNet home page if you want to be overwhelmed with choices.

Mario Garcia suggests that less is more when it comes to such choices. He recommends setting up a maximum of two "baskets of information" on any given page, each with no more than six choices. A good starting point for the primary basket is the left side of the page, where readers look first for choices; the secondary basket can be placed at the top of the page. "Nothing beats get me in and get me out on the top and side of the page," Garcia says. But remember: These suggestions are only starting points — good site design is specific to the site.

Style remains important. Every site should have a coherent, consistent style from page to page. While different parts of the site may cry out for different designs, some common elements are necessary for unity.

User feedback is essential. Web designers often forget that what pleases them may not please normal people. So users should be sought out to test navigation and features and make sure icons communicate what they are supposed to. (In one test by the designers of the Sun Microsystems site, users thought that an icon meant to represent technology — a man holding a lightning bolt — was simply a picture of a man being struck by lightning.)

Most importantly, designers must remember that few people log onto the Internet to admire Web page design. Instead, surfers are coming for information, and the sooner they get it, the happier they are.

Next page Table of Contents Email the author