NS Internet Column

Setting out to do a proper web site may be the most stupid thing I have ever done in my life. It started off as a simple project to make something promoting my book and allowing people to buy it by clicking on a link to I already kept a few pages with cuttings and things on the Well, but they were done back when the web was simple and good design consisted only of using the smallest possible pictures and making sure that nothing on the pages tried to slither, beep or blink.

Even without any kind of fancy layout, there is still a huge amount of work involved in web publishing if you are to do more than shovel acres of grey text at the reader. Articles need thoughtful linking, either to the rest of the site or to the outside world. Since reading on screen is unquestionably nastier than reading on paper, we should compensate for this experience by adding useful footnotes. This needs thought and even research. You have to throw your mind out of gear and freewheel across a piece of prose, looking for sidetracks, then go back and work out where these should lead, and where on the web to find their destinations. Newspapers can do this automatically to some extent, by searching their own databases for similar stories. The Electronic Telegraph is not a bad model. But there is judgement as well as knowledge needed and that takes time.

The language in which the Web is written, HTML, has been growing and changing ferociously for as long as it has existed. The latest versions allow designers, for the first time, to specify more or less how they want their pages to look, in the way that you would take for granted if you were printing on paper. Until then, the author of a web page could specify that a paragraph should appear as a heading, or as part of a list, for example; but he had no choice over what these terms meant. A heading might appear to the reader in a chaste serif 14 point Independent-style or it could leap, drooling from the screen in 18 point lime green Creepy (one of Mr Gates more philanthropic pieces of software, a font that drips slime). The choice was made at the readerís screen, not the writerís.

This powerlesness gave art directors nervous breakdowns; it had another advantages. It meant that people had to concentrate on the structure of their sites, and not on the look.

There are two troubles with this kind of minimalist approach. The first arises from the fact that skilled designers can now accomplish a great deal more, and make sites that look delightfully inviting. So unskilled designers want to do the same. Thereís lots of software that seems to make this easier. The best of it, like Macromedia Dreamweaver, is powerful, subtle, elegant and ó actually there is only one thing to know about this sort of software, and this is that you must use as a frisbee and nothing else. Otherwise it will take over your life and destroy your capacity for productive work. Believe me: I have just spent half an hour playing with scanned photographs of Roman Provence in order to extract from them a pleasing colour scheme. Before that, I spent an hour debugging a form that allows people to join a mailing list. At five this morning, I woke with a brilliant idea for an article, which had within seconds been washed from my mind by an even more interesting idea about how to display it in a three column table and now I canít remember what I was meant to write: worse still I canít get the layout to come out as it should.

The second problem is that none of the browsers you can currently buy actually do what they promise to. They all still display carefully designed pages differently: itís just that the more modern ones make more complicated mistakes.

Finally, there is th epoint that

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This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.