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Realities of Web Design

Last Updated: Friday, 09-Jan-2015 12:32:42 PST

Designing a Brochure vs. Designing a Website

Most people's first introduction to design is a photo editor or page layout application. Most people could just drag and drop pictures, type text, and do some formatting to make a nice looking document and even turn it into a nice print out or even nice PDF with a little more knowledge. Then people try designing a web site and get very frustrated very fast. Most web sites seem to last for an average of 18 months and then the content is usually taken down and never appears again online. The main reason I think is that designing a website is much more complicated than making a brochure.

Why HTML Causes Design Problems

There are many reasons for that. One of the reasons why is because the PDF file format was designed, by one company, with one vision and does a very good job, for what it is intended to do, originally. The file format for web sites was designed, by a committee, that made arbitrary decisions, very slowly, that neither helped the designer nor the web browser developers. During this process, many pages were created that will likely never be touched again, by their creator, but might be very important, for many users, for a long time. So web pages cannot be designed totally differently, because of this need for backwards compatibility.

HTML Does More Things than PDFs

There are some really great things that a web page does, that most people do not try with PDFs, like interactivity and audio and video. Web pages also supported a wide variety of plugins, including the infamous Flash, but that is an entirely different thing, that should be discussed separately. Another thing that is different about a website is that it can be updated instantly, so many popular websites need to constantly be updated, to appeal to their users demands. This makes things much more complicated.

HTML has Less Formatting Options

One of the reasons why you can open most PDFs on the Internet, with a very old version of Adobe Reader, is that PDFs supported a wide range of formatting and features, long before HTML had them. Also, Adobe also had previous experience with Postscript, which was similar to the PDF file format and they learned a lot from that. Only with the very latest browsers do we have support for many of the common formatting, that PDFs allow, on web pages. The only thing that still is supported poorly is precise alignment of graphical elements and good support for printing.

Design vs. Accessibility Conflicts

One of the surprising things is that web pages could have used Postscript and latter PDF, for their formatting, which would definitely worked technically and would have solved a lot of problems. One of the reasons why a format like PDF or Postscript was not used for web pages was that web visionaries wanted the same web page, to be able to be displayed on any size screen and any screen with a different height to width proportions (aspect ratio). In the effort to allow for this, we lost the ability to make precise alignment of graphical elements.

Problem Caused by Lack of Vector Graphics

While this could work and still make a good design, the obvious problem, which is still not fully solved, is that the only kind of graphics well supported amongst browsers are bitmap graphics. So the combination of having graphics, that cannot scale to any size, without distortion and the requirement for web sites to work, across any size screen, makes a designer give up the control of the size and proportion of white space (the space between the graphical elements).

Idea of CSS

One of the great things about HTML, that was invented much later, is called CSS. You here a lot about Javascript, but you rarely hear about CSS. CSS is the formatting language of the web. Using best practices for designing websites, and using HTML and CSS, you can structure your information, with HTML and place consistent formatting, to each of the elements, with CSS.

Power of CSS

CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets, which means that you can use CSS in one file that affects your entire website or any number of pages, while you can also have specific styles for one page, or specify styles arbitrarily, for specific graphical elements. This ability to change, for an entire website, all the paragraph, heading, or image styles, in one place, is very powerful. You can have different style sheets for different purposes,: like for printing, for small screens, for people with poor eyesight, and a variety of other uses.

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