Thoughts on Web Design

Category: Techwriter

Smashing Magazine
and a host of other web sites have web design down into a science, expanding into the smallish realm of smart screens and tablets and dealing with topics such as line-spacing, effects, and CSS3 . As fascinating and as incredibly complex as the science of design is, I'm afraid it's not something that comes naturally to me even after going through books such as Design Elements and  browsing through well-written articles and tutorials online. When I write code, I don't even bother with hex color numbers. Green is green and if it comes out as teal on an iPad, so be it. My design IQ is easily satisfied with a Summer Glau wallpaper on my LXDE desktop with a single color theme.
 
I'm probably in the minority but I can do without fancy Javascripts or Flash animation on my favorite websites. When I browse highly-complex sites with all the bells and whistles, I feel sorry for the company or web designer who built it - he must have spent hours on a single transparent control switch and that constantly shifting menu panel (not to mention the cost of spending for the Adobe Creative Suite and Adobe membership). Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the effort of coding Actionscript or Java, but all I really want is readable text positioned properly next to nice, good-looking images that aren't pixelated. My favorite web site feature? Collapsible text trees and a table of contents.

The following sections are my thoughts on the different web sites I frequent and my views on their web design.
 
Technical Web sites
 
I have absolutely no problem scrolling up or down but I do have quibbles about scrolling left to right when reading through highly technical documents.  
Bread crumbs used to be all right, but now I find them cumbersome especially if there's a nice place to put a navigation tree or table of contents. One of my favorite web designs is the Fedora documentation site. The collapsible panel on the left and navigation tree just works so well for browsing articles. The icons are clear and the blues are just enough without blindingly Windows 7 glaring.  The arrow controls on the table of contents even displays options to download a particular article as EPUB, HTML, or PDF. It's very true to the ideals of Linux, actually. Other favorite web sites of mine like IBM Developerworks and MSDN Learning Center are as equally text-intensive and I do wish for more screenshots but these web site resources are for serious learners and not viewers looking for Selena Gomez or Rihanna pictures.


 
Movie web sites
 
I don't often visit movie web sites but every time I do, they're pretty clunky. They're flash intensive and noisy (the background music can be disabled but it kind of defeats the purpose). I remember the Troy website a few years back and it was all sound and fury, confusing navigation controls, with gold trimmings everywhere. The first Iron Man movie web site was slick and did what it needed to do: endorse the movie and Audi, one of the products the film endorsed.

 
 
The Amazing Spider-Man was a great movie but the website was a downer. I visit movie web sites for film clips, wallpapers, and high-resolution images. The Spidey web site had very few downloads and wasn't exactly Spidey fun. The Skyfall movie website for the next James Bond film was equally disappointing. It was minimalistic but not in a good way. Perhaps it's my intense fanboy side, but I get a thrill out the Indiana Jones web site every time I visit - navigation is slick and it loads fairly quickly.
 
One movie web site that I fully explored was for the underrated flick Push with Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning which came out a few years ago. It gave a sophisticated feel and provided a great deal of background about the superhuman powers featured in the movie. I could have done without the Flash menus and effects-laden panels, but it was done well enough that the web site didn't lag and text was readable.
 
Articles, Functional and News web sites
 
BBC News has a layout that hasn't changed much over the years but it's easily accessible and I've grown used to it. The news site uses slideshows sparingly (unlike the horrendous Yahoo.com human interest articles and PCMag reviews) and iPlayer videos with much of the content in just text and a few images. CNN has great pages for individual articles but their home page, revised a few times over the last decade, feels cluttered and disorganized with small text and in-your-face hyperlinks. Channel News Asia is owned by a huge company in Singapore but their news web site seems oddly crippled and small with some pages (such as the Health and Entertainment section) left neglected for days.
 
Although I visit CNET, PCWORLD, and PCMAG out of habit, I must admit their layout needs a lot of work. PCWorld, in particular, had a boring site previously and now sports a commercialized and confusing look after a recent facelift. All three have grown so big that it's hard to find what you're looking for anymore.  Wired and Ars Technica, two of my favorite sites, carry similar-looking home pages. The layout is bright and occasionally confusing, but thankfully works for me because there are no distracting animations floating or embedded on the page. Wired and Ars has a very professional-looking layout but I have to admit I prefer the linear and late-90s feel of Engadget - I just scroll down to view all the new articles uploaded just like the old-school forums and BBS pages.
 
Distrowatch, Gutenberg.org, LoveHKFilm.com, and IMDB.com are all text intensive pages but they're so functional and informative all the developers need to do is keep the content up-to-date. Lifehacker and Gizmodo sport the same design. These two sites are great for learning and reading practical articles though their content is so immense it's easy to lose sight or miss out on some of their best articles.
 
Apple.com
 
I don't drink the Apple Kool-aid and I can't afford 90% of what is being sold over at Apple.com but I have to admit I keep going back there just to look at the huge pictures of the Macbook Pro and Mac Mini. What I like about the site is the generous size of the images and just enough product description to make me work harder to save up for an iMac and Time Capsule. I wouldn't want comic book web sites like Newsarama.com  to look like Apple.com but if Apple doesn't have proprietary rights to the CSS and XHTML on their website, I'd like to see other product sites go the same route.


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