Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 1 • January 2000
Doing It Right: Web Design for Library Types
by Janet L. Balas

“We tinker, break stuff, figure things out ...”
When personal computers and laser printers first brought desktop publishing to the masses, there were many documents that were, shall we say, less than aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, many budding desktop publishers produced documents that used so many fonts they looked like ransom notes composed of letters cut out from magazines. I’ve been doing the layout work for my library’s newsletter for several years, and I will admit to being embarrassed when I look back at some of those first newsletters. After the initial thrill of producing my own documents wore off, I realized that in order to produce effective publications I needed to learn and use the principles of good design. This same lesson applies to librarians who design their organizations’ Web pages. For any Web page to be effective, it must be well designed. Fortunately, there are numerous online sources that can help librarians learn the principles of good Web design.

Moving from Print Design to Web Design
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Nearly every library I have ever visited has had a display of printed book lists, newsletters, and other promotional materials prepared by the librarians. These publications  are now being published on the Web, so librarians who have experience with print design need to learn how designing for the Web is different from designing for print. Joe  Gillespie, a graphic designer from London, made the transition from print to the Web and has developed a Web site to help others make the same transition. This site, Web Page Design for Designers, does not stress or teach Web technologies such as HTML coding, but focuses on content and design and assumes some familiarity with print design and typography. The main information pages of the site cover the basics of Web design beginning with a case history and then proceeding through discussions of the characteristics of the electronic page, typography, graphics and palettes, tips and tricks, use of plug-ins, and Web site navigation. These pages are written in an easy, conversational style that is both entertaining and informative.

In addition to the main information pages, the site has a New This Month section that features editorials and product reviews. Previous editorials are archived on the site.  There is also an extensive set of links to other sources of information on Web design. A topical index and search facility can be used to locate information on a specific topic. An unusual feature of this index is its ability to also search the site’s links to other resources. A Web Page Design for Designers mailing list is available for visitors who would like to be informed of updates to the site.

An Interesting Question: Do You Want to Be a DevHead?
ZDNet Developer (or DevHead), part of the vast ZDNet Web site, is a comprehensive resource for budding Web designers. The information is divided into four topic areas:  coding, design, back-end, and resources. The design topic covers usability, accessibility, graphics, multimedia, and standards. Jakob Neilsen, a well-known voice on usability, writes a monthly column entitled “Users First” as one of several features on this important subject. There are also articles dedicated to the basics of building usable Web sites, and tutorials that demonstrate specific techniques for improving usability. The other areas of design—accessibility, graphics, multimedia, and standards—are covered in a similar manner.

DevHead also offers links to NetMechanic’s Web tools. These tools will analyze a site and point out problems and possible improvements. The browser check will display a site’s Web pages as they would be seen in the various browsers, while the link check will, as its name implies, check a site’s links and note any broken ones. Load check will analyze the load times of a site’s Web pages at various access speeds and identify parts that are too slow. If the graphics on a page are causing it to load slowly, then the GIFBot tool can be used to optimize the graphics. Errors in HTML coding can be detected with HTML check, while the spell check tool can eliminate those embarrassing misspellings. These tools are free for up to 20 pages. You can check a larger site in its entirety using NetMechanic’s tools for a fee. Further information on NetMechanic’s services is located on the company’s Web site.

The ZDNet Developer site has so much information that it can be overwhelming and leave the aspiring Web developer with more questions than answers. DevHead’s Talking Heads forums provide the opportunity for experienced and inexperienced Web designers to discuss Web-related topics. The Heads-Up Newsletter, a free, twice-weekly, electronic newsletter, keeps DevHead users informed of the latest downloads, tutorials, and columns on the site.

An Online Workshop that Includes Multimedia Files
Microsoft offers help for Web developers through the MSDN Online Web Workshop. The workshop covers all aspects of Web development from design through the latest technologies. The section devoted to design provides information on layout and design, Web technologies, tools, color management, and typography.

As would be expected, Microsoft products and technologies are emphasized in this workshop, but there is still a great deal of useful information that applies to all designers. Of particular interest are the interviews with experienced Web designers who share their ideas about good Web design. There are also multimedia resources, including graphics and sounds, available for download along with the tools to work with them and an extensive set of links to other resources.

Is Your Web Site Cool?
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Project Cool was founded in 1995 with the goal of helping all kinds of people to make great Web sites. Projectcoolmedia continues to work toward that goal with its network of Web sites that share “... the common belief that anyone can build a great website if given knowledge, guidance and inspiration.” There are tutorials for every skill level from the beginner to the experienced designer, and a search engine, DevSearch, which indexes the best Web development resources on the Web. Links to examples of good design can be found on the Sightings Web site, which is updated daily with a new selected site. The PeopleSphere site has forums and mailing lists where Web developers can exchange ideas and ask questions. Future Focus is a weekly “opinion-zine” that discusses trends on the Web and includes links to recent news stories.

In addition to its own offerings, projectcoolmedia partners with others to bring more resources to Web designers. High Five is a Web-based weekly design magazine that is dedicated to promoting excellence in design. Each month High Five reviews sites that demonstrate good design, interviews an online designer, and offers a feature presentation on a specific topic related to Web design.

Another projectcoolmedia partner is A List Apart, which is a weekly online magazine and a moderated mailing list. A new issue of the magazine appears online every Friday, and digests from the discussion list are available in the online archive. Membership in the mailing list is free and is required for participation in the discussion.

Webmonkey is a Web developer’s resource from HotWired. The authors of Webmonkey explain what they do in their Webmonkey Tour, and I quote, “We tinker, break stuff, figure things out, and pass the information on to you.” The site concentrates on presenting tutorials on all aspects of Web authoring and design, but also includes articles and commentary in its How-to Library. Design is one of the categories and is further organized into these subtopics: site building, graphics, and fonts. On Webmonkey, you can learn Web design basics, techniques for optimizing your site, or, if you’re thinking of completely redoing your site, you can work through the tutorial on site redesign prepared by five Web design experts.

Putting the Principles of Design into Practice
I’ve been planning to do some redesigning of my library’s Web pages for some time now, but before I do, I am going to spend some time at the sites I’ve discussed in this column. I just hope that after I learn more about good Web design I won’t be as embarrassed by my early Web pages as I am when I look back at my first printed newsletters.

Janet L. Balas is library information systems specialist at Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Public Library. She can be reached by e-mail at or

Resources Discussed

Web Page Design for Designers

ZDNet Developer


MSDN Online Web Workshop

Web Workshop—Design



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