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Web Design: Balancing Form and Function

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Link-Up Digital

Designing a Web site is much like any other design project, from a brochure or a book to a bridge or a skyscraper. You want the form to promote the function and the function to be highlighted by the form.

Whether you’re putting together a homespun site consisting of a few pages or overseeing a multilevel, multimedia-rich corporate site, you should keep in mind the principles of good Web design.

I’ve talked with a number of Web design professionals, read lots of information on the subject, looked at about a billion Web sites, and designed a few sites of my own. Here are some tips I’ve learned:

  • Respect people’s time. Everything else about Web design stems from this. People online operate in Internet time, and that means short attention spans.
  • People coming to a Web site are typically looking for information. They’re not looking to be wowed by flash that just slows them down. It’s as easy to click out of a poorly designed site as it is to slam shut a poorly written book or to walk out of a poorly directed movie.
  • You might think that the Web is all about technology. But it’s really about the content—the stuff—that the technology makes available. In this way, it’s no different from other tools such as a printing press or a movie camera.
  • People should know almost immediately upon arriving at your site why they should stick around. Just as with an article or ad in a magazine or newspaper, you need to quickly communicate what’s in it for them.
  • Be clear with headlines, not clever or punny. Break up longer text passages with subheads that summarize key points. Many readers will just scan your pages, reading only the subheads.
  • Consider providing a site map or index that displays all the interior links for those who want to get their bearings from the outset. An internal search tool is another feature that shows you’re looking after users’ needs.
  • Because it’s more difficult to read from a computer screen than from paper, strive for conciseness with your content. Keep words, sentences, and paragraphs short. Make the width of columns shorter than the width of the screen. A colored or textured background should never make the text difficult to read. Likewise, dancing buttons, blinking text, and other bells and whistles can draw too much attention to themselves and detract from the overall effect.
  • Along with conciseness, Web sites also benefit from comprehensiveness. This is only an apparent contradiction. Web surfers may be in a hurry, but if they like what they see, they’ll want as much of it as they can get. The Web makes in-depth elaboration possible by having fewer space restrictions than any other medium.
  • After you present the big picture, unfold the rest of your story through links to interior pages. Make it clear up front how many links are involved so readers know what they’re getting into. Links are fundamental to the Web, but subdividing pages too much and forcing readers to tunnel down through too many links will only frustrate them.
  • Clearly label links indicating where each leads. With each page, provide a link back to the beginning of the section or site. If part of your site is still under construction, don’t create a link to it yet. Those passe “Under Construction” signs just waste visitors’ time.
  • Build in a way for readers to talk back, such as email feedback, discussion boards, and chat rooms. More than anything else, the Web differentiates itself from other media by its interactivity.
  • Think visually as well as verbally to make your content most compelling. When appropriate, use drawings, photographs, animation, audio, or video. Your site will be more convincing if these multimedia enhancements relate to your words instead of being gratuitous glitz.
  • More and more people these days have cable, DSL, satellite, or other high-speed access to the Internet, but many still connect through dial-up modems. So when you provide multimedia elements, you’ll satisfy more people by giving them options depending on the speed of their connections.
  • You can design a Web site yourself, or you can hire a Web designer. The Cadillac of Web design packages, Adobe Creative Suite (, just came out with an upgrade. It now combines the best Web page editor, Dreamweaver, with the best photo editor, Photoshop.
  • Many business sites could benefit from the services of a user experience architect, also known as an information architect, usability engineer, or interaction designer, to make sure your site is meeting users’ needs as well as your own.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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