...making Linux just a little more fun!

<-- prev | next -->

Design Awareness

By Mark Seymour

Not Just Sizzle

In musing on what might be the most basic design concept, thus determining where to begin this column, I realized that I first need to discuss something even more fundamental than design: content.

As a designer, your job is to recast data into information structures that tantalize, entice, excite, and visually please, as well as actually inform. The classic bad example of this might be the annual report, where pages of snappy color photography in the front are often intended to distract from the pages of dreary numbers in the back. Yet, occasionally, you find a designer who can make both sing, where the data isn't merely presented (usually as acres of tiny and barely differentiated type) but honed and arranged such that the reader can not only find the pertinent information but easily decipher it and even, in rare cases, enjoy the process of understanding it.

The web, more so than print, has become differentiated into areas of information and areas of style. Traditionally, the cost of full-color printing has prevented self-indulgent design, except for the occasional self-promotion piece. By contrast, the threshold cost of publishing on the Internet is laughably low, and it is all too easy for design to show up with little if any content attached to it. Unfortunately, some of the latter has been created for companies who, if they had to pay to deliver the same information in printed form, would never agree to such simplistic and often anti-informational work.

There are sites, of course, which provide more than enough content to make irrelevant their design, or lack of it:


There are also sites we will go to, no matter their level of design or even usability. Having been unemployed recently, I found this site functional, though painful graphically and informationally. While the server occasionally goes down (during, of course, those exact hours when you want to use it), you go back later because you must:


There are also sites which may not be very well designed (to my eye, at least), but provide enough genuine content to make ignoring their faults worthwhile:


Conversely, there are designers who create sites where the lack of content is almost irrelevant. These approach that line where design segues into art, a line both diffuse and ill-defined; whether you like their styles or not, you must admire their skill:


Sometimes, of course, making an incredible image in Flash may be just what is required. In most cases, however, the central requirement is an efficient transfer of information, which can be formulated as

data x structure = information

As the designer, and thus the person responsible for the structure, how can you maximize the efectiveness of the data in this equation? If you are the owner and/or originator of the material, you will have already made critical decisions about its purpose: is this to be a showcase for artistic talent (whether yours or someone else's), or a method of educating the reader? Asking these questions is the very beginning of the design process.

If a company or an organization or some other group is running the show, you will need to take them through the analytical processes that form the basis for any design: What is the target audience? What needs to be communicated to them (things like assembly instructions, event schedules, on-going news, political advocacy, historical facts, product warnings, and plain old funny stuff)? Does this connect with other information that your readers will either instinctively want to know or be shocked or persuaded into wanting to know based on the initial material? Are there archival structures, whether simple link lists (e.g., the Linux Gazette archives) or more complex systems (like the Smithsonian site above) that provide useful material for further study? Is there raw data (statistics, maps, reports, photographs, charts, video) that needs to be readily available, yet not directly incorporated into the design? Is there other information that is required by law, suggested by industry practice, or just worthwhile offering to your readers as a public service?

[ Editor's note: if you're a Web site designer, you need to be aware of WCAG and Section 508 accessibility requirements; these are becoming mandatory in many situations. For more info and a free compliance validator, see http://www.cynthiasays.com/. ]

Answering these questions will immediately add data to your equation. Properly designed, too much data is rarely a problem. If your material is going to be published electronically, whether on the internet or on CD or DVD, it's now become so cheap to add information to your publication directly, or provide links to it elsewhere, that not doing so creates unnecessary customer dissatisfaction. While printed material doesn't produce the same expectation among consumers, adding a URL to a site that does provide it is always a plus.

What should you do if there just isn't enough data? If it's your own site, you have either decided it is purely for entertainment purposes, or you need to redefine your intentions and go back through the question list above. If it's a corporate site, you may need to approach someone higher up the food chain and get them involved in the process; the people you've been working with may not understand the complexities of the situation, or the dangers of getting a review like the one voiced by Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Now that you have the data, and hopefully more than enough of it, it's time to do all the prep work that data requires before you begin to apply any design to it. Has the data been checked, by someone who actually knows, for completeness and correctness? This includes criteria like: Is it up to date? Is it legally acceptable (most companies have review staffs of lawyers and regulatory experts who must sign off on anything before it's published)? Does it meet accounting or other professional standards (especially in the case of an annual report or other financial documents, but it equally applies to other industries like architecture and engineering)? Then you will need to have it looked at by someone literate in the language(s) you're working in, for those niggling issues of proper usage (nomenclature, trademarks, acronyms, and the like) as well as grammar and spelling.

You did determine if the site needed to be partially or completely translated into the languages of your expected audiences, didn't you? If not, now's the time. Obviously, non-English readers could use Babelfish http://www.babelfish.altavista.com, though it's no substitute for someone fluent in the target language; however, relying on your customers to go through the process instead of just finding a site with better service would be poor reasoning, and a false economy. You might consider providing a Babelfish translation of your main pages somewhere on your site as a nod in that direction, a modicum of user-friendly translation for readers in other language areas. (Why not "other countries"? Because there are places in every country where they speak a language other than the obvious one; Spanish and Navajo are examples of secondary languages with large user groups in this country. There are also French speakers in Canada and Japanese speakers in Brazil and English speakers in Guatemala and people for whom English is not their first language in every major city in the United States. Depending on whom you're trying to reach, you may need to provide resources in Chinese and Russian and Arabic, even for US-only audiences.)

If you are using images, were they all legally obtained, and do you have written copyright and model releases for each one? In these litigious times, using someone else's image without proper permission can be a costly mistake. What trademarks do you reference, and to whom do they belong? Proper trademark usage is an art all its own; you can find some guidance at http://www.inta.org, and there are plenty of printed and on-line sources for advice.

Do not think that these are trivial or unnecessary steps. Going back and doing it later is always more time-consuming (and expensive), and nothing makes you look more stupid, both to your audience and your superiors, than some "how could you have missed that" mistake. Once the data is checked, and rechecked (because someone always sees the typographic error the last person missed), break it out into easily found and easily deciphered files. If you go looking for an important piece of legal gibberish that must appear on every other page, and what you're looking for is titled 9arg411foo.lgl04.pdf, and it's on a floppy disk in the desk drawer of someone who's on vacation, it might take a while to find.

Next time we will delve into what structure means to a designer, and how you thus turn all that data into information. (If there are relevant sites you particularly admire, including your own, please send the URLs along.) In the meantime, when next you sit down to design, consider the goal: is it merely to show off the latest software trick, or to communicate matters of importance to the viewer? (The Linux Gazette site is itself modeled on information, not glitz; we will analyze its design in later columns.) Given the lack of real information in this world or, worse yet, the excess of bad information, it is a noble endeavor, and the mark of a true designer, to aspire to create it.



I started doing graphic design in junior high school, when it was still the Dark Ages of technology. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both eleven years old, and the state of the art was typing copy on Gestetner masters. I've worked on every new technology since, but I still own an X-acto knife and know how to use it.

I've been a freelancer, and worked in advertising agencies, printing companies, publishing houses, and marketing organizations in major corporations. I also did a dozen years [1985-1997] at Apple Computer; my first Macintosh was a Lisa with an astounding 1MB of memory, and my current one is a Cube with a flat screen.

I've had a website up since 1997, and created my latest one in 2004. I'm still, painfully, learning how web design is different from, but not necessarily better than, print.

Copyright © 2004, Mark Seymour. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 104 of Linux Gazette, July 2004

<-- prev | next -->