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Book review

Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites

by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, Yale University Press, 1999, ISBN 0300076754

This book is a print version of a style manual that has been available on the Web for some years ( It is primarily a design guide, not a writing guide.

The book is valuable for technical writers as an aid to our own learning about Web design, and as an authoritative reference to wave at clients who frequently ignore user-centred design in favour of the latest "cool" features or a structure that makes sense to the client but not to the audience. The book emphasises that "The fundamental organising principle in Web site design is meeting users' needs. Ask yourself what your audience wants, and centre your site design around their needs." As we all know, a lot of Web sites don't follow that principle.

Chapter 1, on planning, covers goals for the site, audience analysis, and content needs. A site production checklist covers management, technology and budgetary issues. A section on information architecture covers prototyping and a list of deliverables at the end of this planning stage, which is followed by site design, construction, marketing, evaluation and maintenance.

Chapter 2, on interface design, discusses the need for simplicity, consistency, navigation, and regard for users with older hardware and software.

Chapter 3, on site design, talks about organising information (including "chunking"); site structure, design themes (such as teaching, reference, browsing); site elements (such as different types of home pages, menus, subsites, search pages, indexes and so on); and some differences between intranet and Internet design. It emphasises that many users turn off graphics, so you need to provide information that's accessible without graphics as well as with them.

Chapter 4, on page design, covers visual balance and appropriateness to the target audience, consistency, page dimensions (very different from a typical printed page), page length (including the idea of providing both a single-page version of long articles, suitable for printing, and a multi-page version of the same articles for on-screen viewing, a technique I've seen used to very good effect on several sites), design grids and the need to put essential information at the top of the page (in the first screenful of information that a reader will see), page headers and footers, page layout (particularly using tables), frames (pros and cons), and cross-platform issues.

With one exception, this chapter emphasises issues that I consider very important. That exception is their insistence that a fixed-width table is best for page layout, rather than letting the line length (in the right-hand column of a two-column layout) adjust to different window (or monitor) sizes. I disagree with their statement about variable-width columns: "Although some people may consider this a 'feature', it hinders the user's experience with the content." On the contrary, a variable-width column improves my experience with the content, at least on a well-designed site.

The chapter continues: "All the issues of legibility, readability, and style that we discuss in this manual rely on the Web designer's ability to position words, images, and screen element on the 'page'..." While this statement may have some validity, in my opinion it's even more important that users be able to adjust certain aspects of the Web page to suit their personal needs or preferences. For example, I want all the words large so I can read them comfortably. When I increase the font size, the layout of most Web pages (particularly those using the currently-popular 3-column layout) gets goofed up - sometimes just a bit, sometimes totally. Two-column pages with a variable-width right-hand column adjust gracefully.

Chapter 5, typography, discusses typefaces, line length, legibility, emphasis, cascading style sheets, and so on. It never actually recommends a font size, but it does mention that most designers avoid using the built-in heading styles because most browsers' defaults are too large or too small. It doesn't go into the pros and cons of allowing users to manipulate font sizes, but it does discuss the fact that different browsers, and browsers on different platforms, render type differently, so designers must be aware that what they specify may not be what the user sees. (So much for precise positioning on the page!)

Chapter 6, editorial style, is woefully short and seems to include material that didn't fit anywhere else. It talks about using lists instead of long sentences, word-processor features to avoid, and good and bad ways to use hypertext links.

Chapter 7 looks at Web graphics, browser-safe colours, dithering, file formats, transparency, antialiasing, redrawing rather than scaling, and imagemaps.

Chapter 8 introduces a range of multimedia concepts. Both chapters are good overviews, but if you need to know any of this in detail, you'll need to find a book or two on the subject.

A list of references and an inadequate index complete the book.

Overall I think this volume is a valuable addition to a writer's and editor's bookshelf. Experienced web content developers may get some new perspectives on old issues (as well as that authoritative source mentioned earlier), while students and those just making the switch from print publishing should find it an excellent introduction to website design.

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