design for better or worse
a review of Creating Killer Web Sites
by David Siegel
Bookstores now are flooded with guides to the Web, but David Siegel's Creating Killer Web Sites easily ranks among the finest books for web designers. Siegel is a font designer by trade -- Tekton is probably his best-known typeface -- and Siegel brings uncommonly good taste to the task of designing, implementing, and judging web sites.
Siegel's approach is a welcome change from technophilic love of coolness:
A third generation site is wrought by design, not technological competence. Third generation sites give visitors a complete experience, from entry to exit. Design makes the difference.... Third-generation sites pull visitors through using metaphor and well-known models of consumer psychology.
Siegel is not above poking fun at web fads, as when he urges people to be creative when trying to promote a web site:
There are no rules for getting people's attention. Use any means at your disposal, even Java.
Much of Siegel's book, inevitably, is devoted to fine-tuning the appearance of web pages -- to reducing image download times, ensuring colors reproduce decently, convincing various browsers to allow adequate margins. This has all been treated elsewhere, of course, but Siegel does a competent job in an attractive format. Siegel's critiques of web pages -- he doesn't hesitate to praise good low-tech sites or to single out blunders at high-tech megasites -- are unusually thoughtful and detailed.
Siegel is probably the first visually-oriented web designer to grasp the importance of hypertext structure, and carefully crafted links, connections, contours and paths are all central features of his "third-generation" concept. His metaphors are unusual -- he prefers to talk about retail experiences rather than narrative contours -- but the underlying rhetorical ideas are intriguing and extend the hypertextuality of the web.
Of course, conceptual markup has been a great disappointment to date. The search engines and catalogs that are the web's biggest and richest sites don't seem to use markup very well; advertisers do clever things to get these indexes to retrieve their sites more frequently, but almost none of these tricks pay anys attention to conceptual markup.
I expect this will change over time. Once autonomous agents and visualization tools like Web Squirrel take more advantage of conceptual markup, change will come quickly. But, for now, designers like Siegel who ignore or even abuse conceptual markup in order to gain a desired visual effect don't lose very much.
Siegel doesn't really understand the underlying idea of descriptive markup: he's a visual designer, after all, and he wants his designs to look exactly the way he wants. He sees no objection, for example, to replacing text with a nicely formatted image of the text, typeset in exactly the font and style the designer wants (provided that the image can be compressed sufficiently to reduce download time). That the image can't be indexed, searched, or even perceived by agents and blind people seems, to him, a minor price to pay for better visual control. That some users won't see his visual designs because they use text-only browsers (or because they are blind) is, to Siegel, a demographic detail.
HTML, to Siegel, is an arcane and difficult discipline he has fought to master but still mistrusts. When prototyping a new design, for example, Siegel works exclusively in Painter and Photoshop. I think I will not be alone in being suprised to learn that Siegel prefers to create HTML tables using a photo-retouching tool. If you're accustomed to hammers, it really may be simpler to treat everything as a nail.
These suprises and idiosyncracies make Siegel's book especially important and useful reading for experienced hypertext writers.