A short while back, I was asked by a visitor how he could create a multi-column newspaper layout for his website. Now, he was not referring to the typical multi-column website like what you see on thesitewizard.com, or what is described in my Dreamweaver, Nvu or KompoZer tutorials. What he wanted was a website that looked like a newspaper, where an article spanned multiple columns on every page.
I personally feel strongly that you should not create a newspaper-style layout for your website.
Newspapers lay their pages out in multiple columns with articles spanning many columns on a single page because they are trying to optimise ("optimize" in US English) the space available to them. On that single page, they want to fit as many articles as they can, and still add advertisements onto that page. Newspaper pages (even tabloids) are also very wide. If every line of their articles were to span from the left hand side to the right hand side, it would be very difficult to read the article. The space wastage will also be very great, since not all lines or paragraphs will be able to span that huge width from the left margin to the right. And space is money in newspaper publishing.
Web pages are a completely different medium. Provided you designed it that way, your page is as wide or narrow as your visitor wants it to be. For example, if you have a 1920x1200 monitor, and you want this article to span the entire width of the window, you can, since all of thesitewizard.com's pages use relative widths. If you prefer a narrower window, you can resize your browser, and the entire page will be automatically reformatted to fit by the browser (subject to certain limitations; for example, you can't really resize it too small or the window will be narrower than individual words). The point is that the too-wide problem in newspapers doesn't apply to websites.
Neither does the need to squeeze as many things into every blank space as possible to save paper costs.
In other words, the reasons why newspapers publishers lay their pages out in a certain way do not apply to website publishers.
Part of the problem presented by a newspaper layout is that unlike a real newspaper, which readers can spread out in order to see all columns of the article at a glance, a website can only be viewed through the narrow porthole of the monitor. This brings us to the next point.
Think about what happens if a web page is laid out in a newspaper-type multiple column format. How would visitors read that page? There will be this thin strip of text going down the page. To read it, they will have to scroll down with the browser to read that narrow strip. When they reach the bottom, they will have to scroll upwards again to find the next column to continue reading that same story. And so on. Back and forth, and up and down. In the meantime the rest of the space that they have in their huge monitor is wasted —they cannot use it to speed up their reading because at any one time, only one narrow column is relevant.
The frustration and irritation caused by that kind of page will probably rival the annoyance caused by the webmaster mistakes listed in my satirical Seven Ways to Annoy Visitors to Your Website. In reality though, many visitors to such a website probably won't even bother to read the page. Why suffer the punishment when the competition is just a click away?
(Bear with me in this section. It may not look relevant to the main topic, but I want to try to address one of the root causes of low-usability sites as a site with a newspaper layout would have been.)
Many new web designers want their website to look unique. They want their site to look special and memorable. As such, they have a tendency to come up with all sorts of interesting things to do with their site, including this newspaper layout idea, so that it does not look like every other site on the Internet. Unfortunately, in so doing, as discussed before in my article on Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Visibility in Web Design, they may sometimes inadvertently create websites that cause usability problems as well as search engine indexing issues.
Recall the (not so) early days of home desktop computing, when many people used an operating system called MS-DOS. Contrary to what you may think, not all programs that ran on DOS were command-line programs. There were full-screen or windowed programs like the ones you see on Windows and the Mac today. However, the task of learning to use new programs on DOS was not as easy as it is to use a new program on modern operating systems. Every program had their own way of doing things. For example, to save a file, different programs had different keystrokes and menus to accomplish the same task.
With modern operating systems, companies like Microsoft and Apple have clearly-defined "Human Inteface Guidelines" for programmers to follow. As a result, the interface of just about every program on your computer is fairly similar. For example, to save a file in Windows, no matter what program you are using, you can simply use the "File" menu and the "Save" item on that menu. Or hit Ctrl+S. Or click the icon that looks like a floppy disk on the toolbar. The standardisation of the interface means that anyone who has learnt how to use one program will also know how to use another. You no longer have to read the manual. After installing a new program, most people can simply grope around and still be able to accomplish their task.
Web design is pretty much the same way. Although there is no overarching organisation to give a user interface guideline to specify that websites are to work a certain way, there are millions (or more) of websites on the Internet that more or less behave the same manner. By their existence and similarity alone, these existing websites have established a de facto standard. Users who know how to navigate a site with one of those standard design styles will also know how to navigate other sites with the same way of doing things.
In other words, you don't have to be a web guru or a usability master to create a usable website any more. Just use the trick of following the standard pattern used by other sites — a one, two or three column website with navigation menus in the usual places (top, bottom, left or right), and the main content flowing downwards in the centre, links that work like normal links, and so on. (See my articles on usability if you want more information.) By making your site operate in a standard way, visitors will automatically find your site usable, because they've already learnt it from their past experience with other sites.
I'm not trying to tell you not to be creative. Even within the constraints of a "standard" appearance, you can still create sites that look visually pleasing and interesting. (Although you should also remember that the bulk of the uniqueness of your site should not be in the appearance but its content.)
Newspaper layouts present a usability challenge for your visitors. In your quest to make your website look unusual, don't underestimate the importance of making your site usable. At this point in time, with the current state of technology, using a layout where content flows from top to bottom works best in websites publishing text-based information.
This article can be found at http://www.thesitewizard.com/webdesign/newspaper-layout-usability.shtml
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