If your website has been around for a while, you'd probably have been visited by the "Web Design Police" (people who have a lot of time on their hands and think that their way is the only way things should be done). In fact, depending on your site, you might have been visited by different branches of these people, both advocating opposite policies. I recently received an email from one of my visitors who had apparently been "helped" by some of these people, and thought that an article on two of the myths of web design was appropriate.
Note: although this article was written in 2000, the basic principles mentioned here are still relevant today. There are, however, a few references to slow loading graphics and applets over a 56k modem. These references are probably obsolete for many parts of the world. Note, though, if you use a lot of graphics, Flash or Java applets on your site, you should also read my article on How to Create a Search Engine Friendly Website, since you will have to deal with other issues as well.
The adage that "Content is King" applies to all websites, and I am not disputing that. It is also true that when you add sound, animation, Java applets and lots of graphics, your web page takes a long time to load, and some of your visitors may not bother to wait for it to load; they'll just go away.
However, putting those two together does not actually mean that all pages with animation, sound and applets are necessarily bad. The trick is to know when they're appropriate and to make the download speed as fast as it is reasonably possible under the circumstances. I will mention a few ways of reducing your graphics and animation file sizes later in this article.
When is it appropriate? Sometimes applets are needed for some sort of processing — for example, the Sesame Street website has a Java applet that shows Elmo (a Sesame Street character) dancing, and the child using it can use the mouse pointer to "tickle" Elmo and he'll respond according to where he is tickled. The applet takes forever to load on a 56K modem, but you cannot say that it is out of place: the site caters to young children who are there to play. In this case, the applet is an appropriate solution. Likewise, animation and sound might be appropriate for sites that feature online comics, online gaming, etc.
In fact, if yours is a website that sells website design services, that is, you want people to pay you to design their website, it is in your interest not to make your site too plain. Many potential customers see your site as an example of what their site can become. There's no point claiming "Content is King" at this time — they won't be around long enough to hear your claim. Such sites need a certain amount of colour ("color" in US English), graphics, etc, although of course making it take too long to load would also be a deterrent to your potential clients.
Like all things, how you design your site depends on your topic and your target audience. Keep that cardinal rule in mind and you'll be fine.
On the other end of the scale are the people who believe a good website must have much colour, graphics, animation and sound. You might meet them, for example, in the form of newcomers or pundits who either do not have much real world web experience or who only surf on T1 or broadband connections.
My first encounter with such people came in the form of an old friend who exhibited his personal website proudly to me. At the centre of his home page was a large animated graphic that was a few hundred kilobytes in size. That graphic had little function on that page — it did not provide any informative value: it was neither a logo, nor was it a photo of himself, or an image map, or anything at all. It was purely decorative. At that time (many years ago), I was using a 14.4K modem and that page took ages to load.
Now don't get me wrong. Decorative graphics on a page are fine. They make a page more pleasant to look at, and hence more likely to be read. But you should at least make them as small as possible. While I'm hesitant to give a hard and fast rule about how big such graphics should be, a decorative graphic that is a few hundred kilobytes in size is definitely too big to be tolerated.
If your concern is that your page should look good without being too slow to load, here are a few commonly used tricks that you may want to consider:
Do not put too much text in one big block. Separate them out into paragraph and put white space between paragraphs. This makes your text look more readable.
Like coloured pages? That's okay, but in general, if the readability of your text is important to you, a white background with black text works best.
If you must have a coloured background, make sure you try out your page by viewing it in resolutions like 256 colours to see whether the page looks acceptable. A coloured page that looks fine on your 32 bit colour resolution system may have dithering that makes your text difficult to read on lesser settings.
If you check the websites of big companies (Microsoft, Yahoo, etc), you will find that they still prefer a white background with black text for their main text. These companies probably have more resources for testing the usability of their website than you have, so it may not be wise to scoff at their design too quickly.
Reduce the size of the individual graphics files on your pages by using the following methods:
A note of caution: the oft-cited cliché that "Content is King" is not to be lightly reckoned with. Your site may look beautiful, but it's your content that saves the day. Few people will return to your site just to admire your graphics. But they will be back to read what you have to say.
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