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This chapter is from the book

Aesthetics of Layout

Another area that poses great challenges to web designers is layout. This is partially because of technical limitations of the Web. There are many techniques used to create layout, which you will learn about in Chapter 21, "Alignment & Tables," and Chapter 23, "Cascading Style Sheets." This section addresses the visual principles of layout and composition.

Avoid Rectangle-itis

We do a lot of site critiques for students who attend our school. It didn't take long to realize that there was an undiagnosed disease on the Web—rectangle-itis! This is a result of too many rectangles on web sites. Rectangles are everywhere:

  • Frames

  • Tables

  • Images

  • Browsers

Rectangles make your users feel boxed in. They divide the small amount of real estate that you have into smaller pieces. They make everything on the page feel the same: predictable, boring, standard. Sites that use too many rectangles feel generic and templated.

WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT RECTANGLE-ITIS?

Here are several ways to break up the monotony of rectangle-itis.

  • Make graphics with rounded edges

  • Use graphics to break the lines

  • Use background images to break lines

  • Don't cram everything in tightly

  • Vary shapes and weights

  • In frame sites, use one background

  • Use irregularly shaped graphics

  • Hint: Think outside the box

Figure 2.92Figure 2.92 These sites (http://www.horserentals.com, http://www.lycos.com, http://www.shoebedoo.com, and http://www.dalesshoes.com) could really benefit from breaking out of the rectangular mold! Rectangles get to be pretty repetitive, boring, and annoying after a while. It's natural to use them on sites, because images, frames, browsers, and tables all come in the shape of a square or rectangle by default. Through learning a few techniques, it's possible to break out of this mold without much effort.

Figure 2.93Figure 2.93 There are lots of ways to introduce dynamic shapes into your designs that aren't rectangular. These sites (http://www.honda.com, http://www.ae.com, http://www.lynda.com, and http://www.petco.com) show a few ideas.

Use a Grid

Though this might sound like I'm now encouraging rectangle-itis, I do advocate the use of a grid in your design. The grid itself is not a visible component—it just helps you align your text and images so your design has a sense of security and order. Grids are easy to implement using HTML tables (which you'll learn about in Chapter 21, "Alignment & Tables").

Figure 2.94Figure 2.94 Create a simple grid like this, and try some different designs using it.

Figure 2.95Figure 2.95 Take some simple elements and shapes and try some different ideas.

Figure 2.96Figure 2.96 When you remove the grid lines, you start to see the beauty and purpose of a grid.

Figure 2.97Figure 2.97 Even though these are different designs, they feel united through the invisible grid.

A Gallery of Sites that Use Grids

Figure 2.98Figure 2.98 R35 (http://www.r35.com) uses a grid, as well as whitespace and clean simple design, to make the content very easy to access.

Figure 2.99Figure 2.99 The Beringer Wine Company site (http://www.beringer.com) changes the grid, but everything remains orderly, aligned, and easy to get to. It is also notable for its typography and color design. Overall, a beautiful site by all the criteria of this chapter!

Figure 2.100Figure 2.100 You can see and feel the use of the grid in the Hillman Curtis web site (http://www.hillmancurtis.com). The consistency makes for a site that is easy to navigate and understand, while the design variations hold your interest on every page.

Make Your Line Widths Easy To Read

If you put text on an HTML page without a table, it will stretch to the width of the browser. My advice is to create tables to limit the width of text on your pages. You'll learn how to do this in Chapter 21, "Alignment & Tables." By looking at the following studies, you'll see why tables are so important with layout.

Figure 2.101Figure 2.101 If you don't format HTML, your type will fill an entire screen; and the larger the monitor, the worse the problem. It's very tiring on one's eyes to stretch the width of a browser to read a single line of text.

Figure 2.102Figure 2.102 By creating an HTML table, and turning off its borders to make it invisible (see Chapter 21, "Alignment & Tables"), you can limit the line width and make reading this text easy regardless of what size monitor you have.

Figure 2.103Figure 2.103 Even better, limit the width of the type and give the column some breathing room on the left side. Nothing on the page feels crowded now, and nothing is in the way of you and your read.

Figure 2.104Figure 2.104 You can also create more narrow columns, similar to a newspaper. Subheads help to break up the information as well.

White Space Is Better Than Tight Space

Using white space lets your eyes rest on different areas of a web page. It makes it more relaxing and easy to find information. Sometimes fighting for white space is a hard political battle—trust me, I've fought it myself. Many people mistakenly think that the more information you cram on a page, the more valuable the content is. This is especially difficult in companies with lots of divisions, or schools with lots of departments. Judge for yourself with the following examples—white space helps the visitor find the information. Too much information is overload and stops being effective.

Figure 2.105Figure 2.105 The Arizona State University site (http://www.asu.edu) presents a lot of information in a relatively small amount of space. It is visually very cluttered, and there is little to no white space. (It's probably a political nightmare to be the web designer for this site!) The amount of information works at a cross purpose to its intent. I would give up trying to find a link on this page, and would simply type what I was looking for into the search box! That's not necessarily a bad thing (more on this in Chapter 7, "Navigation"), but regardless, in my opinion this site suffers from information overload that probably serves fewer people than it could if it were less cluttered.

Figure 2.106Figure 2.106 The University of Illinois (http://www.uiuc.edu) also has a lot of information on its site. Through the use of white space and consistent separation of information, though, I think the content is much easier to find and focus on. Lack of clutter will always prevail over clutter.

Remember the Fold

The term "fold" comes from newspaper design because newspapers are typically folded in half. The headlines and lead stories are always on the front page and above the fold. The term has come to apply to web pages as well. A single screen, without scrol-ling, is considered above the fold.

It's important when you design your page that your front door (usually called the home page) places important navigation items above the fold. To determine where the fold is on a web site, however, has to do with what resolution your audience is viewing the site.

When I wrote the first edition of this book, I advocated that people design their web sites for 640x480 resolution. This was standard "waaay" back in 1995 when I was writing the book. Today, you would be hard pressed to buy a computer system that displayed at lower than 1024x786 resolution. Still, a lot of laptops are set to 800x600, and many people with poor eyesight (I sadly qualify) change their resolution to 800x600 so they can see better.

Figure 2.107Figure 2.107 The CNN site (http://www.cnn.com) puts their key navigation on the left side, and it is above the fold whether the site is viewed on 800x600 or larger resolutions.

Figure 2.108Figure 2.108 The Yahoo site (http://www.yahoo.com) puts icons along the top, but their navigation offers so many choices that it's challenging to know where to click.

Figure 2.109Figure 2.109 The Google site (http://www.google.com) cuts to the chase. It's assumed that search is more powerful than links in this approach, and they waste no space about it! This site's key navigation (the search box) would be considered "above the fold" at any resolution.

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