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HTML and Web Browsers

Almost everyone who surfs the Web is looking at pages built with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), as shown in Figure 1. HTML is like the QuarkXPress XPress Tags language in a couple of ways:

  • It’s code-based. Formatting is handled using special codes such as <b> and </b> in the text (see Figure 2).
  • It’s generally linear. It describes the first paragraph, and then it describes the second paragraph, and so on.
Figure 1

Figure 1 A basic HTML page viewed in a web browser.

Figure 2

Figure 2 HTML source code. Note the similarity to XPress Tags.

Originally, HTML was based on the idea that the viewer rather than the publisher of the information should determine the look of the page. In this model, you just add codes specifying where the headings are, what words should be emphasized, and so on; then your audience members configure their browsers to display your headings and emphasized words in certain ways. One person may see headings in Helvetica, another in Times Roman, and so on. Over the past few years, however, HTML has grown to include additional formatting that lets you—the author/publisher—control how you want the page to look.

To view an HTML file properly, you need a web browser, which is basically just a program that interprets the HTML codes ("make this <i>italic</i>") into formatted text ("make this italic"). The two primary web browsers are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. If you’re using Macintosh OS X, Apple’s Safari is also a serious contender in the browser wars.

However, HTML has some severe design limitations:

  • Because different web browsers interpret the codes differently, line spacing, fonts, font sizes, and column widths (and more!) may be completely different from what you expect. While it’s not hopelessly impossible to control typography on the Web, it does take some work. But you can forget about kerning or tracking your type!
  • You might think that Futura displays well and matches your design, but if that font isn’t available on a user’s computer, another font is substituted and may change the look of the page.
  • Color consistency is impossible, so what you see on one screen may be quite different from what you see on another.

There are a host of other problems, but given a proper understanding of the limitations, you can begin to gain mastery over the medium. The key is to remember that you just can’t design and produce pages in the way you’ve become accustomed to over the years.

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