Electronic Designs

At my own initiative and in pursuit of my own research interests, I have been constructing a website to host a number of materials. The website replaced the earlier plans to develop e-handouts in HTML to be supplied on diskette. I am interested in low-technology approaches to these matters for a number of reasons, principally those to do with access to the arguments in a non-threatening manner. With web designs there is an additional consideration – graphics or animated effects consume a lot of memory and take time to download. As the current wisdom argues, (eg in the online Website Journal), immediate impact and delivery is essential and the promise of the website, the actual content, has to be delivered in the first few lines (since most browsers permit only the first few inches of each page to be displayed). As a result, I decided early on that mine would be largely text-based. I would not use graphics, even small ones, to ‘mark’ my pages (watermarks seemed the most promising), but I would choose a colour for page and text for continuity – I think the ones I chose are compatible with most browser palettes. As the site developed, and technology improved, I have included some small graphics, including animated ones, as markers.

I have become aware of some more of the problems of web design since reading Siegel (1996). As an illustrator, Siegel is impatient with the lack of control over HTML (see below), and he uses nothing but graphics to lay out his pages (including using blank table columns or small rectangular transparent graphics to simulate the traditional typographic features like gutters or leading). The book discusses many of the features of good design, but also explains the technical problems and solutions to them: once you know how GIF format graphics store information, for example, it is possible to reduce the size of the file (for example by working round features like dithering or aliasing which increase quality but at the price of considerable increases in memory). Siegel works with software like PhotoShop or deBabelizer (both of which I lack), and his concern is with commercial sites – but the book offers the basis for interesting experiment. My own experiment included using SerifDraw 3.0 to produce an arresting homepage design (included),although even a simple scheme like that one takes 20k of memory – doubtless using a less complex font than Vivaldi would reduce that.

Some experiment ensued to test out various web editing packages. Initially, I used the Compuserve page wizard that came supplied. This offers the beginner the basic HTML commands, via wizards, and permits a workable combination of headline and body text with various inserts such as lines and graphics. There are also background colour palettes for pages and texts (it is not clear if these are found on the near-universal Netscape palette which most browsers really use, whatever your design intentions!). A page menu at the side of the display helps keep tabs on developments and hyperlinks, but it adds to the usual problems of seeing the page as it will be displayed on the web, and this makes it particularly hard to line up headlines, or to wrap text. 

This, and the limited choice of fonts and text highlighting led to further explorations: Hotdog Pro V5 (e) was tried, and this was useful in that it offered more commands and provided lots of feedback onscreen. However, Netscape 4 (Composer) proved to be the most useful tool, offering a wide variety of fonts and effects, and easy ways to add HTML to the dialogue boxes provided. The only technical problem I encountered with this software was the use of frames, since for some obscure reason, Hotdog will only combine files if they are saved in the same directory. I did use Hotdog to produce two experimental framed versions of a homepage (with the existing homepage sharing the screen with the samples page). My Printscreen command will not produce an image of the screen when the framed versions are running, but I enclose the Hotdog pages showing the HTML commands. I personally preferred the layout using a horizontally framed two-row form, with about 60% given over to the homepage and 30% to the samples. 

However, in the spirit of low technology, and because mine was a specialist intended audience who did not need to be seduced by alluring graphic design, I decided to run a classic ‘first generation’ design – all text, in HTML (see examples enclosed). I am still thinking about some of Siegel’s aesthetics – whether to avoid ‘wasted white lines’ and horizontal rulings, bullet points and visible cell boundaries in tables. I have used his suggested alternative to bullet points in the two-item list at the end.

Before proceeding to the final versions of my pages, I had to check the compatibility of several pieces of software I intended to use – Serif Drawplus 3.0 for graphics and text, Netscape’s dialect of HTML, and the Compuserve publishing wizard (the most convenient way to upload my pages). All was compatible without much need to change formats via import or export filters: simple edit, copy and paste commands delivered the goods, although my machine soon protested as its memory was exhausted.

Academic design considerations
The material on my website consists of a number of texts – handouts, ‘reading guides’, conference papers and draft articles – mostly ones that I have used in my conventional teaching. The academic field could be called ‘social theory’, with ‘applications’ in cultural studies, distance education, media studies and sociology. My views on the relations between these elements have been published – briefly, it seems important to me to think out the connections carefully (to oppose the sort of compartmentalisation that occurs with rigid boundaries around these specialisms) while preserving openness against the colonising and identarian closures of some social theory (especially gramscianism) which tried merely to subsume all objects under some general concepts. A suggestion of connection could be developed simply by including material from these different specialisms on the same website, while a degree of openness could be indicated by refusing to arrange the materials in terms of some pedagogical narrative (e.g. one which gave gramscianism the ‘last word’). 

I was also keen to indicate to users some of the aspects discussed as ‘postmodernity’ – the eclipse of master narratives, the breaking of boundaries (including those between ‘high’ or ‘academic’ culture and popular culture), and the diffusion of writing and readership. To this end, I decided on an absurd (alphabetical) ordering of both the materials themselves and the external links I added – so that my parody of educational technology called ‘baking a cake’ (which has a workable recipe) comes after more academic material on ‘Althusser’ and before ‘Bourdieu’. The encouragement to write as well as read is expressed in a small ‘tutorial’ section which describes various basic manipulations open to the user of electronic text – to edit, cut, paste, alter the structure, re-sequence and so on is ‘writing’ I would argue. Finally, the website itself ensures a sharing of control, of course – I can suggest internal and external links between the pieces, but the user has the liberty to explore far more widely with the click of a mouse button.

Technical improvements should offer more chances still. The packaging of Composer (editing) with Navigator (browsing) software in Netscape’s V 4 release really does enable convenient manipulation of text without the need even to convert to wordprocessing formats as my tutorial currently suggests. I might also provide all the files in one large file so that users can search more effectively –using wordsearches, for example - and thus discover still more links between the hitherto separated materials.

I enjoyed constructing the site and thinking about the design problems involved. I have no idea at present about other users. I have publicised the site wherever possible and have received generally favourable comments and promises of use. I know a number of students used my website to access material in place of conventional handouts, for example, and I assume this will grow as students realise the 24-hour availability offered by such a site.

I intend to publicise it even more widely among local students. The internal email system would be suitable to announce the site – but there seems to be some anti-spamming device which prevents the citing of too many recipients. I have printed my own sticky labels with the URL on them and I intend to distribute these widely among students on courses I teach. I can provide diskettes with HTML files (or RTF files) and even CDs with browsers so students can load them at home. I am considering leaving my web material in HTML or RTF formats on the College network too (although I would prefer students to use the website on-line so that the external links ‘work’).

I already offer quick introductions to web-browsing as part of the initial tutorials on course like my third level ‘Leisure and Modernity’ one, and electronic sources and journals are included in the ‘booklists’. Some seminars already invite web-browsing (e.g. the one on ‘virtual tourism’). It is already strongly advised, and it might be possible even to insist, that students use websites in assignments. To repeat the points in the Introduction, it is essential to experience ‘wild’ popular culture to resist premature closures under appealing theoretical frameworks – and this is clearly one major and convenient source (even if a consumerist one) of such ‘excesses’.

There are possibilities then for evaluation to proceed via student assessment and via specific research instruments to investigate the lifeworld of the web-browser. There is also a need for a sophisticated counter on the webpage itself to provide some basic data (I will be seeking specialist advice). As usual, there is already a substantial literature, and I am beginning to peruse this as part of my own publication efforts.

I hope to apply for funds specifically to investigate student use of this site, to explore matters like:

patterns of uses eg instrumental (plagiarism) or ‘writerly’
differential use eg according to gender, access, ‘competency’


Siegel D (1996) Creating Killer Websites…the art of third-generation site design, Hayden Books, New York.

Update 1
I have continued to consider the design implications and to explore some of the advances in technology. Informal feedback from students (supported by some reading of evaluation exercises elsewhere) indicated a lower take-up than I had hoped, largely for immediate, 'practical' reasons. Students were unable to access my website on College kit, for example, or felt unhappy browsing for too long in a crowded computer room while others waited. When they did get access, there seemed to be fewer problems, and the 'populist' style was successful. Some complained that the site was too big and that they needed additional help with navigation. I addressed these problems in the following ways:

1. I loaded the website files on the College's internal network so as to minimise time spent online. I also loaded the files on to floppies and distributed them (I made a deal with a local computer company to do the copying in exchange for a banner on the printed instructions). I provided browsers on CD to 6 students who wanted them. This sort of exercise simulates a website (all the hyperlinks work perfectly happily from floppy or form internal drives). I am currently investigating extending the simulation to include material from other websites, collected, with mine, on a CD. I am negotiating with the same computer company at present (July 1999).
2. I did consider reorganising the file structure on the website to cluster the issues under more conventional headings. I have acquired a site map facility, and a text-search device (both 'free' in exchange for a banner and some electronically-gathered customer intelligence). There now seem to be three ways to organise the site, according to client choice -- the alphabetical list as before, the word-search, and a specially-designed site map with files displayed in clusters.
3. I have experimented with small graphics, again using 'free' materials (including basic freeware GIF animators), and I changed the background colour to a standard Netscape yellow. I now have a tracking system on the site, a 'free' one I found on the Web. It does provide detailed data as well as overall counts. Thus I found that most of my 'hits' were from the USA, most using Explorer (not Netscape), and adjusted the look of the site accordingly (eg by including more US examples). Similarly, it appeared that lots of people were hitting the homepage but not the 'samples' page (which is really the core of the site): they might have been bookmarking,or it is just possible that they missed the route to the samples page: I made sure the route was clear with an additional animated signpost GIF lower on the page as well.
4. Some colleagues have commented on the 'style'. One found it too 'irreverent', but the others thought it would work. Student feedback seems positive. I write in this way to involve readers and to offer a style that cannot simply be copied into essays.
Update 2
I have continued to develop and advertise (e.g. by seeking out links with larger sites, and by learning about search engines and how they actually search and list sites|. I have paid a small sum to have my URL submitted to a number of search engines – but I handled the submission to the big ones myself.

I have attracted some interest from colleagues too, and I publish their material. The low-tech format helped ease initial fears. I am seeking additional material to fill up the remaining 7MB. I hope to collapse some more internal boundaries by including non-academic material, which I shall allow to ‘collide’ with my own material. Eventually, I suspect, the website will turn into the ‘collected works’ of Harris.

I plan to make use of the extensive notes I have acquired over the years, based on the reading I have done. I shall produce these as ‘reading guides’, probably on CD. I have to decide how best to transfer the hand-written notes from file cards to typed versions – read them on to tape and then audio-type?

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