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.
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
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 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:
uses eg instrumental (plagiarism) or ‘writerly’
Siegel D (1996) Creating Killer Websites…the art of third-generation site design, Hayden Books, New York.
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).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?