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Chapter 1: What Is Web Design?
Form and Function
A key problem with Web design is that sites often do not balance form and function. Under the influence of modernism, many designers have long held that the form of something should follow its function. Consider that the form is one base of our Web design pyramid analogy, while function is the other. Function without form would be boring: while the site may work, it won't inspire the user. Conversely, even if the form is impressive, if the function is limited, the user will be disappointed. There needs to be a clear and continuous relationship between form and function. Put simply, the form of a site should directly relate to its purpose. If the site is marketing-driven, it might be very visual and even incorporate heavy amounts of multimedia if it helps to accomplish our goals. However, if the site is clearly a task-based one, such as an online banking site, it might have a much more utilitarian form. Of course, determining the appropriate form for a site requires that the function of the site be clearly defined. Unfortunately, for many Web sites the ultimate function of the site isn't always clearly conveyed. Even worse, the relationship of form and function for the site is not always clearly established.

Rule: Make sure the visual form of a site relates to its function.

It is likely that there will be a continual struggle between form and function, despite the fact that in nearly all cases the only side the designers should be on is that of their users. In fact, there really need be no disagreement. Form and function do not always have to fight; they complement each other nearly all of the time. A nice-looking design makes a functional site much better, while great functionality will make up for a deficiency in "look and feel" over time.

Seasoned designers understand this balance and practice the idea of holistic design by following the rule that the correct execution and integration of all facets of the site will outweigh the value of a single component. In fact, the real difference between a Web designer and a mere Web builder is that the former is capable of not only executing the individual parts of a site correctly but can also breathe extra "life" into the project as a whole.

Execution: The Easy Part?
HTML, XML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, Flash, browser compatibility, server capacity, and all the other components of Web development are the easy part of Web design. While learning a new technology might take some time and effort, it is generally quite easy to say whether some HTML or other technology is used correctly or not. However, today's sites are riddled with execution problems, ranging from simple typos to significant technical compatibility, delivery, and usability problems.

A Web site should only be considered excellent if it is useful, usable, correct, and pleasing. The meaning of each of these considerations is somewhat subjective, except in the case of correctness. For a site to be well designed, its execution must be excellent. This means that the site must not break in any way. The HTML must be correct and the images saved properly so that the page renders itself as the designer intended. Any interactive elements, whether in the form of client-side scripts in JavaScript or server-executed CGI programs, must function properly and not result in error messages. The navigation of the site must work at all times. Broken links accompanied by the all too familiar "404: Not Found" message are not the sign of a well-executed site. Errors, in fact, should be handled, and the site should fail gracefully, if at all. While execution seems like an obvious requirement for excellence, too many sites exhibit execution problems to let this consideration go unmentioned:

Rule: A site's execution must be close to flawless.

Why are execution problems rampant in Web sites? Simple: this is a young industry with changing standards. Consider state-of-the-art Web design from a few years ago and you'll see the difference. Further, most Web professionals often didn't have the background in computer science, networking, hypertext theory, cognitive science, and all the other disciplines that might affect the quality of the produced site. Some naïve designers even ignore the inherent differences in the emerging Web medium by not addressing problems of varying resolutions, color reproduction, bandwidth limitations, and so on. A Web designer who overlooks these types of technical characteristics of the Web is like the print designer who will not admit that ink bleeds on paper—great Web designers must know and respect the medium, which includes everything from browsers and bandwidth to programming and protocols.

Rule: Know and respect the Web and Internet medium constraints.

So, given the environment of Web design, we end up with today's assortment of sites, from those that are standards-compliant, lightweight, user-friendly, informational, and task-rich to those that are browser-specific, unusable, or multimedia bandwidth hogs touted as "next generation" designs. Yet does this comparison suggest that all good sites are the same? Not necessarily.

Conformity versus Innovation
Many Web designers feel that design theories and site design categorization increase conformity and stifle innovation. It is true that rigidly following design templates such as "top-left-bottom" layout or adhering to such common practices as putting organizational logos in the left corner of a Web page will limit some page design choices; designers have misunderstood the reason for these conventions. Consider that, while it might be possible to design books with triangular pages, few books are done this way. The cost of production, the awkwardness, and the reader's unfamiliarity with such a shape could make a triangular book a risky proposition. Most books are square or rectangular and have a distinct cover, title page, table of contents, chapter breaks, and so on. Are these conventions stifling to the book designer? Few would say they are; a great deal of creativity is still possible within the given constraints of a modern book. The same should be said for Web design. Graphical User Interface (GUI) design for software programs has influenced what is considered standard for Web user interfaces, but new ideas have also emerged. Designers need to respect conventions of navigation choices, navigation placement, colors, and so on. These ideas do not limit design; they simply constrain sites to recognizable forms so that users do not find the sites they visit to be completely different.

Rule: Appropriately respect GUI and Web interface conventions.

All these general "designing theories" set the stage for learning Web design, but when you apply them to a real site the theories will become much more specific. In short, we have a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started.

Next: Learning Web Design

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