The Creative Toolbox: Safe Web Design Re-examined

The business of Web design has always included a high level of uncertainty: Multiple versions of multiple browsers run on computers configured in ways unknowable to the mere-mortal Web designer. About five years ago, pioneering members of the design community began to advocate standards to combat that uncertainty — to create some “rules to design by” and hence make their jobs somewhat more predictable, if not easier. Standards such as color palettes, image formats, page dimensions, and file size were loosely decided upon by a growing consensus of Web designers. Nothing official, nothing decreed; rather, there was simply a growing chorus of words in design-related books, magazines, and Web sites all tuning in to the same design standards and practices.

Typically, standards were based on the lowest common denominator of potential Web site visitor, or viewer. The viewer was the ultimate goal, so it made perfect sense for designers to go out of their way to support the widest audience possible. For the longest time that meant designing for a system only capable of 256 colors, with a version 2.0 or 3.0 Web browser viewed on a 13-inch monitor. It made sense for site designs to work within these constraints, given the state of technology at the time. But that was five years ago, and it’s hard to deny that times have changed.

Have we in the design community kept pace with the evolving design technology, as well as the technology employed by our viewers? And could the future offer better tools or design environments to eliminate these standards dilemmas that plague us?

Of course, the problem when succumbing to the lowest common denominator is that you end up sacrificing the progress of technology and its adoption. When is the right time to cast off the antiquities of past technology and embrace the new?

The Times They Are a-Changin’
I started noticing about a year ago a few major sites asking for a full 15-inch monitor space, forgoing the notion that the 13- to 14-inch monitor was standard. At first I was rather irritated at this, having grown fond of the ability to view and click to my desktop behind my Web browser. But I soon realized the inherent pluses of being able to see more at once with less scrolling. Besides, those pages designed to the old, smaller width look just plain silly on my new 21-inch monitor.

Color palettes and type on the Web have matured moderately through the years, but in no way gracefully, and not to the degree possible. Tools such as Macromedia Fireworks and Adobe ImageReady have provided us with the means to get remarkable results out of limited color palettes. Not only do we have the option of Adaptive, Selective, Perceptual, and Web Safe color palettes, but we can also lock down and shift colors to their closest Web Safe counterparts.

With desktop displays settled in at thousands of colors and above, the only two reasons left for a 256-color palette are the need for fast downloads (8-bit color graphics still yield small file sizes) and the need to support color-limited handheld devices. PocketPCs and color Palms have generated a sort of color palette renaissance: Just when you thought it was safe to concern yourself with only displays set to thousands of colors and above, mobile handhelds are flooding the marketplace, once again giving us a 256-color limitation to consider. Particularly given their minimal display sizes, however, I would argue that these devices demand optimized pages designed specifically for them, leaving us free to use the full box of Crayons when designing for desktop users.

Type control on the Web has become something of a reality over the past couple of years with the introduction of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). We can now assign styles to our text and even control attributes such as point size, line spacing, and positioning, all without using one single transparent GIF. As with many of these new technologies, it seems that neither Microsoft nor Netscape can decide to what end to support CSS. We are given the promise of something great while only being able to utilize a fraction of the potential of CSS, because of lack of full support within either major browser.

There Is Another
One format to come along for the Web that is evidently here to stay is Flash, or .SWF. Flash not only seems to answer our prayers for browser harmony but also affords us tremendous animation controls and interactivity. The format emerged on the scene a few years ago and has fast become a potential alternative to pure HTML sites. At first many people tended to mock Flash and not take it seriously, partly because it was introduced to many using over-the-top presentations that ended up exploiting the format for all it was worth rather than showing its utility in real-world situations. But lately Flash has permeated even the most practical of sites. Is it the fact that 93 percent of Web viewers out there have Flash installed in their browsers? Or could it be that designers are willing to trade in all the HTML and browser compatibility headaches for a much more workable, accommodating solution? Who’s to say? But Flash does provide a consistent presentation format over various browsers as well as robust interactivity and animation features — benefits that are getting harder and harder to pass up.

With its database interfacing, sophisticated scripting, and deep hooks into JavaScript, Flash really isn’t just for show anymore. Macromedia, having just released Flash 5, promises more extensive Actionscripting abilities and a refreshed interface. Adobe LiveMotion offers up an alternative to the Flash application, permitting the casual user to produce compelling Flash animations without getting caught up in the Flash application’s deep-rooted challenges. Adobe promises that LiveMotion will also save out to SVG format in the future. SVG is similar to SWF in nature but is an entirely open, text-based-format (like HTML).

Embracing the New
It hasn’t been possible to buy a new desktop computer with less than 16-bit color support for about four years now. And just try finding a monitor smaller than 15 inches nowadays. So have we kept up with the times? Who drives the progress of Web design? Is it the designers, the viewers, the browser developers, or technology itself? My guess is that each plays a role. But perhaps it’s up to us, the designers, to demand more out of the technology we use while keeping our audience in mind. That browsers should be fully compliant with the latest Web languages and compatible with one another is something we’ve been demanding for years. Image formats such as GIF should evolve to support richer color palettes. Then maybe we can concentrate on how we could further the existing technology or start new with formats like Flash and SVG to pave the way for the future.

Posted on: September 28, 2000

11 Comments on The Creative Toolbox: Safe Web Design Re-examined

  1. In the last six months our company has been getting a tremendous amount of business from other web development companies who are saying “Help, our client wants their site to look more exciting!”. After creating a more robust graphic design for them, I continually get the usual, “That’s nice, but you can’t do that when building a web page.”

    Developer’s need to get on the band wagon and start getting familiar with tools such as Dreamweaver and GoLive. Learn to integrate these tools with the Cold Fusions of the world, or your going to get left in the dust.

    Branding is becoming more and more important in the world of the web. I’m not saying that you should sacrifice efficiency by overloading a site with heavy graphics. If you use some of the newer features, such as layers and combined them with creative graphic design, you can create a great looking site and still keep the download times respectable.

    I know, there are bugs and inconsistencies with some of the newer features between IE and Netscape, but there are work arounds. Learn them and you’ll not only create better looking sites, but you’ll also create them faster.

  2. I remember in art school (70’s) being sneared at by the purists for using acrylics and not oils.
    I remember in the 80’s being sneered at by artists for turning into a computer geek.
    I remember in the 90’s I was looked down apon for taking a eager plunge into digital art.
    I remember daily that I am earning a living, doing what I love, still painting and NOT asking anyone “if they want fries with that!”

    The html purists had a point, but advances in technology has opened new doors, either you enter or you stay behind.

  3. Any discussion of design that omits the customer is suspect. The question is not what design standards should be, but rather: What customers will you lose when you make certain decisions? Who are your customers?

    Do you have laptop users and road warriors? International markets? Schools? The elderly? WebTV users? Designers must always evaluate decisions through the customers’ eyes and too often we imagine them to be like us, using 21-inch displays and connecting with megabit lines. When I see a gorgeous 140K site, I wonder if the designer even knows that modem users must wait 45 seconds to see it? Do they know how loooong 45 seconds really is?

    I’m not saying everyone should design in least-common-denominator mode. But we had better know why we are doing it and how it affects our audiences.

  4. The fact that most users have larger screens, latest version browsers etc is no excuse use technology that may not be accessable to all. What about WebTV, there’s a fixed 640×480 resolution with limited support for media types.
    More importantly what about the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are still a number of users who will need to use text based browsers.

  5. I have to disagree somewhat with the idea that most people have 15″ monitors. There are a large number of laptop users that have 10″, 12″ or 14″ monitors. I have also seen many people with 15″ and 17″ desktop monitors that set them to 800 by 600, instead of 1024 by 768. Most of these will have thousands, or millions of colours, but most people are still on 56 kpbs modems. Download times have more to do with colour use than screen settings.

    Also, Flash is not nearly as universal as Macromedia may claim. There are regular updates to Flash, and not that many users are willing, or able, to get every update. I have also seen Flash driven sites coincide with browser crashes. This turns many away from using it. Also, I have seen many IT departments that do not allow users to install anything, including plugins, without the IT department testing it first. And few IT departments are willing to commit to browser plugins, unless the company web site uses them.

    I hope that W3C and Adobe can finalize SVG. This will be the way of the future, since it is based on XML and CSS, which many businesses are likely to adopt.

  6. I’ve gotten to the point where, as long as a page degrades gracefully, I don’t care if it looks exactly the same in every browser. A non-web safe slate blue may degrade to a gray on Netscape but stay a nice slate blue on IE. Is it readable? Fine. On most of my sites, less than twenty percent of visitors are using Netscape. It’s no longer worth my time to kill myself to make everything perfect for the lowest common denominator.

    I am far more concerned about slow download times. Flash is still in the era of “Look what I can do!” instead of being usefully integrated into pages. In a few years we’re going to look back and laugh.

    When was the last time you looked at one of your pages in AOL without turning off their proprietary graphics compression? There are people who have no idea the web looks any other way.

    Users are going to see your pages in a variety of ways. Plan ahead, and do the best you can with insuring they’ll be readable to almost everyone.

  7. It’s about time that somebody stated this!

  8. In this evolution, I would also love to see American people stop thinking that the whole world and the Internet is for them only, as Davegolden says below 🙂

    I would also love to see all country in a REAL alphabetic order, when a site ask me to choose my country (Switzerland).

    There is also absolutely no reason about the .com associated with USA. Why .us or .usa doesn’t exist ?

    The Internet is not an American thing. It was developped in different country (a part in Geneva, Switzerland, in CERN).

    Yes, the Internet need a big EVOLUTION.

    Frédéric BERTI
    ESSANIA design
    web design – 3D

  9. We’ve all lamented the loss of control that occurred when we went from the high-resolution world of the printed page to the decidedly low-resolution realm of the Web. In the process, we’ve learned to work around these limitations, but I think that Mr. Penston’s tenets are correct. The medium has moved forward and it’s time that we start embracing the new(er) technologies available to us. I say this without having been able to get my arms around SVG or Flash yet myself. I have been eager to learn Flash for a long time, but have yet to commit the time or energy to do so-lacking a client or project that requires it, I suppose, is prurient reason. Anyway, I think that as more of us adopt these technologies, we will see an easier time in convincing those clients that have hesitated to see the benefits of them that it’s time to move on.

  10. The subject of new standards is ever evolving.

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