Design on the Web: A 'Voice of Experience' Fights Back

By: Steve Outing

Roger Black is a star in the print publication design world. Early in his career he was art director of Rolling Stone and the New York Times. His studio over the last quarter century has redesigned prestigious titles like Esquire, Foreign Affairs, Advertising Age and the San Francisco Examiner. Today, Roger Black Inc. is heavily involved in designing the look of online sites; his Interactive Studio is responsible for the look of such high-profile sites as USA Today Online, Discovery Online and @Home.

While you can't fault Black's credentials, the celebrity design guru is not universally well thought of in the online world. Many Web site designers view Black as too tied to the "old guard media establishment." He's too stuck on the "old" design rules, they contend, and not willing to break new ground in defining a new look for the online medium that completely breaks free of print.

Black has just released a new book, "Web Sites That Work," co-written with Sean Elder and published by Adobe Press ($45 US), in which he espouses his philosophy for Web site design and gets a chance to respond to his detractors.

"If the Internet has an age," the authors write, "it is adolescence. ... There is nothing adolescence hates more than experience or, more precisely, the voice of experience. To many netizens, Roger Black represents that voice."

The Webmaster's library

Web Sites That Work is a worthwhile book to have on your shelf, whether you agree with Black's view of the cyber world or not. At 240 pages, with lots of photos, wide leading on body type and generous white space, the book is a quick read; I consumed it in one short evening.

Having once worked in the print design world (as a newspaper graphics editor), I was receptive to Black's message: Don't throw out the old as you create the new. Black cites Wired magazine and its online counterpart, HotWired, as classic examples of ignoring cardinal design rules that should apply in any medium. Referring to Wired, for example, Black writes, "We increasingly see -- on the Web and in print -- designers running amok and putting the type in yellow on an orange background, or worse. You can't read it; there's not enough contrast between the figure and the ground. Why do designers do it? Because it's easy to do and they labor under the misconception that they must be novel. ... Wired and HotWired are obvious examples of Design Before Legibility."

Black is convinced that good design is imperative to the survival of many Web ventures. "The designer's job is to be barker and stripper, for the main show and side," he writes. "It is not enough to get people through the front door, to your home page. You have to bring them inside, and once they are in, try not to confuse and frustrate them. You must entertain and inform them and allow them to jump from one thing to the next with the greatest of ease.

"Otherwise, they don't come back, and the circus folds its tents, and all the acrobats, jugglers, and clowns go back to their day jobs."

In an interesting analogy, Black explains why search engines like Yahoo! are successful while many Web sites have failed: "The compass is worth more than the land. The answer may lie in better selling the land -- in urban planning, if you will. ... The designer is the Web's real pathfinder. The medium's hopes rest on their shoulders, for if they don't succeed, how will the wonders of the Web survive? Design is the answer."

Picture perfect? No

I liked this book, and heartily recommend it -- but it's not perfect. Many of the examples of good design come from the Interactive Bureau's clients. It's easy to criticize Web Sites That Work for being a 200-page-plus advertisement for Roger Black's Web design services. There are pictures of the Interactive Bureau's offices, and 27 -- count 'em! -- photos of Black himself (including one of the shirtless design guru with his arm around supermodel Christie Brinkley). But I'll forgive him for the self-promotional tone because the book has a lot of meat to it.

Here are a few excerpts and design tips gleaned from Black's book:

* "One thing to learn is this: the 'Don't Click Here' button is the one that everyone will click."

* Put content on every page, for design should convey information, not be mere decoration. The aging interface of America Online is the classic example of what NOT to do, says Black. "A reader should never have to plow through forests of buttons to get simple news. Content should come to the surface on every single level."

* The ideal colors for a Web page are white, black and red. White is the best background; black holds the highest contrast to white so is the first choice for type. Black likes red for headline type. "Red sells magazines on newsstands twice as much as any other color," he writes.

* A cover should be a poster. "A single image of a human being -- preferrably Madonna -- will sell more magazines than multiple images or all type," Black writes. "The same with books, ads, and home pages."

* Use only two typefaces. This is an old design rule, ignored at Web designers' peril. "The best combination of two: one light and one bold. Hint: This works with colors, too."

* Don't design pages that require the user to scroll, Black says. 75% of viewers of a Web page will not scroll down beyond what they initially see.

* Don't use a lot of colors. Monochromatic pages look better and run much faster, Black says. Too much color creates Web clutter and a sense of confusion for the reader.

* And about those ubiquitous fuzzy drop shadows: "If we never see another site with blurry drop shadows on every button and every speck of display type, it will be too soon," Black writes.

Pulitzers notice online journalism

The Pulitzer Prize Board has appointed a committee to study the possibility of adding a category to the prestigious Pulitzer awards for online journalism. This year, two entries from the online divisions of newspapers were disqualified because they did not conform to the requirements for print journalism. One was from the New York Times, for a CD-ROM and Internet presentation of "Uncertain Paths to Peace," about Bosnia; the second was from the Sun Herald of Charlotte Harbor, Florida, for its online community Web site, "Our Town Charlotte." (The Sun Herald earlier this year won an international award from Editor & Publisher for producing the best online newspaper service by a newspaper with circulation under 100,000. The New York Times on the Web won in the large-print-circulation category for best overall online service and best online editorial content.)

Another online journalist who says he was declared ineligible to submit a Pulitzer entry was Joe Shea, editor-in-chief of the American Reporter. Shea calls his news service a "newspaper," but it is an Internet news service with no print counterpart. Shea wanted to enter an article by one of his correspondents from Jakarta for Pulitzer consideration, but the New York-based Pulitzer office told him the American Reporter was not eligible because it is published electronically.

The online exporatory committee will consist of five members of the Pulitzer Board: John Dotson Jr., Akron Beacon Journal; Louis Boccardi, The Associated Press; Rena Pederson, Dallas Morning News; William Safire, New York Times; and Marilyn Yarborough, University of North Carolina.

Committee members are likely to find that they are opening a can of worms as they explore this issue. The Pulitzers for journalism have been awarded to the print media, with broadcast media excluded. While newspapers now publish on the World Wide Web and thus it might seem logical to have an online category for the awards, broadcast outlets like CNN, MSNBC and ABC also produce Web sites that are nearly identical to those produced by newspapers. Then there are the growing number of online-only news organizations -- such as American Reporter, and others -- doing solid journalism on the Internet. This will be an interesting issue to watch.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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