design.
© 2001 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>
This site best viewed with Mosaic Netscape 0.4


In my wandering clickery one day, I came across one of those sites by a ``Web Designer'' that was like all such sites are: a great mutual-appreciation society where this core set of ``Designers'' put on a show of how intellectual and introspective they all are, only barely disguising the fact that really it's just an incestuous back-patting club, consisting of nothing but self-promotion. One assumes that these people are all the only people listed as references on each others' resumés. They spend a lot of time talking about ``Design'' in the vaguest possible terms, and appealing to each other for authority.

I followed a link on this site (which was to an IP address instead of a host name!) and got to a page named something like http://666.66.66.666/oldpage/index.htm. (I especially liked the ``htm'' at the end, because any time something reminds me of DOS, it makes me feel like kotowing in the direction of Redmond: those kids at Micros~1 sure know what they're doing.) Anyway, this page said, in part:

As it happened, I was looking at this page with Netscape 4.72! But apparently Unix is too ``beta'' for them.

What kind of moron does this stuff by inclusion? What kind of moron writes HTML that doesn't degrade gracefully? The language was designed that way. That's why unrecognized tags are ignored by default. I mean, just let it through! It'll probably work anyway! It might not have the snazzy space-age layout, but the text will actually show up.

Oh, there's my bias -- I was assuming that the text was the important part. More the fool I.

Unless these people are jodi.org or something completely visual like that (a web page that is really an application rather than prose), then these hopeless fuckers are just meat for the beast.

``Wizardry.'' ``Wizardry.'' Half a megabyte of crosshatched background images and flickery stick figures that turn the written word into an epileptic fruit salad is what passes for ``Wizardry'' now!

I went through my bookmarks asking myself the question, ``which of these sites do I think have good design,'' and it was a very hard question to answer, because I kept finding myself saying, ``this is a good site, or that is,'' but the sites didn't have much ``Design'' at all, not in the sense that the ``Web Designer'' peanut gallery seems to see it.

There are lots of sites that play interesting games with HTML and JavaScript and so on, but the only ones that have ever actually impressed me, rather than irritated me, are the ones that are non-verbal: the ones where the bells and whistles are the only content. For such sites, their beauty lies in the fact that they are confusing and random and you don't know where you're going next or whether it's supposed to look like that or whether its a bug. That stuff is great.

But not when you have something besides that to say.

I once saw a page that said ``this page best viewed by coming over to my office and looking at it on my monitor.'' You don't often see honesty like that.

More often, you see sites whose top-level page is entirely devoid of text and hyperlinks. It's usually black, and usually has some kind of time-wasting animation going on. These days, more often than not, a huge Flash file with a spinning logo.

As far as I can tell, the whole point of having an intro page is to sit there and say, ``I am so cool. I am so cool that I don't even have to tell you what I do. I am so cool that I can sit here and just burn time while you look at things whoosh around my logo. Isn't my logo great? I hope you like it because I spent a lot of money on it. Me me me, it's all about me. Oh, you wanted to actually get information off of my web site? Maybe see who I am or what I have to say? Maybe buy a product? Oh, ok, if you insist. Just a few more seconds. Ok, there you go. Here's my real top-level page.''

Madness!


Now, there's nothing wrong with trying to make your web pages look good to the largest number of people. But it's a matter of priorities: if you place a higher value on the layout than on the meaning, then you don't value your words very highly. So why should I? If you tell me that I'm not allowed to look at your page at all unless I can display it in what you consider the ``proper'' manner, then you're telling me that your popup windows and flaming yellow borders are more important than your ideas.

These days, I mostly browse the web through Netscape version 3.02, with JavaScript, Java, document-specified fonts, and plugins turned off. And it works great, and here's why: sites fall into three categories:

  1. Sites that actually have content on them, in which case they don't depend on JavaScript, Layers, specific fonts, or plugins. They may use them, but I don't notice, and don't need to care, because the site works fine without them.

  2. Clever-clever sites that use all the latest bells and whistles, but that happen to work anyway if your browser ignores all the crap. These sites tend to look far worse than plain text would. But they do load fast, and won't ever crash the browser.

  3. Too-clever-by-half sites that don't work at all. Usually these sites come up with a completely blank page, and if I do ``View Source,'' I can see the nature of their evil. Less frequently, the page will come up with some snotty admonishment, blaming me, the web, Netscape, or God for the fact that I can't see their page: blaming, basically, everyone but the designer, who is the only person whose fault it is.

    But that's just fine -- because sites that do this invariably ALSO DON'T HAVE ANY CONTENT ON THEM. So this is a great litmus test that saves me lots and lots of time! If the site uses all the latest crap, then it means that whoever's site it is is more concerned with appearance than content, and the only reason for that would be that their content is crap. If they had worthwhile content, they wouldn't have to dress it up in gaudy trappings to get people to think that there's something there.

Another benefit of this approach is that Netscape version 3 is really, gloriously small. Back when it was released, that browser had a bad reputation as being huge and bloated. But that was in 1996. The world has moved on. By today's standards, it's a featherweight. As they say, ``welcome to the next level.''

I also highly recommend the Junkbuster ad-filtering proxy. It speeds things up a lot, and removes unwanted cognitive toxins.


I think my standards have lowered enough that now I think ``good design'' is when the page doesn't irritate the living fuck out of me. When I see a site that is primarily text, that doesn't change the default font, that doesn't load a dozen images with nothing but text in them, that doesn't hide the URLs inside a frame cell, that doesn't make it impossible for me to use the Back button, and that basically shows some restraint by doing an index or two, and then giving me the actual content without bells, whistles, hoops, mallets, and high-voltage rope bridges... that makes me breathe a sigh of relief.

It's the same kind of feeling I get when I see someone in an SUV slowing down and using their turn signals.

``Wow. Check that out.''

I've still not lost that sense of wonder.


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