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The Killer of Websites
Jan 27, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Walk into any major bookstore chain and you'll come face to face with the state of Internet commerce. It's been a running "joke" now for almost two years - the people that make money on the Internet are the people that write books. Physical books.

This may explain the recent success of a former typographer turned website design "expert."

David Siegel, the self-proclaimed "master of all trades, jack of none," would be a perfect business school case study in "How to Build a Brand Name on the Internet." Like most wannabe net.moguls, Siegel started out with a simple domain and a few words of wisdom. His wisdom just happened to be on horizontal and vertical space, a need for leading and kerning, and the finer points of writing successful screenplays.

Following the lead of friend Glenn Davis, Siegel got into the awards game with "High Five," the decoration that he presents to sites that he feels are well designed (read "follows his rules"). He gave the first award to himself, of course, and then went on to suck up to Absolut Vodka, c|net and Pathfinder. A new High Five site is reviewed every week by Siegel himself, and rated on execution, aesthetics and "degree of difficulty." Whatever that means.

The latest in Siegel's little dominion of design is the hard copy "Creating Killer Websites: The Art of Third Generation Site Design," published by Hayden Books. Siegel must have realized that the chance of actually making any money from a website hawking website design tips was somewhere between slim to none. Thus, the ironic turn to pulp to ply his HTML and image wrangling wares.

The book is pretty, I'll give him that much. It's printed on heavy stock, and is chock full of helpful color wheels, clever HTML, and those jaw dropping "before and after" screen shots of Siegel makeovers. But as I paged through the book, I started getting that "all sugar, no substance" feeling that I usually associate with Hostess Twinkies. Here's a list of topics covered under the category "design tips:"

color cube
gif compression
jpeg compression
eyeballing the palette
single-pixel gif trick
browser offsets
reduce colors
hand retouching

It should be clear from the above list that Siegel's book is not about website design at all. Instead, it's about web page design - a completely different topic. Sure, the single-pixel gif trick may do wonders for indenting the first word of a paragraph, but it does nothing to help a web designer give users easy access to the information contained in their site.

One of the fundamental tenets of database design is to keep your stores of information separate from any related processing or presentation of the information. That way, if the processing or presentation has to change, you don't risk having to redesign your information structure in order to accommodate the change.

Something this simple would be lost on the aesthetics-happy Siegel. In "The Balkanization of the Web," a mammoth "essay" from Siegel on the past, present and future of information, exchange and entertainment, Siegel uses a 3 x 3 grid of colors as a map to the nine sections of his essay. The map muddles his (already muddled) message: we're more concerned with getting on to the next square of the tic-tac-toe board than grasping what Siegel has to say. It's almost as if Siegel designed the grid first, and fit the essay to it as an afterthought.

One of the wonderful things about HTML is that it offers the opportunity for "structured" content. Structural tags like <head> and <body> and perhaps even <blockquote> help machines (like browsers and search engines) make sense of pages. But for Siegel, for whom white-space reigns supreme, structural tags are to be avoided like the plague. Forget the advantages of a browser-independent markup language like HTML, for everything Siegel does on the web "is a workaround to get back to the kind of typographic and visual control we have in more 'primitive' media. ... To say that all Web pages should be viewable by all browsers, including non-graphical ones, is to say there should be a pedestrian lane in the freeway."

I'm not against well-designed pages. But what the web needs is fewer experts in page design and more experts in true site design. What seems to be lost on Siegel (and all the other authors of HTML how-to tomes) is the notion of architecting information. Where are all the books on how site designers can break out of the magazine metaphor? Where are all the books on how to manage large content archives efficiently? Where are all the books on how we can help users deal with thousands of channels of push media?

"Site" designers will buy Siegel's book, and we'll see more single-pixel gifs, and more entry and exit tunnels, and more tables. Great. But I hope that someone is out there somewhere, writing "Creating Useful Websites: The Art of Fourth Generation Site Design."



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