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It's the Source Code, Stupid
Feb 16, 1998 :: Alexis Massie

This is typical of web design advice:

"You can use an image array, though it will only appear on Netscape 3 and above, IE 4 and above. But the fact is, using variables to represent the placement of each image can cause confusion between the browsers and may result in a script that, quite simply, doesn't work properly and most certainly wont work consistently, with the image you want to replace overlaying perfectly in Netscape 4 but not on Netscape 3, though both claim to support it..."

All I want is what's called a "mouseover:" when a viewer points the mouse over an image, I want that image to change. It really shouldn't be this complicated.

While speed may be the blood of the web, its designers make stockbrokers look like retirees. No sooner are one set of tools created, acclaimed, integrated into browsers, and adopted by the developers, than the same set of tools are discarded in favor of a new set. I'd just learned how to do an image array. Now they're telling me it wont work and I have to learn something else.

We experience the same old tired revolution every day, on the hour. To the audience, this is invisible, hidden behind images that read "This site best viewed with..." and source code they don't look at. Every six months, another browser is released; every month after a new version of the new browser soon follows. Each of these browsers has its own idiosyncrasies, a funny little way of handling this and that bit of code. If there's one thing that web designers have learned, its that you can't rely on anything. The requirement, the goal and the grail are the same: make a page look the same, behave the same, and be the same, on all browsers.

"The other thing you have to bear in mind is that you can't use transparent images in a mouseover, so if you use a background image and you want it to show through, you'll have to include the chunk of background you want in the image. That means, of course, that you'll need exact placement so that the edges of the image match up with the background it's supposed to blend into... "

Real web designers have these conversations because they can't rely on HTML editing software to figure it out for them, choosing instead to painstakingly create pages by hand. It's not that they don't want the convenience of a button click. But it seems that it takes longer to make an HTML editor than it does to reinvent HTML. That time difference is enough to render the editor obsolete before it even hits the shelves.

But you wouldn't know that from looking at the majority of "professional" designers out peddling their wares, suddenly empowered by this "new" technology. Rather than stretch the possibilities of the medium, these people prey on the ignorance of the mainstream public by charging ridiculous rates for what, essentially, boils down to clicking a few buttons on a second-rate editor, rarely going back to make sure that the code is clean. Why would they do anything differently? Designing web sites is hard. Even something as simple as a mouseover can paralyze a top notch designer for a day.

The answer to every designer's problem is to use last year's HTML to create second-rate page design. Most of the time, the client doesn't know to expect anything different. But the toll is quality control. By dumbing down the code, you run the risk of turning the web into nothing more than an electronic version of a brochure. For some, that's simply unacceptable.

The medium is on the brink of a new revolution, pioneered by a small group of Nouveau Designers, while the rest of the pack sits back and collects unheard of fees for the benefit of clicking the "insert list" button. The Nouveau Design uses frames and javascript to seamlessly modify the clickable selections so that the user is always presented with the information they want with one clear click. The point is not to display the information. The point is to display the information in the proper context, designing relationships into the code. But these sites get stonewalled by the hours wasted in figuring out how to make an image change on a browser that wasn't created to allow that.

It fundamentally comes down to philosophy. Is the web a platform of accessibility, or of information design? Is the browser a piece of software or a medium?

If the medium is to grow, it has to evolve. And yet, the medium began with the premise of "universal access" to content, and many people hold onto that idea with the bite of a rotweiler. The browsers go on integrating new tools into each version of their software. The users continue to insist that their preferred browser is the only one that exists. And the designers get caught in the middle -- torn between the possibilities of one and then demands of the other.

Something's got to give.

-- Alex Massie is an irregular contributor to, which she did not design. She also did not design quiet foxes, nor soulflare, though she wishes she had. She does, however, make her living designing coporate sites as well as noncommercial sites such as,, and She spends as much of her remaining hours as she can in a fogged up car, swearing she didn't know the kid was fifteen.



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