CYBERSHOCK: Deconstruct the Web

Have you seen those "under construction" signs on the Web? Don't you just hate them? I know I do. I hate them almost as much as I hate Andy Rooney. In the world according to Craig McLaughlin, 60 Minutes would be 55 minutes long and Web browsers would refuse to display any yellow diamond-shaped graphics.If you've spent much time on the Web, you've probably seen the signs. They strike me as shorthand for "Hey, I know this site looks pretty amateurish, but I'm learning HTML (not to mention spelling, grammar, and visual aesthetics) just as fast as I can."There are a lot of reasons to be bugged by these ubiquitous graphics. For starters, they were never very exciting graphically, and by now they've become old and tired. Plus, they rarely work well with the other graphic elements on a page. But my biggest complaint is that they waste bandwidth by continually stating and restating the obvious. One of the big things the Web has going for it is that it is, by its very nature, always under construction. If you're not regularly reconstructing your site, you're not taking advantage of the medium. Mistakes can be fixed, simple sites can be expanded, themes can be expounded on. It's dynamic. It's fluid.Most of the time when people use "under construction" signs, they would do better to hold off until they have something they don't have to apologize for. I've seen very few instances when the world couldn't wait for a site to be a little more polished. If for some reason someone has to put a page up before they're happy with it, the reason for hurrying is often self-evident, and viewers can decide for themselves whether the page will be worth revisiting without broad, self-effacing hints from the author.This is all part of a bigger rant that started when someone asked me to look at a Web page that he felt buttressed his objections to one of my columns. I was already unkindly predisposed to the task, so I was pretty perturbed when I found that I was being asked to read a few thousand words of white text on a deep blue background. While "reversed" type is sometimes used in print publications, print designers rarely ask us to read long blocks of light type on a dark page. They save that kind of thing for small blocks of type, because they know that reversed type is hard to read. A case in point: Longtime Madison Avenue ad executive David Ogilvy suggested that Save the Children Federation stop running its newspaper ads with white type on a black background. Contributions doubled when the federation reverted to a traditional black-on-white ad.I've heard people say that what's happening now on the Web is just like what happened when desktop publishing software came out -- everyone with a computer became a designer overnight. But actually, it's worse.Desktop publishing was really about messing with layout, graphics, and typefaces. Most people were still running the same paper through their printers, and they weren't trying to redefine the basic concept of what a publication should look like.Today, people on the Web can play with the background surface by changing colors or using tile background graphics -- and play they do. A huge chunk of the sites I look at these days are practically illegible (and significantly slower) because someone decided to create a fancy background. It's like printing a brochure on wrapping paper or Monday's news on top of Sunday's comics.And don't even get me started on disorganized documents that have so many links that the odds of any readers' actually finishing the document are practically nil. What happened to the old days when publications were written and organized to guide a reader through in a particular way? It's great that Web pages are flexible and allow people to take different paths through material, rather than just turning pages in sequence, but do we have to break from tradition at every opportunity just because we can? There are reasons, for example, why tables of contents are the length they are and come at the beginning of a book, and indexes are long and come at the end. Why should I have to scroll through what would be seven printed pages of links when I get to a site because someone decided to lead with the index, or deal with a series of contents pages so brief they do nothing to orient me?Someone told me recently: "You can't just take a print publication and throw it up on the Web. They're different media. It would be like trying to make a movie as if it were a play." He's right and he's wrong. There have been some damn good adaptations of theater to film, and if I were an experienced theater director and someone invited me to make my first film, I would try to build on what I know, not throw it all out the window because I was working in a different medium.

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