<BODY> Language 3

by Joe Gillespie — Jul 1, 1999

In the last two editorials, I discussed the personality of a Web page and how that personality can be made even more powerful through clarity, conviction and consistency. Many designers already do all these things instinctively. If they have worked in the design industry for a while, certain sets of rules are adopted or developed that mean that even on a bad day, their work will be of a high professional standard.

Bad days? Good days?

Any designer will identify with these. Creative people are moody by nature and their work and ideas vary from day to day. It might be the weather, the biological clock, or whatever, but in every month there will be a couple of really good days when ideas pop up out of nowhere like magic and a few when they have to be dragged out kicking and screaming. A professional designer knows how to cope with this. Very often, it needs the ground-rush effect of a fast approaching deadline that gets the adrenaline and the ideas moving.

So, we have a set of rules or techniques that we can fall back on when original ideas are in short supply. I remember in critiques at art college where students would be accused of using 'Graphic Technique #23b' - a 'soot and whitewash', high contrast photograph with a layer of colored Letrafilm over the top and a neat row of Helvetica running up the side. Today, these techniques are usually created with filters in Photoshop at the click of a mouse. We all have a repertoire of such tricks, I tend to think of them as creative crutches. The trouble is that some people use them all the time.

Breaking the Rules

Looking at Web pages in general, there are lots of conventions. Some are dictated by the medium - underlined text is a link, for instance - it means something quite different from underlined text on a printed page.

Then there are many sites that have a row of navigational buttons down the left hand side of the page against a colored strip. This is dictated by the fact that only the top left corner of a Web page is fixed, all others are likely to move with the window size. Fair enough.

Some conventions are just common sense, but some are due to a lack of imagination and no designer wants to be accused of that! Imagination is the one thing that lifts their Web pages from the overall dross.

I said last month that I would be talking about 'breaking the rules' but I'm not advocating mayhem and insurrection and throwing everything you've learned to the wind. This is more of a controlled situation where you question convention and ask yourself, "Does it have to be this way?". "Is there another answer that is more imaginative and works as well if not better?"

Sure, there will be lots of alternatives that don't work, but there are usually some that do. These are the ones that stand out like gemstones amongst pebbles on a beach.

Most Web pages scroll vertically for instance, but there is nothing wrong if you design one that scrolls horizontally instead, if it does so because it is appropriate, not just for gimmick value.

Consider also that if you can control the position of the right hand side of a page with tables, you can put the navigation menu there. It works just as well - if not better - than on the left side.

Almost every Web page is in glorious color. Why not use black and white or a monochrome duotone to get away from the norm? There was a time when coloredm pictures stood out, now it 's the other way round.

Typography

Typography can be much more imaginative than HTML dictates even without straying into the wobbly heights of Cascading Style Sheets. Judicious use of tables, non-breaking spaces, paras and breaks can emulate just about any typographical layout. All it takes is a bit of patience, and a few different computer systems and browsers to make sure that it doesn't fall over.

Just as a single word set in italics stands out in a block of roman text, any element that is 'wrong' can be used to draw attention or to help create personality. Skilled musicians will sometimes throw-in a note or chord that is discordant technically but adds immense character to the piece.

Artists will similarly introduce a compositional imbalance into a painting that creates movement and dynamism, or a color that has just no right to be there, but works. But not everybody can do that!

Don't let people tell you that what you are doing is wrong. If you are doing something different, it is not wrong, it is different - and that is good.

This is what I mean by breaking the rules!

This is personality.

This is creativity.

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