Layout, Color, Graphics, and Typography … Oh my!

Having read a Robin Williams text previously, The Non-Designer’s Web Book offered lessons that were somewhat familiar to me. I remember loving Williams’ writing in the past; I found it spunky and refreshing. I still think it is, to some extent, but read alongside Penny McIntire’s text, it actually came off as a bit grating. I really enjoyed the professional tone of Visual Design for the Modern Web, and I consistently found myself marking page numbers that I wanted to come back to later. I also found at least a few examples of techniques that I’m already planning to use in my Sandbox assignment; it really helps to be in the midst of a project while reading this information.

In the Page Layout section, I was excited to get an understandable explanation of how display size and resolution interact. This has always been something of a mystery to me, and I’ve generally resorted to random guesswork and checking out my sites on as many monitors and browsers as I could in the past. While I understand that this sort of usability checking is still a good idea, I feel much more informed about the initial creation of a site that I think will look presentable on most systems. It was also helpful to realize that both Visual Design for the Modern Web and The Non-Designer’s Web Book recommend using an 800-pixel-wide display. Visual Design for the Modern Web also helped me understand the difference between liquid and solid layout. This was something that I had a vague concept of from working on the Sandbox project, but I was still puzzling it out. Knowing that a solid layout is a set number of pixels horizontally and that a liquid layout expands and contracts to fill any screen makes the distinction much easier to wrap my head around. Much of the other information in Visual Design for the Modern Web could fall under the C.R.A.P. principles discussed in The Non-Designer’s Web Book, although they were discussed in a more sophisticated way with more modern and helpful examples, in my opinion. I also appreciated the attention given to accessibility throughout McIntosh’s text.

The chapter on Color in Visual Design for the Modern Web was my favorite part of this reading. While I’ve studied color theory before, I didn’t know about hexadecimal coding. Now I feel like I have a much better handle on how to create attractive color schemes in web design programs. Likewise, the Graphics chapter was very informative. It helped me understand the reasoning behind some things that I already knew, such as why a jpeg file is best for photographs and a gif is best for line drawings. The discussion of transparency and layers was helpful in thinking about how to get around some common problems in web design. I was also interested to learn about the ways in which bitmapped files are compressed and why these images sometimes degrade to the point of being unusable. I especially appreciated the explanation of the relationship between DPI and PPI, which I’ve known experienced designers to misunderstand. All this said, McIntosh provides understandable examples that are helping me understand why particular conventions exist in designing for the web. Knowing why a convention exists is immensely helpful if one is ever considering breaking a rule. Just as in any other aspect of life, knowing the original reasoning behind the rule is pretty vital to understanding when it’s acceptable (even beneficial) to break it.

As an experienced newspaper and magazine designer, most of the Typography chapter was old news to me (except, obviously, for the HTML). I’d like to pick a fight with McIntosh on one subject in this chapter: She states that “typographers have long argued that printed body copy is more legible in a serif typeface” and then goes on to refute this as an industry standard, implying that it’s a subject of great controversy. To be blunt, she’s wrong. Defaulting to a serif typeface for body text is an industry standard for print media. The sans serif typeface this book is set in drove me nuts the entire time I was reading. (Obviously, for this particular user, it wasn’t a transparent choice). I’m not arguing that one should never use a sans serif face for body type in print; I’m just saying that most good print designers won’t do it unless there is a good reason. On-screen, I’m no expert, so I’ll take McIntosh’s advice to use sans serif typefaces if the serifs are breaking down and proving useless. However, I’ve always been partial to Georgia (a serif) for on-screen type, so I was a little pleased with myself when I learned that Microsoft had hired this typeface created specifically for screen display. I think this goes to show that anyone—even a web designer as inexperienced as I am—who is paying attention can design a decent web site just by using common sense in relation to usability.

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