As I begin my research for the required graduate project in my Hypertext class, I find myself gravitating to two particular web experts: Sherry Turkle (more on her work later, trust me) and Eric Meyer.
I was hooked by Meyer’s CSS: The Definitive Guide on page 2. After beginning an explanation of the differences between HTML and CSS in a section entitled “The Web’s Fall From Grace,” he establishes a dichotomy between HTML as a structural language and CSS as a stylistic construct. “Why do authors run roughshod over structure and meaning?” he asks in regard to an example of using font elements rather than heading elements. This rhetorical approach to the highly technical building blocks of the web pulled me in by making me feel as if I not only understand what Meyer is talking about, but I also have a stake in it.
Although I don’t plan to read this entire book straight through—and I think the word “guide” in the title discourages that, anyway—I do like this opening chapter that sets up the differences between CSS and other less nuanced methods. Besides offering understandable explanations and examples, this book makes me feel validated as a web designer who doesn’t know a whole lot about “code.” The rhetorical functionality of web design simply doesn’t rely on HTML, and maybe it can even be hindered by it.
In other chapters, Meyer discusses Selectors, Structure, Values and Units, Fonts, Text Properties, Visual formatting, Borders, Colors, Positioning, Tables, Lists, Interface Styles, and Non-Screen Media. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I have a feeling that all these chapters are as enlightening as the first. Part of that feeling comes from the fact that the author, Meyer, is “the best-recognized CSS authority in the world,” according to Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards, which I’m also working my way through right now. Although I don’t like Designing with Web Standards as well as CSS: The Definitive Guide (it’s less accessible), it’s still a handy book to have around for somebody struggling with web design.
In response to Jim’s post regarding the timing of these readings, I do think I understood them better because I already have a sense of what McIntire is talking about. The vocabulary she uses is the vocabulary we’ve been using for seven weeks now, and it helps to reinforce those terms (and concepts) and internalize them as we go along. I did notice a couple instances where McIntire refers to a difference between artistic and corporate sites. In general, her book is aimed at those designing corporate-style sites. I would argue that, for the most part, the distinction there (at least for McIntire) is whether a site is content-driven or form-driven. McIntire juxtaposes site architecture and visual design to illustrate this point (54). As I’m far more interested in the rhetorical function of web sites, I really appreciate the approach both this book and Krug’s book take to talking about web design. For example, I particularly appreciate discussions where the form and function are explicitly placed in conversation with each other, like when McIntire describes the expectations for underlined words on the web (and, increasingly, in general, as evidenced by the MLA’s latest changes to its style guide). It’s important to me to think about both approaches so that I learn to integrate form and function as I create and critique hypertextual documents.
The first tidbit that interested me in these readings was McIntire’s sidebar discussion of design and the legal system. As it turns out, some entities have successfully patented software patterns—the example McIntire gives is Amazon’s one-click purchasing option—and defended those patents in court. This has interesting implications for web designers, who largely work by bricolage (whether they admit it or not). What does it mean for a person/corporation to own a software pattern? What defines a discrete pattern? How large a chunk does something have to be before it is plagiarized/stolen rather than appropriated/borrowed? (For that matter, why are these patterns patented and not copyrighted? They are intellectual, textual works, yes?) While I don’t have answers to these questions, I think they bear thinking about and I think how they get answered in the courts and in the public sphere will have a big impact on web design in the future.
I was also interested in some usability and accessibility issues in these chapters. I LOVE the list of suggestions for greater accessibility beginning on page 123. During the creation of my Master’s Portfolio, I was keenly aware of the need to provide accommodations for users with different accessibility needs, but I felt quite lost in terms of trying to make my site available to them. Explanations of things like the transparent “skip navigation” link provide me with concrete ways to improve the accessibility of my sites (125). This also ties to goodwill, which we talked about last week. Users with different accessibility needs will likely still encounter problems in viewing my sites, but items like a “skip navigation” link may refill their “goodwill gas tanks” (to use Krug’s metaphor) and encourage them to keep trying because they know I’m attempting to reach them.
I also appreciate McIntire’s attention to small but potentially important items like creating favicons (121) and the naming of files that need to be saved within the site’s folder hierarchy (63). Favicons are an excellent tool for branding, and file-naming appropriately can save a lot of headaches. McIntire suggests naming files according to their functionality rather than according to their physical attributes, which will keep them relevant even as the visual design of the site changes (63). Another helpful hint was to create a custom 404 page (122). I’ve seen these before, and they certainly altered my perception of the site that caused them to appear. When I get the generic “404—file not found” page, I’m generally disgusted enough to move to another site. A custom 404 page demonstrates professionalism and goodwill. A site I critiqued earlier this semester (www.lincolncourier.com) used to have a custom 404 page with text that echoed the local mission of the newspaper in style. It apologized for the inconvenience with clever text that said something like “We’ve looked everywhere, including under the couch, and we can’t find this page.” It then encouraged users to browse other sections of the site. That page has since been replaced by a corporate-designed site that reads “We’re sorry. You received a 404 ERROR because the Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” Although this is still a custom page, it’s not nearly as well done as the original. It assigns blame to the reader and provides no call to action for future browsing. I won’t make this mistake, and I’m really glad to know how to create a custom 404 page. These are the sorts of things that don’t seem so vital until one has already tried to create a website. Having already worked so hard on the Sandbox assignment helped me to appreciate these timely hints.
There were several things mentioned in these chapters that I will need to experiment with before I understand. While I can comprehend their rhetorical function, I’m doubting my ability to use McIntire’s explanation to make these things happen. For example, I had a hard time following her explanation of creating hierarchy charts in Dreamweaver, although this sounds like it could be extremely useful (78). I’m also not sure I totally understand the process described for disabling links. I know I can do this manually, as I did on the website for my first website critique (http://students.english.ilstu.edu/eaclar4/351/critique1), but I’d love to actually be able to figure out the more streamlined process McIntire describes.
I do have one minor critique: I’m with Heather in being puzzled over the idolization of Amazon. While I find Amazon to be a functional and even well-designed site, I wouldn’t have picked it as an ideal example for usability or aesthetic purposes. The fact that both Krug and McIntire seem to see it as the Holy Grail of web design is surprising to me. But . . . I do think their customized home page is unparalleled. It always makes me think of the first time Facebook implemented its News Feed (then dubbed the “Stalker Feed” by most of my friends). Facebook’s clunky appropriation of customization makes Amazon’s skillful marketing look even sleeker.