Nov. 21, 1997 Issue > Designers

Shades of Black

By Ingrid Becker

The Web might be called "new" media, but when it comes to design, many of the old fashioned rules for creating a good-looking printed page apply to building a nice home page. So says Roger Black, the graphic design guru who's responsible for creating the look of dozens of national magazines, including Advertising Age and Rolling Stone.

"People like to have some association to cling to when they are looking at anything new," says Black, explaining why he consistently relies on tried and true methods of editorial layout for the Web design jobs he's doing today with his company Interactive Bureau.

For example, Black often borrows a newspaper format when creating Web sites such as the one he did for MSNBC. "It made sense," he says, "to lead the viewer through the site by introducing a front page format that also served as a place to act as a teaser for some of the content within. It also gave readers a format they could relate to."

"Try to give people some hook so they don't have to absorb a model of what you're trying to do for the first time," he advises clients.

Black, who has spelled out some of his design advice for the multimedia age in a book called "Web Sites That Work," (Adobe Press) says a lot of Web designers have relied too heavily on a software interface for creating layouts. The result, he says, are home pages with so many buttons and drop-down menus the user gets turned off.

Roger Black"From where I come from, software always seems a little cold and a little like work," Black says. "The last thing people want to do when they spend a little time online in the evening is to be reminded of the Microsoft Office suite." At the same time, Interactive Bureau has found that borrowing a few software elements such as reference buttons, is helpful for creating navigation tools. "What we try to do is make it as simple as possible so (the reader) is not encumbered by a lot of buttons," Blacksays.

Among Web designers today, Black says "there's a certain amount of tension" and pressure to be new and different. While he's enthusiastic about making the most of the new medium, he says design should never be at the expense of what he considers the elements of a good-looking page: Legible type (he's a big fan of black on white); dynamic but intelligent layouts with plenty of white space; interesting, clear content; and a user-friendly interface that doesn't require five minutes to download a page each time the user clicks through.

Multimedia and the Web

"Ultimately we will have a much more logical and holistic model for Web design," Black predicts. "We will see the medium become integrated. Right now," he says, "the Web's design tools are in a heap of separate pieces. Text, video and sound are available but are unconnected."

That means most users aren't likely to have patience with a jumble of applications that depend on high-bandwidth to load quickly. Black advises clients to make audio and video elements on their pages optional. "I think people want multimedia, but in every case you need a two-pronged approach. You have to give people a way to avoid it," he says. For the near term, bandwidth limitations will continue to be an issue for designers to wrestle with in deciding how much and what kind of multimedia to incorporate.

"Most of us who are designing Web sites have fancy equipment and fast connections." Black says it is important to keep in mind that not everyone has a 21-inch monitor and high-speed Internet connection.

When Interactive Bureau redesigned MSNBC's site earlier this year, the designers paid careful attention to see that the new page format would be more compact and easily viewed on the average 14-inch home PC monitor. The site still had to deliver a vast amount of information in a very small space so in order to make the site, more functional, Interactive designed for information "blocks" that kept moving and changing on the screen instead of long pages requiring a lot of scrolling. "This utilizes technology, instead of space, to deliver the news," Black says.

Keep it Fresh and Simple

In addition, Black says Interactive created a design solution to another common problem of corporate Web sites -- failure to update the "look" of a page to keep it fresh.

"We made it easy to update," he says. "So many designers do not take into account the editorial specifications when they design. We made this site easy on the editors because if they can't use it, the design gets flushed down the drain. We say: 'Work with content not against it.'"

Black says it's probably his long print background that makes him so old-fashioned about wanting to see content on every page, but he believes the principal is sound for the Web. "A reader should never have to plow through a forest of buttons to get simple news," he says. Black cites the interface of America Online as an example of what not to do.

Another problem he sees is that too often Web designers are getting carried away with colors. Call him stodgy, but Black insists that providing good contrast is essential even it means giving up the hip chartreuse background. He says the site, Word, is an online magazine with mostly black and white text that is a good example of clarity.

Along the same lines, he hates blurry drop shadows, tiny type or large blocks of text set in all caps; a current favorite with a lot of designers, but a gimmick Black says is usually difficult to read.

"Even though it might look hip to do something, the bottom line is, skip it if it's too hard to read," he says.

Black says the most successful sites are the ones where one person with a clear vision is "running the show."

"If you look at something like Suck, it's really simple, it's lively, it's all about writing. It changes five days a week and the editors are at one with their purpose and they have fun at it."

The flip-side is what he sees more often: "You have a committee of people -- in a business environment it may be the marketing people -- and they all have a laundry list of what to do."

Black predicts that it won't be long before Web surfers will be viewing more custom pages based on their interests. "Right now," he says, "everyone who downloads a page gets the same information and layout." Soon though, those pages could look different to different people because the Web designers will have created layouts for specific reader "profiles." The readers will have the option of choosing information based on their interests and will be able to view a page that is "personalized" for them.

Black, who has studios in New York as well as in Mexico, France, Spain and Italy, says the Web is a fertile ground for new talent. He finds less rivalry among Web designers than in other areas such as advertising -- mostly because there is so much work to go around right now and everyone is experimenting. "Nobody is well qualified for this," he admits. "I think it will take awhile for the naturals to evolve."

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