Typography for the Web of Information

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The Web as Media

If the technologies of the Web represent some nascent maturity, Design on the web is notable for it's inconsistencies.  Web Design struggles to define itself, and as the discipline evolves, it changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  Web Design remains a foreign subject to many, and methodologies are only beginning to evolve.

Unlike printed media, television, or radio, the Web is uniquely bi-directional.  Users can not only interact with, but create information, something impossible in other mass media.  If this unique quality of non-linear, active information sets the Web apart, it is also what makes it confusing and useless without strong design.  But while other media are defined by their format, i.e. the printed page, the Web is continually misunderstood as a medium, as designers attempt to adopt the visual excitement of television and computer animation to a text-driven, purposefully simplistic delivery format.

Considering the Web as Media
Successful mass communications is the result of a combination of technology and information, and the dissemination of information to a large audience is one of the key strengths of the web.  Technically, the web is not an ideal mass communications medium, but it's ability to support bidirectional communication is unmatched.  As an information store and forum for correspondence, the web blends and blurs the limits of each of the other media. The Web allows anyone to publish to an audience of millions.  No other media can claim this.

The definition of the web as media poses some interesting issues for the would-be Web Designer.  On a technical level, design on the web is essentially dictated by the protocols and technologies which define it, while the flexible nature of these technologies allows for great variety and creativity.  But given the 'anything goes' nature of modern web design, it becomes evident that the web is perhaps not as well understood as it is popular, and that much Web Design ignores the strengths of the medium in order to cling to the models of other, more established media.

The boom and subsequent bust of the Dot-Coms allowed for rapid advancement in all things Web.  Commercial ventures spurred technical and design growth, allowing large scale Web development to take place alongside the emerging tool sets.  The Web as a marketing tool, commonly seen as the corporate web site, emerged as the premier display of web technologies.  It's possible that the corporate Web site fueled Web Design more than any other factor.

The popularity of the Web, combined with it's ease of use, allowed for a low barrier of entry to the burgeoning field of Web design.  Graphic Designers, especially those with Multimedia experience Graphic Designers and Multimedia producers would the first to exploit the design potential of the web.   These designers, skilled in page layout for print production or CD-ROM interfaces, attempted to bring this 'rich media' concept to the Web, which would prove to limiting compared to those mediums.

The Web as media may attempt to blend the other, more established communications media, but eventually, it must be accepted that the web is unique, and rooted in it's heritage, hypertext. The syntax of HTML is rooted in text description, not multimedia.  As designers continually seek to create a more visual, graphical experience on the web, they may be locking the openness of the Web into proprietary file formats. 

Tim Berners - Lee agrees:

"The simplest factor controlling the Web as a medium for communication between people is the power of the data formats used to represent hypertext, graphics, and other media. Under pressure because of their direct visibility and impact on the users experience, these have advanced relatively rapidly because each medium has been essentially independent of the others."(Lee, 165)

The Web as  Software
Despite the document-centered nature of Web publishing, it was recognized early on that the Web would make an ideal platform for distributed software.  Even the earliest Web servers supported CGI (Common Gateway Interface), which exposed the computer's programmatic abilities to the simple interface of a web browser. Soon, these programmatic interfaces would allow complex applications to be built using the simple forms capabilities inherent in HTML.

The Web as software is critical in that it allows for the Web to become useful: programs which are web sites can now communicate with users, servers, and other web sites.  In this way, the Web becomes the foundation for a new class of computer software, based on fundamentally simple tools and concepts.  The search engine is perhaps the most ubiquitous example of the web as software.  The search engine is a tool, a web site which does something, and in turn brings value to the Web oneself by indexing the information contained within it.

In recent years software tools have become the focus of most corporate web development, as developers move away from the marketing level which has proved to be not so lucrative as was thought in the boom times of the late Nineties.  The concept of the web as a tool, something meaningful , useful, and helpful, has changed Web Design and the markets that it depends on.

The Web as a Textual Environment
While designers in the Web arena have typically been concerned which flashy graphics, the Web was designed to be primarily textual.  A quick look at the syntax of HTML shows that the majority of tags (descriptors which make up a page) are rooted in text publishing.  Tags for headings, paragraphs, tabular data, and linking make up the core tags of HTML.  Image tags, used to embed images in a web page, are simple and lack any of the advanced features available in modern image editing and page layout applications.

Recall for a moment the origins of the web: Scientific publishing and information sharing.  How then, have we arrived at a Web of blinking, flashing banners, music and animation?  The answer is exploitation: by using loopholes and unintended use of the simple HTML language, Graphic Designers are able to create sophisticated graphical layouts.  Browser manufacturers continue to add support for other software, like Java applets, Flash, or music, enabling Web authors to serve almost any media which can be played on a computer.

None of this negates the web as a textual environment.  One need only examine the most popular, successful, mass-market sites on the web to find one striking similarity: they are almost entirely textual.  The reasons for this are varied, but they are conscious and deliberate. Designers of these sites know that most Web users use low-speed telephone modems which cannot adequately transfer heavy graphical data, but can process text quickly and efficiently. Similarly, many Web users are bound to older computers without the necessary hardware or software to render complex animations,music, and video. Finally, heavy graphics and multimedia can render web documents inaccessible and unusable to users with visual impairments, or physical disabilities which do not allow for use of a mouse or keyboard.

Issues of usability and accessibility form the core challenges that a Web designer will face, as they are presented with a medium that is not only visible, but usable, and functional.  The aesthetic of Web design must temper the designer's creativity with respect for the user.

Tim Berners Lee:

"As we look at the way a person uses the web, it is simplest to improve the reception of information by adding new forms of graphics and multimedia. It is more difficult to imagine how best to allow a person to interact with the information, to create and modify it.  Harder still is imagining how this computer screen can be used to allow one person to interact as one of many people interacting as a group.  This is the order in which development has occurred to date, and will occur in the future."(Lee,160)