How to Make Your Web Site Look Professional

Good design is one key to a successful Web site.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," penned the poet John Keats last century. Today, if Keats were Internet literate, he might have typed in some Usenet newsgroup, "A cool-looking Web site can be a magnet for millions." The Internet's World Wide Web makes it easy to create an attractive digital monument to whom you are and what you're all about. But this wonderfully enabling technology can also make it easy for individuals and organizations alike to create monuments that are coyote ugly. Whether you're putting together a homespun homepage made of just a few screens or overseeing a multileveled, multimedia-rich corporate site, keep in mind the principles of good Web design. Because the Web is so new, none of these principles are set in stone. But there's a definite consensus about what works and what doesn't. You can find many of these design tips on the Web itself. It all boils down to respecting people's time, valuing the Web's diversity, and striving for consistency and creativity. * Respect people's time. Until high-speed Internet access from the cable and telephone companies becomes widespread, don't bog down your site with large bandwidth-clogging graphics. Confronted with huge images that paint on their screens at glacial speed, many visitors will move quickly to another site. One rule of thumb is that no single graphic should be larger than 25 KB to 50 KB, and no single page should include more than 200 KB of graphics. If you need to include a large, detailed image, first provide readers with a smaller, thumbnail version so they know if seeing the larger image is worth their time. The same principle applies to multi-media elements. Give visitors the option of receiving any sizable Java applets or Shockwave movies. Remember: If part of your site is still under construction, don't create a link to it. Those "Under Construction" signs just waste visitors' time. * Value the Web's diversity. Surfers use a variety of computers, screen resolutions, browsers, and connection methods. A mistake some large companies make is farming out their Web design to big advertising agencies who create sites that look great on a 21-inch monitor over an internal intranet but are virtually unusable for most dial-in Internet users. Although graphical browsers from Netscape and Microsoft get the lion's share of the attention these days, many people still use text-based browsers, such as Lynx. And others who use graphical browsers disable graphics for faster surfing. So, if you use image links or image maps as navigational tools, make sure you include text-based links on the same page. Also, test your pages using different browsers and screen resolutions to make sure that what looks slick with one doesn't look incoherent with another. * Strive for consistency and creativity. Starter documents, or "templates," in Web design programs make it easy to create a professional-looking site. Among other things, they offer a consistent style for headlines, text, navigational aids, and headers and footers. But unless you add originality to the stock design, your site may look cookie-cutter boring. On the other hand, don't be annoying in trying to be creative. It's easy to overdo it with busy backgrounds and glitzy ornaments. A colored or textured background should never make the text difficult to read. Likewise, dancing buttons, blinking text and other bells and whistles can detract from the overall effect. Web design today is in a place similar to where desktop publishing was ten years ago. Ordinary people now have extraordinary tools to look good. But these tools, if not used wisely, can make you look exceedingly bad. Finally, keep things in perspective. Some of my graphic designer friends might argue this point, but bear in mind that content is king. This is just the latest version of the old "appearance vs. substance" argument. Both count. But, ultimately, what you say is more important than how you say it. No matter how good your design is, the key to a Web site's success is the information you provide. Reid Goldsborough is author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] voicenet.com.

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