Gerry McGovern // Books

The Web Content Style Guide

Web Content Style Guide Chapter 1

The Web Content Style Guide: Excerpt
Designing for the Web:

The Web is about publishing

In the early days of the Web, the creators of websites were primarily techies. They tended to have quantitative rather than verbal skills; they had studied languages such as C++ rather than English; they were the kids in college who hung out in the computer labs rather than at the student newspaper. They didn't, in short, tend to have a lot of experience with publications. 

Many early web-heads were at pains to emphasize the differences between the Web and printed media, and were thus hostile to any rules or standards that appeared to be print-based. And when they did import skilled people from print media, it tended to be graphic artists they imported. As anyone who's worked in the print world can tell you, graphic artists tend to be very concerned with art, but are not always concerned with whether or not the type on the page is readable.

But web design is about content design, it’s about laying out content so that it can be easily read. It’s about organizing content so that it can be easily navigated and searched. It’s about getting the right content to the right reader at the right time. For the majority of websites, what web design is not is graphic- or visually-driven design. 

To design for the Web, you need to understand what it actually is, rather that what some would like it to be. The Web is a place people come to find stuff (content). It’s a functional place. Most people don’t hang around on the Web. They come to the Web to do things. Study after study reinforces the practical, functional mindset of the person who comes to the Web.

What’s the number-one thing people do on the Web? They read. Words and numbers are the raw material from which the vast majority of webpages are built. If reading is the primary activity on the Web, then readability is a primary function of web design. Another primary activity on the Web is search and navigation. It follows, therefore, that the organization of content to make it easily searchable and navigable is a primary function of web design. 

The number-one design principle for the Web is simplicity. Quality web design should be all about making life easier for the reader to find content, and then making it easy for them to read that content. 

Design for the reader

The first step in the design of any website is understanding who your reader is. Who is it that might come to your website? What content will they want if they do come? Remember, your website is a publication and the people who come to it are readers. What are they going to read?

To design a great website, you also need to understand the characteristics of the online reader. We have already touched on them earlier in this introduction, but to summarize, the online reader

  • Gathers content: They know broadly what they are looking for but not exactly.
  • Scan reads: They are practical, impatient, in a hurry.
  • Is skeptical and suspicious: They know there’s an awful lot of junk on the Web.
  • Is conservative: Once they find a website they like, they’ll stick with it.

If the fundamental activity that people carry out on the Web is read, then any design must make sure that it is as easy as possible to read (black text on white background, sans serif fonts, reasonable font sizes, and so on.). In addition, because people scan read, the presentation and layout of the content needs to facilitate such an activity (punchy headings, summaries, short paragraphs).