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The Importance of Aesthetics / Graphics
on a Web Site

Net@Work, Fall 1996.
by Paula Hendricks

I am a writer. I believe in the power of words.

I believe in lean and mean web pages. I believe in sites that are easily navigable, that allow a person to find what they want - or think they want - easily.

I believe that many pages on the net are graphics heavy - much too much graphics heavy.

So, why am I writing about graphics? About the importance of graphics? Of aesthetics? Because graphics speak to us on a different level from words. Because the more your words and your graphics work together, the more powerful your message will be. And because the more you do to communicate the intangibles of your business, your self, your products, the better off you are, the harder your money will work.

I believe the Internet is a place of information - a place where people go to get information, to get help, to buy things, to interact with others. Many good pages on the net are text only on Netscape gray and I use them. They are usually informative and a bit academic - but these pages are dry, dull... dare I say boring?

The World Wide Web is the graphical portion of the Internet - so it makes sense to take advantage of its capabilities. I am a photographer, too, so I believe in the power of images. I like simple, classy sites that have limited graphics and limited use of bandwidth. Big files (videos, long audio tracks, virtual reality) use a lot of bandwidth, which slows down the server and ultimately could overload the entire net. I also believe too many pages aren't graphics - sensitive, or they use inappropriate/ bad imagery, and could use some improvement.

Take some time to write some guidelines for your site: What is the objective of your site - what do you want, hope, expect to happen (and how soon) by putting it up? What are your business goals? And underneath it all - what do you want to convey - that you're trustworthy? Smart? High-tech? Words alone may not be convincing - it's just you telling me what you want me to believe. Show me something. Make me feel something. But... flashy images are not enough by themselves. Without solid copy, empty images are worse than words alone. Let your imagery work with your words.

I want to talk for a minute about intangibles, about the importance of touch and feel. I want to talk about the power of non-verbal, non-linear imagery. When you see a young man walk down the street dressed all in black, with the cuffs on his jeans folded up and his hair is peroxided, you make a judgment about him. Your judgment might tell you to be wary - you might think he's a punk or that he'll threaten you. Or your judgment might tell you he's an artist and you'd be intrigued. Whatever it is - a young man dressed so dramatically will elicit a response.

On a web site, a black page with neon green type says something about that site - either about the author or the business. It says something whether or not you want it to - whether or not you intend it to - whether or not you know what it is saying. People will make judgments about you and your site based on what they see and how it makes them feel. So, it's important to pay attention, and try to have it say what you want.

A black page might convey a "hot" site, pizazz, urban-ness. A black page is dramatic; it is... dark; it is "not" conservative. To some it is disturbing. It might convey "night club" or "sex" or "cool." So, for one of my "artsy" pages, a black background might be appropriate... but if I were a bank or an investment company, I would probably choose something else.

When you are deciding what your company is or what you want it to be, one of the areas most people don't spend much time on is imagery or personality. Who would this company/ business be if it were a person? Give me five adjectives to describe this person. Is it conservative, responsible, professional, corporate, old? Or is it irreverent, adventurous, professional, creative, dynamic? With the first one, you might use standard fonts and simpler color schemes, while with the other you might use the neon green on black or images with more flair. Neither one is wrong or right. What's important is that they resonate with what your company is or wants to be. If you don't know now what that image is or will be, choose something neutral - it is easier to change from neutral to a strong image than to change from one strong image to another.

Graphics can deliver on the personality of your business much, much faster and in different ways than words.

Graphics make a page more interesting. But, be careful. Don't put an image on your page just because you like it. I saw a page once about a home based business. About how successful you could be in a home-based business. The main image at the top of the page had a man sitting back in a chair with his feet on his desk. I think that image on that page gives off all the wrong signals. It says the opposite of "work." It says to me this person is looking for "easy money" or it may be a scam - it doesn't say "serious." That image counteracts any facts written on that page about how to build a business or how much attention the author will pay to your business. That image is in fact very powerful.

I think what I'm talking about here is harmony and balance. About the importance of consistency. Consistency is good on many levels. Consistency means that after a while someone will recognize where they are when they are at your site. They will recognize your logo, and will feel "at home" with your look and feel. This consistency needs to be applied to all your sales/ Public Relations/ Advertising materials. You don't want to spend money displaying your logo on dark blue in a brochure and then spend more money displaying it on stucco textured background on the web. Make them all resonate - they don't have to be exact duplicates - but they should feel similar. If there is a real reason to do something significantly different, you will budget a significant amount against each effort. Be consistent - your money will work harder.

In addition, consistency allows someone to find the information they need quickly and it keeps your file sizes down. To have fast loading pages, your files have to be small - and one way to do this is to use the same images more than once, particularly for navigational and purely decorative purposes. I've heard that each page should be no more than 30k total. That means that using a 14.4 modem you can download 30k in 30 seconds. Many people using the net use services that charge by the hour -and they won't stick around for a slow-loading page. This is a good objective, but one that is difficult to adhere to, particularly without expensive programs to shrink your graphics. The key is to keep your pages as small as they can be and still deliver what you want. Time the loading of your pages, make sure they load in a reasonable amount of time.

Keep your backgrounds simple and opaque (you don't want the most important image on your page to be your background). Use small, simple, public domain graphics where you can - for navigation buttons and separator bars. Some are free and some you buy once and are royalty free - and there are collections of artist-designed icons and images you can buy through sources such as Corel and Adobe. Do it - it will save time and money. Spend money on your corporate logo and customize your artwork as your business grows.

Back to the black page with green neon type - Don't make your page hard to read. Some people can't read that color combination and there are all kinds of people on the net - hard of seeing, older, younger, men, women, different cultures, busy executives, students.... Don't do a look for only one group, unless you are absolutely sure they are the only ones you are truly interested in.

I have seen a lot of pages with really big type - either every line is a headline or it is just "big" throughout the site. Big type feels like you're yelling at me - like all capital letters - and the netiquette of the Web says all capital letters "is" yelling. Not every single word you say is worth shouting. Make some choices. Set some priorities.

Of course, the best marriage of all is words "and" images - together they can make your site sing.

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©1998 paula hendricks. All rights reserved.