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The History of Web Design

The first web designer was Tim Berners-Lee. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and put the first web site online in 1991. He first combined Internet communication (which had been carrying email and the Usenet for decades) with hypertext (which had also been around for decades, but limited to browsing information stored on a single computer, such as interactive CD-ROM design).

At first, web design consisted of using a simple markup language, called HTML, that included some formatting options, and the ability to link pages together using hyperlinks. It was this feature that characterized the Web among other communication methods, and characterized Web design among other design methods. Because of this unique behaviour of the World Wide Web, and the unique behaviour it encouraged in users, Web design would prove to be unlike any other form of design before or since.

As the Web and Web design progressed, the markup language used to make it, known as HTML, became more complex and flexible. Things like tables, which could be used to display tabular information, were soon subverted for use as invisible layout devices. With the advent of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), table based layout is increasingly regarded as outdated. Database integration technologies such as server-side scripting (see CGI, PHP, ASP.NET, ASP, JSP, and ColdFusion) and design standards like CSS further changed and enhanced the way the Web was made.

The introduction of Macromedia Flash into an already interactivity-ready scene has further changed the face of the Web, giving new power to designers and media creators, and offering new interactivity features to users. Flash is much more restrictive than the open HTML format, though, requiring a proprietary plugin to be seen, and it does not integrate with most web browser UI features like the "Back" button.


As in all professions, there are arguments on different ways of doing things. These are a few of the ongoing ones.

Liquid versus fixed layouts

Programmers were the original web page designers in the early 1990s. Currently most web designers come from a graphic artist background in print, where the artist has absolute control over the size and dimensions of all aspects of the design. On the web however, the Web designer has no control over several factors, including the size of the browser window and the size and characteristics of available fonts.

Many designers compensate for this by wrapping their entire webpage in a fixed width box, essentially limiting it to an exact pixel-perfect value, which is a fixed layout. Some create the illusion of liquidity by building the graphics for their webpage at a size larger than any current standard monitor size. Other designers say that this is bad because it ignores the preferences of the user, who might have their browser sized a specific way that they like best. These people propose a liquid layout, where the size of the Web page adjusts itself based on the size of the browser window.

There is a usability reason (rather than wanting control) for why a designer may choose a more fixed layout. Studies have shown that there is usually an optimal line width in terms of readability. One rule to appear from such studies is that lines should be between 40-60 characters long, or approximately 11 words per line. But users may choose their windows size and font selection to optimize other factors more important to them.

This decision of which style of layout to use is often made on a case by case basis, depending on the needs and audience of the website.

Using Flash in Web Design

Macromedia Flash is a proprietary, robust graphics animation/application development program used to create and deliver dynamic content, media (such as sound and video), and interactive applications over the web via the browser. It is not a standard produced by a vendor-neutral standards organization like most of the core protocols and formats on the Internet.

Many graphic artists use Flash because it gives them exact control over every part of the design, and anything can be animated and generally "jazzed up." Some application designers enjoy flash because it lets them create applications that don't have to be refreshed or go to a new web page every time an action occurs. There are many sites which forego HTML entirely for Flash.

Flash detractors claim that Flash websites tend to be poorly designed, and often use confusing and non-standard user-interfaces. Up until recently, search engines have been unable to index Flash objects, which has prevented sites from having their contents easily found. It is possible to specify alternate content to be displayed for browsers that do not support Flash. Using alternate content also helps search engines to understand the page, and can result in much better visibility for the page.

The most recent incarnation of Flash's scripting language (called "actionscript", which is an ECMA language similar to JavaScript) incorporates long-awaited usability features, such as respecting the browser's font size and allowing blind users to use screen readers. Actionscript 2.0 is an Object-Oriented language, allowing the use of CSS, XML, and the design of class-based web applications.

The final consensus is that Flash is simply a tool, and like all tools it takes a skillful craftsperson to know when, and how, to use it properly. Macromedia's other two products, Fireworks and Dreamweaver, makes Flash integration with graphics and HTML a lot easier.

CSS versus tables in Web Design

Back when Netscape Navigator 4 dominated the browser market, the popular (but now deprecated) solution available for designers to lay out a Web page was by using tables. Often even simple designs for a page would require dozens of tables nested in each other. Many web templates in Dreamweaver and other WYSIWYG editors still use this technique today. Navigator 4 didn't support CSS to a useful degree, so it simply wasn't used.

After the browser wars were over, and Internet Explorer dominated the market, designers started turning towards CSS as an alternate, better means of laying out their pages. CSS proponents say that tables should only be used for tabular data, not for layout. Using CSS instead of tables also returns HTML to a semantic markup, which helps bots and search engines understand what's going on in a web page. Today, all modern Web browsers now support CSS with different degrees of limitations.

However, one of the main points against CSS is that by relying on it exclusively, control is essentially relinquished as each browser has its own quirks which result in a slightly different page display. This is especially a problem as not every browser supports the same subset of CSS codes. For designers who are used to table-based layouts, developing Web sites in CSS often becomes a matter of replicating what can be done with tables, leading some to find CSS design rather cumbersome. For example, it is rather difficult to produce certain design elements, such as vertical positioning, and full-length footers in a design using absolute positions.

These days most modern browsers have solved most of these quirks in CSS rendering and this has made many different CSS layouts possible. However, people continue to use old browsers, and designers need to keep this in mind. Most notable among these old browsers are Internet Explorer 5 and 5.5 which, according to some web designers, are becoming the new Netscape Navigator 4 — a block that holds the internet back from converting to CSS design.

How it Looks vs. How it Works

Since so many web developers have a graphic arts background, they often pay more attention to how a page looks, without considering how visitors are going to find the page. On the other side of the issue, search engine optimization consultants (SEOs) obsess about how well a web site works: how much traffic it generates, and how many sales it makes. As a result, the designers and SEOs often end up in disputes where the designer wants more 'pretty' graphics, and the SEO wants lots of 'ugly' keyword-rich text, bullet lists, and text links.

Dynamic web design

The traditional method of laying out web pages, Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) is static. There are two ways of delivering content dynamically:


A web server, running special software, constructs an HTML page 'on the fly', according to the user's request and possibly other variables, such as time or stock levels.

Suitable scripting languages include:





XSLT can be used translate data in XML format into HTML.

MySQL and PostgreSQL are popular free SQL databases, suitable for use with the above. They can be used to allow users, subject to password access if required, to update content.


Client-side scripting works at the user's browser, and therefore should not be used for "mission critical' work, where the user's capabilities are not known -it is more suited to adding decoration and other ephemeral content. It is most often achieved thorough JavaScript.

Client side DHTML can pose major problems for computer accessibility and search engine optimization. Most software designed for assisting people with disabilities, and most search engine robots do not support client side DHTML.

If a web site's menus are built with JavaScript, it is usually impossible for search engines to find the pages listed in the menus, unless an alternative navigation scheme is provided elsewhere on the page.

See also

Computer accessibility

Content management

Faceted navigation

Graphic design

Information architecture

Interaction design

Knowledge visualization

Separation of style and content

Search engine optimization

Server-side scripting

Web colors

Web development

Web indexing

Web templates

World Wide Web Virtual Library

W3C - World Wide Web Consortium

CSS Zen Garden

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