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Balance In Design

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Josh Feingold

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User since: 25 Mar 2002

Articles written: 3

On Balance in Design

Like many things in life, creating content for the web requires that the designer balance numerous conflicting resources. When starting a project, designers must always try to figure out what issues should be balanced and find the middle ground that is appropriate for each unique situation.

In truth, balance in design can be best understood using the primary definition of Economics: "Economics is the study of limited resources." As such, in Economics there is always a tradeoff. For example, you have ten dollars and sticks of butter or guns cost $1 each. You can either buy 10 sticks of butter, 10 guns, or some combination of the two. But you can't purchase more than 10 guns and sticks of butter in the aggregate.

As a web designer you are also limited by your resources. These limits require that you take time to think about these tradeoffs before you start developing your web page.

Some Issues


The majority of web surfers still access the web with a maximum of 56K (which is really about 50K) connection. Graphic files are much larger than text files. However, we all agree that pictures spice things up. Unless you content is amazing (e.g. Jakob Nielsen), no one will spend time on your site if it is void of pictures. On the other hand, if you only have pictures, the site will take too long to download, and no one will spend time in this scenario either. So you have to find the middle ground.

Client-Side Scripting

There is no question that scripting adds valuable functionality. However, no two browser versions are alike. Even in those browsers that claim to conform to standards have bugs that make them non-compliant. In this case, the browser can be thought of as a limited resource, or at least a limiting resource. Again a tradeoff must be made. If you add scripting to your page, you are subjecting that page to complications. It might, and most likely probably will, break in some browsers. If not now, sometime in the future. However, if you do not include it, you lose that valuable functionality. You need to find the middle ground.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

Newer browsers implement the CSS standard almost flawlessly. However, looking at the installed user base of browsers that support CSS, they either support it partially or incorrectly. The benefits of CSS, such as lower bandwidth requirements due to smaller web pages and the capability to easily make design changes, have to be weighed against the fact that some visitors, will see a layout and format that is dull at best and unreadable at worst. You have to find the middle ground.

There are numerous other tradeoffs that need to be considered such as screen size, color depth, and client processor speed, to name a few. Some issues that are tradeoffs today, will be non-issues tomorrow. And others will arrive with new technology or browsers.

The Great Compromise

With most tradeoffs there is a middle ground. It is not black and white, or what can be seen as the extremes of a spectrum. Rather, there is a spectrum of decisions that the user can choose from. You can buy 8 sticks of butter and 2 guns. Or 2 guns and 8 sticks. Looking at an issue like bandwidth, we might choose to use only those graphics that truly add value.

The spectrum on the graphics issue is diagramed below. The X is location on the spectrum we feel is most appropriate for this particular issue given a client's specific situation.


no graphics                                                      all graphics

It is important to note that where the X falls on this spectrum will depend on the specific computing environment of the client's viewers. Failure to find this point on the line will result in sub-optimal website development where all users are not being offered a full web experience.

Take Away

In summation, one must always begin a new web design project with a careful look at the expected computing environment of your client's users. From there, a list of areas which require a tradeoff can be developed. The designer can then think about how to best design the site considering these tradeoffs and where on the spectrum for each issue they should aim their development. By following this process, the web designer and their clients can rest easy that their new site will be as usable as possible by the largest number of users.

Josh Feingold is an Internet/Intranet Consultant in Atlanta, Georgia.

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