These days it's not enough to just put up a Web page. If you want to pull people in and keep them coming back, you've got to have a smokin' design. We asked legendary graphic designer Roger Black to show us how to create a great look.
Black made his bones in the dead-tree world of magazine publishing. If you've picked up a copy of "Rolling Stone" or "Newsweek" or "Esquire" in the last three decades, you've seen his handiwork. What would a guy like Black know about designing Web sites? Just enough to cofound Interactive Bureau, the design company that created the look for the @Home Network, the Discovery Channel, USA Today, Barnes & Noble, and the National Park Service. In each of them, Black applied the same design principles he's used in print magazines.
Black is just the guy to help you design your Web page. Too bad you can't afford him. Even so, you can start by following his six rules for Web design — gleaned from an interview and his new book, Web Sites That Work.
Bigger is better. Large type makes Black happy. Experience in the print world taught him that almost everything looks better when it's larger. "It's very hard to read text on computer screens. So make everything bigger than you would in print. If you really want someone to notice your page, make it easy to read."
Color your world — sparingly. Make sure the type contrasts well with the background, and avoid the temptation to play with exotic color schemes. Black, white, and red are Roger's favorites — they grab the eye and make for easier reading. "In print white is the absence of all color, while in video it's every color firing at full strength. White is the best background. Black holds the highest contrast to white, so it's the first choice for type set on a white background. Red is nature's danger color; it's a great way to add accent to a black-and-white page."
Faster beats fancier. If visitors must wait a minute to download art, they'll leave your site and never come back. "Consider putting pictures in a separate gallery, linked from the page." That way your guests will get exactly as much artwork as they can stand.
Content is king. So make your most meaningful material the easiest to find. Black calls this approach "content on the surface," and he doesn't mean posting cute pictures or a collection of your favorite hyperlinks. "Content is information or entertainment that you haven't had before. In magazines or in Web sites, people skim and surf. If you don't give them something quickly, they absorb nothing. So make sure there's accessible content on every page of your site."
Small bytes go down easier. It's much better to break information down into smaller bits. "People typically make a page that's about two yards long. But just as 75% of people will read only the top half of a folded newspaper, most browsers will never scroll. People are much more likely to click a button and keep going. So keep your pages short — they break up the content into bite-size pieces, which is much more appealing."
If you don't have something good to say, don't say anything. "The problem with most Web sites isn't technical. It's that they don't have anything worthwhile to share with other people."
So before you load up FrontPage, make sure you've got a clear-eyed reason for building a site, and make every creative decision with that goal in mind. "Ask yourself what you want from visitors," says Black. "If the site's purpose is clear from the outset, people will get engaged and give something back in return."
Coordinates: $45. "Web Sites That Work"; Adobe Press, 1997.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.