The Basics of Web Design, Part 3: Tips & Tricks

Stephen Yagielowicz

In the previous installments of this series, we looked at some of the problems, as well as the solutions, typically encountered during the web design process. In our final installment, we'll end this series with five of the top tips and tricks that you can use to ensure a visually consistent design that will render properly across as wide a range of platforms and browsers as possible.

We've already discussed the need to test your pages in at least the two most popular browsers, MSIE and Netscape, using both the current, as well as the previous versions. Browser testing will only reveal the weaknesses and limitations of your coding, however. What you really need to do is employ these following simple techniques; they will help ensure the cross-browser and cross-platform compatibility of your web site, preventing many problems that might otherwise occur:

Check Your Graphics
Check your graphics with your monitor set at 256 (8-bit), 65,000 (16-bit), and 16.7 million (24-bit) colors. You might be amazed at how poorly a beautiful photo on a 32-bit display shows up on an 8-bit display, although several programs can do a remarkable job of color depth reduction and file size optimization - topics beyond the scope of this article.

For now, we'll assume you understand photographs should generally be saved as 24-bit .jpeg's while graphics like navigational buttons should be saved as 216 (or lower) color .gif's. By sticking to the "browser safe" 216-color web palette when creating your web site's graphics (as well as when selecting text, hyperlink, and background colors), you will stand a much better chance of having an attractive web page under nearly all conditions.

A word of caution, however: for sites that feature many color photographs (adult photo galleries, for instance), trying to save these images as .gifs will not do you any favors; and will in fact harm your site's overall appearance. Use .gif's for graphics only.

Stabilize Page Widths
Prevent your site from appearing to "shrink and grow" due to differences in screen resolution by placing your content in a centered table. A 600-pixel wide table is the most commonly used size, although I often use a table that is 540-pixels wide for enhanced WebTV compatibility. This is by far the single most important technique that you can use for ensuring visual consistency.

Don't want to use a table for enhanced layout control? Then be sure to test all of your pages at 640x480, 800x600, and 1024x768. Using this handy JavaScript will make it easy for you to do.

Use Absolute Values
Don't use "Default" (or "Normal") settings or "percentages" such as <TABLE width="100%"> if at all possible (see above). Every bit of information that YOU specify is one less that the browser or user can specify – and that's one of the keys to visual consistency. Take control of your page's appearance and hold on to it!

Also be sure to make horizontal rules a specified pixel width, rather than a percentage, such as <HR width="480">. This can make a great technique to determine if your table width is "growing" unexpectedly. For instance, say I place a 600-pixel wide horizontal rule outside of my 600-pixel wide table at the bottom of my page (for testing purposes only). I can use the rule as a "ruler" – giving me a comparative visual measurement to see if changes made to the table due to nesting of additional tables, adjusting of cell spacing and cell padding values, or the addition of content will affect the actual width of the table. Try this trick yourself and see what I mean.

Tame Your Text
We already discussed how text plays a big role in determining your site's appearance. Let's now look at ways to mitigate some of the most common text problems. If you want to use "standard" sized text, specify font size="3" not "normal." If you like "Arial" text (a Windows standard), then use face="Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif" (Helvetica is the Mac equivalent of Arial, while sans-serif will be the default "fall back" font for this family of type faces).

You should also be extremely careful when using "fancy" fonts. The reason why so many pages use the same standard fonts is because they're standardized. Your computer (and everyone else's) is limited to displaying only the fonts that are currently installed on your individual system. What this means is that even though that hot looking "Old English" font on your "Goth" site looks cool on YOUR computer, on MY computer (that doesn't have "Old English" installed), you'll see either my default font (if you're lucky), or a big pile of gibberish if you're unlucky. If you absolutely can't live without that special font, then make graphics in your paint program using this font, and limit it to logos, headlines, and navigational buttons.

Manage Your Margins
Finally, although they're not a valid part of the HTML specification, I also recommend that you specify your page's margin sizes using both the MSIE and Netscape syntax. For example, the "body" tag below specifies the top and left margins (the only one's needed) for both MSIE and Netscape, as well as background color, text color, plus standard, active, and visited link colors:

<BODY topmargin="5" leftmargin="0" marginwidth="0" marginheight="5" bgcolor="#000000" text="#FFFFFF" link="#0000FF" alink="#FF0000" vlink="0000FF">

If you employ these five simple techniques, you will create a site that appears as you intended when viewed across a wide range of platforms and browsers. This visual consistency will help avoid those "unpleasant little surprises" that can cost you sales, and will help you to portray a much more professional image. In a future series, we'll take a look at some adult-specific design considerations. Stay tuned…