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Web design, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Web design, Part 1: Learning the HTML ropes the fast way
 

Bit Player for Jan. 12, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Instant expert? Is that what I turned into when I started learning HTML code and began designing my own Web pages?

Not at all. But I can tell you this: I learned one thing fast. I found out how to make Web pages that don't work. I've been doing printed-page design as a newspaper editor for decades, but I quickly learned that what works in print doesn't necessarily work on the screen.

You can find a lot of good books on Web-page design and on HTML (the hypertext markup language, which encodes the text of Web pages).

But nothing beats a real Web site for learning how to design your own pages. First, you get to see what the author's technique looks like in a real browser instead of on a printed page. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you can steal code.

Stealing code? Is that like grabbing a candy bar from the drugstore display and slipping off into the crowd? Hardly. The best codesmiths steal from each other all the time. If you think I'm using the wrong word here—after all, painters go to each others' exhibitions and learn new techniques from their colleagues, and we don't call that ``stealing,'' do we?—think again: HTML code writers call it stealing, plain and simple. In the Web-design arena, stealing is the art of achieving your own results without having to reinvent the wheel.

You steal HTML code by viewing the source of the Web page, using a menu item that's in most good browsers. (In Internet Explorer, the menu combination is View, then Source.) When you do this, the actual code appears. You can then save it as a file.

You can't use sections of other designers' pages as your own unless you get permission, of course, but you can adopt the code you see for your own purposes. You'll probably find examples of how not to do things, too—and they can be just as helpful as examples of how to do things right.

Another technique is stealing images. (Here I go, getting into trouble again.) You absolutely cannot legally reuse copyrighted material without permission—am I making myself clear?—but you can grab any public-domain artwork off someone else's Web page and use it yourself. There are thousands (and perhaps even millions) of images of this type on Web pages.

Your Web browser is already downloading them when you view a page that has graphics (there's no way to view them without taking in the file), but you'd probably have a hard time locating the image you want in your browser's cache. Instead, just choose the menu item that lets you save the image separately. (In Internet Explorer, one way to do this is to right-click on the image, then follow the menu prompt.)

And a third technique is to look at pages designed by people who know what they are doing. The best example I've seen so far is http://www.design.ru/ttt/, which will lead you to a series of Web pages designed by Dmitry Kirsanov, a writer and Web designer from St. Petersburg, Russia. They are outstanding pages to look at, load quickly and are full of useful tips. A bonus: Because St. Petersburg is on the other side of the global time warp, if you log onto Kirsanov's pages at night (by our clock), you'll hit his server at the best possible time in St. Petersburg, when net traffic is low.

What was just as interesting about Kirsanov was his command of English, which he displayed in e-mail notes he sent to me. I apologized for my poor Russian, which had not been exercised in 30 years. (I spoke and wrote Russian well enough at one time to win an award in Russian-language proficiency, and enjoyed reading Russian novels and poetry in the native tongue.) Kirsanov asked whether it was typical for Americans to speak only their own language, and I replied that it was—except, of course, for Americans who emigrated, or whose family emigrated, from another land.

Next week: Simple ways to do complicated things when you make a Web page.


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