The Flesh and the Soul of Information. Academic Style
mong many Web authors, it's common to speak about the content of their sites having a higher priority than design: "content is king," "top three ingredients of a successful site are content, content, content," "most surfers don't care much about design," etc. Sure, many of your visitors are likely to be pretty lenient towards poor design, but how do you know that they care enough about outstanding content? And how do you know that your audience won't favor your content much better if it is properly formatted?
To my way of thinking, the common notion of content having "higher
priority" than presentation is a wrong way of looking at the
problem. If we speak about "priorities," then of course the
highest priority must be quality of the entire site, not of its
abstract aspects, and this quality is achievable when content and
presentation are not only good by themselves, but
Okay, you could say, but what about many great sites that are almost text-only? Aren't they an argument against presentation having equal importance with the content? No! Contrary to the common opinion, sites like www.naggum.no are not "text-only" as it might seem at first; by restricting themselves to the set of purely structural tags of HTML 2.0, their authors make use of a design style which is strict, logical, utterly consistent, and comes free with any browser. I call it "academic style" after the category of educational and scientific sites where this formatting option is most often encountered.
Let's take for example the site of Erik Naggum. If we ignore the fact that the author had no aesthetic goals whatsoever when creating it (his adherence to HTML 2.0 is justified by purely ideological motives), we have to admit that the site produces a surprisingly refreshing impression on anyone acquainted with the "average level" of web design today. Positioning and appearance of all elements are consistent and predictable; nothing visually irritates or "strikes the eye"; information is supplied in tidy, clean, small portions; the general manner of delivery is articulate, austere, and not too loud.
There are quite a number of reasons for designating academic style as the best choice for those who cannot afford (or simply do not need) a professional designer's services. It's quick and cheap; it's absolutely browser-neutral and universally accessible; but most important of all, it's practically transparent for Web surfer's perception: being utterly familiar to everyone's eye, presentation parameters associated with structural tags of HTML 2.0 won't get in the way of delivering your information. With this style, your site won't look fancy, but on the other hand you will be guaranteed against playing terribly out of tune, that is, "spicing up" your design without proper care.
When dealing with the design of any information media, including the Web, you need to remember that quality most often translates into consistency and structure. Speaking of design quality here, I'm not trying to quietly substitute some other concept: visual consistency is indeed capable of creating a great aesthetic impact by itself, without requiring any properly artistic investments.
Revised: Apr. 19, 1998