John Crane. First place winner in the Characters of Your Imagination category at Fractal Design Corp.'s 1996 Modern Masters of 3D international art and design contest.
Building for the Web is just like anything else; you need the right tool for the right job. Even when the job takes a sudden left every few months. "Web design is now in generation 1.5," says Kyle Shannon, president at New York-based Agency.Com, an online marketing company and Web producer. While still in a transitional stage, site design has settled into a leaner look that is sparing with graphics and still mostly a product of the Macintosh environment.
Many developers are prototyping with Web design tools like Adobe PageMill, Claris Home Page and Netscape Navigator Gold. But the pros are still doing the HTML coding-the Web-standard Hypertext Mark Up Language that defines how sites behave on the Web-the old-fashioned way, with text editors and word processors. Specialized Web editing text tools like HTML Edit 1.1.4 ((Rick Giles-shareware) and BBEdit (4.0 Bare Bones Software) have become standard developer's tools.
From a graphics standpoint, Photoshop has emerged as the lathe of the new media-this is the No. 1 tool for creating and retouching images, titles, backgrounds and special effects. Following that are Adobe Illustrator and Debabelizer 1.6.5 by Equilibrium.
Despite Apple's problems, it remains the platform of choice. "Agencies tend to by happy campers with Macs," says Luiz Hernandez, creative director at Netaxis , a Web developer in Stamford, Conn. But it turns out to be an emotional decision, because there are very few products that are Mac-only and the mainstay Mac products like Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark Xpress now appear on all PC/Windows platforms. Even so, says Hernandez, "We moved radically away from using Photoshop on the PC because of its poor performance. It crashes more than the Mac and it's inelegant."
New tools are emerging to bridge the gap between desktop publishing and Web design, as three products now vie to provide designers with the ability to translate Quark Xpress files into HTML files: BeyondPress (Astrobyte), CyberPress (Extensis) and HexWeb 2.0 (HexMac). At the same time, a new generation of tools is emerging to give designers the ability to manage their sites better and to provide processing on the back end-the user registration and order forms, the databases and chat features. Many Mac-based designers have found they can use File Maker or Apple Script and Tango 1.5 (Everywhere Development) to add many of these features.
For the most part, designers are staying out of the Web server business, leaving that to commercial server companies that manage the server and maintain the site on the Internet. Others, like Netaxis, manage their own sites with a suite of SUNservers. "We've been able to give our customers the ability to update their sites from their offices, and we can even run emergency maintenance from a remote site like an Internet cafe," says Hernandez.
As the Web moves on from the first phase of development-the shovelware era-when corporate legacy print assets were shoveled onto the Web, it is defining itself in distinct ways even if they are incremental improvements. Designers are keenly aware of bandwidth limitations and the necessity of keeping their sites accessible to the broadest base of browsers. People are looking for crisply designed sites. "They are interested in usefulness, quick downloading and relevance," says Agency.Com's Shannon.
"This is a transitional time," says Jim Vandergrift, Campbell, Calif.-based CKS Interactive's creative director, "where our designers are surfing the Web and learning as much as they can about serving up information." But in many cases this is a waiting game where the constraints of the medium are the biggest drag on creativity. "Every time we have been able to squeeze an extra bit of bandwidth, the design values jumped dramatically."
The overall sobriety of Web design is driven by the need to reach out to the lowest common denominator of Web browsers. Most surfers are still coming in from America Online and Compuserve which, fortunately for designers, are beginning to standardize. "We are seeing the browser contest become a two-horse race between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer," says Vandergrift, and that has made life easier. But the creative burden of bandwidth constraints is reflected in the small number of breakthrough tools for Web developers.
Even the standout products like Shockwave, which enables any program developed in Macromedia Director, the mainstay product of the CD-ROM multimedia development business, have been a mixed blessing. Any user with the Shockwave reader program loaded as a plug-in to their browser can view animation in these documents. "But it has to be used carefully," says Shannon, because the number of users out there are small. Sites that use Shockwave run the risk of alienating the vast majority of users without the Shockwave plug-in. Many designers are now avoiding the issue by using the much simpler GIF animation, which uses small GIF files and a sort of card-flipping technique instead.
One solution adopted by Agency.Com on their GTE Virtual Trade Show site was to use the Shockwave animations in clearly marked areas where it was only absolutely necessary, so Shockwave-less users are not shut out.
While the Mac remains the creative platform of choice, there are nevertheless some changes taking place in the back of the studio. Developers are buying Silicon Graphics workstations because they offer some of the key Mac software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. "They run at higher speeds and they multitask," says Netaxis' Hernandez, so rendering can be done in Photoshop while working on other programs. Some are buying Silicon Graphics' WebForce, which is popular with the studios choosing to maintain their own Web servers.
The PC has penetrated developer studios only to the extent that "we need a few around to test our work so that it runs on a PC," says Chris Bryant, president at T3, a New York interactive developer that produced tony.com, the Tony Awards Web site.
One of the bigger growth areas is the background processing side of Web development. When it comes to processing databases or forms, companies are putting together combinations of products. For secure transactions like credit card or customer information the top choices are Netscape or Microsoft NT server software. Another popular product is the Oracle database.
Sites are also forced to handle the complexity of managing themselves as they grow. Products like Quarterdeck's WebStar-which is an
increasingly popular choice for Mac-based servers-and SiteMill, Adobe's accompaniment to PageMill, are popular choices. It helps mange the links in the Web site-enabling the site manager to shift documents and connections around, although changing the address links is a manual task.
Another issue, the analysis of hits and responses, is being handled by companies like I/PRO, which has emerged as the leader in this field, but many other software companies are offering in-house solutions like Interse. Another company, NetGravity, is offering a set of ad management tools that enable Web sites to manage and track the placement of banners.
While increasing bandwidth is likely to usher in a new interest in 3-D animation and video tools, it is clear that the Web is taking a new direction, with people thinking about what Vandergrift calls "the architecting of information"-offering viewers many ways to look at the data and get to the message faster. With short viewing spans and 500,000-channel TV, it is tough getting a handle on what Web design is coming to. At CKS, with the use of focus groups "we look for appropriateness," says Vandergrift. The process of rethinking the arrangement of information and the design tools of the Web has had an effect on staffing: most CKS designers have come from the print and video worlds. But after becoming engrossed in Web design, says Vandergrift, "I have never seen anyone go back to