Some tips to make your Web graphics and animation look more professional

Few people get into the print design business without some kind of professional qualification. Most graphic designers I know have either been to an art college or have served an apprenticeship with a printer or in a design studio - now there's a quaint old concept, apprenticeship!

There's so much to learn about graphic design, both the theory and the more practical issues, but there are people who manage to bypass all this and call themselves 'Web designers' with varying degrees of success. If they can pick up all the aspects of the business whilst being paid for it, good luck to them, I never had that luxury.

What I want to discuss this month is how to make your work 'look' professional. There are some tell-tale signs that can give you away immediately. If you know what they are, and can avoid them, you are half way there.

The Web is a wealth of information. Everything you want to know about everything is only a few clicks away at Yahoo or AltaVista. Yet, amidst all this, there are millions of Web pages with little or nothing to say.

in the realisation that their efforts are somewhat lacking, they turn to 'decoration'.
They have made their second mistake!

It's funny, just a few years ago, a company Web page was seen as an extravagance and had very low priority or expectations. The situation has gone completely the other way with millions being spent on Web-based business and investors literally throwing money at anything with dot com at the end of it.

With a few high-profile belly-ups in the news recently, the bubble looks like it is beginning to burst. Investment money is all of a sudden drying up. The ball on the end of the elastic has reached its limit, is recoiling and is heading back the way it came.

The McLuhanesque concept of "The Medium is the Message" arrived in the '60s - a time of great social change, exploration, finding new ways to say things. Communicators discovered the value of 'shock' and exploited it to its utmost.

Now it is actually very difficult to shock anybody. We have all developed 'shock immunity'. When I recently heard a long-haired busker in the tube station singing, "The times they are a changing", I thought of saying to him, "No, they have changed - It's just you that hasn't"

If the medium was the message in 1967, it certainly isn't now - and having a Web site or a dot com company is just not enough, it has to actually say something. Saying nothing to millions of people is the exactly the same as saying it to none.

Now, the trouble is, that with all the enthusiasm and effort of putting up a Web site, and the 'I-did-it-all-by-myself' factor, people don't even realise that, without a message, they are just piddling in the sea.

The Web has given the opportunity for people with nothing to say, to shout at the tops of their voices. Lack of ideas and imagination doesn't mean that they are stupid, some are resourceful enough to borrow or steal ideas from others and pass them off as their own. All creative people get inspiration from others, and always have done, but there are people who are quite prepared to lift elements from other sites and their imaginations are so subdued, they don't even have the wit to change the filenames.

Then there are people who have lots of good ideas, but their forté is in some other field. They might be excellent writers, musicians or programmers and, okay, we can't all do everything, but their Web pages are 'graphically challenged'. If you are not a trained graphic designer and you recognise this as being one of your weaknesses and you can't afford to hire one don't worry, there are things you can do - and a things that you should avoid.

In the first instance, there is nothing wrong at all with being honest. If whizzy graphics are not your thing, don't even bother to try! A plain Web page with good information is much better than one that is all-singing-all-dancing garbage. Many of my favourite sites and the ones that I visit most often are nothing special graphically, they just do the job they are meant to do without any pretensions. The fact that they score highly on a functional level means that they are better designed than many where the 'style' gets in the way of the message.

The big mistake is to try to rescue a dull Web page with clichés and inappropriate graphics - "Oh, it just needs a little something to give it a lift!" That supposed 'style statement' can so easily become a 'lack-of-style statement." Instead of improving the page, it can make it an object of ridicule.

If you are tone deaf, you don't know that you are singing out of key!

Annoying, isn't it?

But, why, oh why is it that when people are short of ideas, they animate them? Blinking text, blinking banner ads, blinking logos - come at you from all corners of the screen. It really makes you appreciate the lack of animation in newspapers.

Flash is a marvellous resource for Web designers that lets them create bandwidth-friendly animation, but it is also the one most often abused!
You hit a Web site, have to sit a watch a message that says 'Loading ... please wait ...' and then you wait, and you wait some more, and eventually you are subjected to a pointless and unnecessary gyration of images on the screen that do absolutely nothing but waste time and bandwidth. And, here in the UK where dial-up telephone time is still charged by the second, it wastes money too. That’s why, whenever I see an option of Flash/non-Flash versions of a site, I always choose non-Flash because I have a pretty good idea what’s coming, and when I see that ‘Loading ... please wait ...’ message, I'm out, fast.
The idea behind Flash is to reduce bandwidth - not an excuse to increase it!

The whole point about animation, whether it is a small GIF or a full-blown Flash production, is that it should enhance the communication, not just subject the viewer to 'visual noise'. If an animated logo builds-up in a way that makes it more memorable and distinctive, then the animation has achieved something. We see ‘flying logos’ all the time on television and in the cinema, they are created by skilled professional yet many of these are gratuitous too. At least, they don’t waste bandwidth and you don’t have to wait for them to load. The movement is not the object of the exercise, it is only the vehicle.

Then there is the misconception that having something moving on the screen draws attention. Well, yes it does, but in much the same way that incessant nagging does. It attracts your attention at first, then it irritates, and in the end, you either close it from your mind completely or just get increasingly annoyed. Is that the effect that you really want?

To put this whole thing in perspective, side-step for a moment into another visual communication medium - video. When the video novice first gets hold of a video camera, the ill-considered content will be profusely adorned with fast zoom-ins and zoom-outs and camera effects. When they progress to video editing, there will be some fancy page turn, digital dissolve or tumble between practically every shot. It's a novelty at first and they think it is clever but professionals don't do this - it is a sure sign of amateurism. Except for the tackiest of low budget videos and commercials, special effects are used in quality programs only when there is a very good reason - and that good reason is never a lack of imagination or content.

If you play these same tricks on a Web page, you risk looking like an amateur too.

I'm not saying that animation has no place on the Web. It can be a great aid in helping explain certain things that would be more difficult with still images - how to make a golf swing, how to fit an ink cartridge into a printer, the flow of warm ocean currents. But, unless the movement is contributing something to getting the message across, and not just mud that you have to wade through to get across the road, it’s just wasting everyone’s time.

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