“... in bunten Bildern wenig Klarheit, viel Irrtum und ein Fünkchen Wahrheit.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Why are my Web pages not as colorful as others?

You might have noticed that compared with most other Web pages, mine are stylisticly rather simple, if not Spartanic. I refuse to add fancy background patterns, funky bullets, blinking animations, and graphical jewelry. I also do not use HTML frames.

What makes a Web page interesting and useful in the end – at least for me – is the information presented in it. Fancy layout is redundant and it costs a lot of time to create it, unless you steal other people's work without referencing them. The latter might be common practice but I consider it unethical. In addition, images need significantly more time to be transmitted and more storage space in caches and should therefore only be used where they really communicate useful information. Text represented as images cannot be found by full-text search mechanisms and cannot be read by browsers for text terminals or speech synthesizers. Frames just make it more difficult to externally reference a document and they waste precious screen space over which the user should have full control. Good optical design has very little beneficial effect in the long term. Therefore, I use images only if they really provide some information. Images should not be used as optical sugar to hide the lack of actual content.

A good electronic publishing system should clearly separate the textual content and structure of a document from the form in which it is presented. The Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) was designed by Tim Berners-Lee originally with exactly this in mind. The text is annotated with markup tags that structure it into elements such as headlines, lists, hyperlinks, etc. The question of how the text is presented finally is left to the user and her local browser. The user should select the most convenient fonts and colors locally according to her personal taste. Some users might not even use a screen at all, but a small LCD, a Braille line, or a speech synthesizer to read your Web page. This was the original idea of the Structured General Markup Language (SGML) standard, of which HTML is an application.

However, this separation between content and layout is unfortunately not how the Web turned out to be used. The Web has been taken over from the scientists who developed it originally to communicate ideas by the advertising industry, which uses every conceivable psychological trick to make products more attractive for you to buy. It didn't take long for the urge to fill Web pages with layout instead of information to swamp into non-commercial private pages as well. Based on this user demand, HTML has been transformed by Netscape and Microsoft into the Hypertext Make-Up Language that supports you in setting up Web pages with the same flashy but meaningless layout that we are used to finding in commercial advertising and the yellow press.

The results are Web pages that take a long time to load, that overload the Internet's long-distance links, and that look only really nice on the designer's particular screen size. My own color and font settings and my browser window size, which I have optimized for my environment, are ignored by these overstyled Web pages.

I have observed the development of the Web since 1991, when only Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT implementation was available and Bill Gates perhaps did not even know that the Internet existed. I am somewhat disappointed that the Web technology has developed only towards better presentation of advertising-style layout. There is very little progress in extending HTML to be a better tool for communicating and searching information. For instance, proposed support for mathematical formulae has been completely ignored by the major industrial players. There have been no HTML extensions to facilitate better structuring of information, information retrieval, indexing, more advanced hyperlinking, and revision management. Perhaps the designers of the next academic information system standards would be better advised not to give the further development of the technology too quickly into the hands of the consumer industry.

Thanks for your interest and for reading my short essay to the end. I hope this text was not too boring for you due to its significant lack of visual stimuli and maybe it keeps you thinking a little bit about what you are really looking for when you continue traversing this endless web of hyperlinks.

Markus Kuhn

created 1998-03-13 – last modified 2000-12-12 – http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~mgk25/gif-free.html