One late night, while I was working on a web page, my wife asked why am I using a text editor and coding HTML when I can use Microsoft FrontPage. I tried to explain to her the benefits of my approach but she was not convinced. Honestly, I was not also convinced of my reasons but somehow, deep inside of me, I knew that I should not be using FrontPage or other tools that let you do it visually.
Some people see creating web pages as an activity reserved for graphic designers. For many, it makes sense for a fine arts major to become a web designer. These same people also think that website is about creating and placing pictures, assigning colors, and fonts.
Structure and Presentation
People venturing into web designs, I guess, have a choice between two roads – a presentation-oriented approach or structure-oriented approach. Not that one approach is superior to the other (I have no right to judge that) but from experience, a structure-oriented approach provides more flexibility that you will be thankful for when you started worrying about presentation.
For example, in almost all documents, whether in print or digital, there are items that appear more important than others, such as chapter title to a section heading. Any good designer would distinguish the important elements with the less important ones – make the element bold, increase its size, and change the font, for example.
My first goal is to structure the web page using HTML tags taking into account the semantics. For example, the heading tag <h1>, ideally, should be used to markup the most important heading in a web page while <h2> tag for the next important. So if I want to show importance, I decide which heading is more important then use the <h1> tag. Of course, nothing stops you from using an <h5> or a <p> tag for the page title.
A presentation-oriented approach does not make a distinction between an <h1> or <p> as long the elements appear as the designer intends to. Is there something wrong with that? A visitor would not care if your web page is constructed structurally or not. This is one major reason why there are web page designers that do not care about structure.
Structure as an element of presentation
Some may think that the two approaches do not converge, but as I have experienced, a good structure helps significantly in creating a good presentation.
First, the principle of contrast. If we are conscious in our choice of what tag to use, we are making contrast explicit in the content of our web page. In the absence of any formatting, a web browser can provide more emphasis on the important text against the less important. This is possible because the contrast is present and the browser can understand it. It may not be visually appealing at first but when you start formatting and use CSS, you will thank yourself for making structure a priority.
Another design principle is proximity, which states that related items should be close to each other. A good structure groups related elements. When you structure your content as a hierarchy of <h1>, <h2>, and so on, you are already grouping elements together. You can also use the <div> tag to group elements. In fact, using <div> is the most common and effective way of creating layouts (with some little help from CSS).
So what if it is not structured
We could create two web pages that looks exactly the same but constructed using different approaches. So where is the advantage? The well structured web page makes presentations manageable.
When you structure your web page, you separate the content from the presentation. You compose the content using only HTML tags and you prepare the layout, fonts, colors, margins, etc. using CSS. I do not deny that I lack artistic talent and that is why it is very important for me to able to try different designs and see the results as soon as possible. In programming, you should isolate things that may change from things that most likely, will not.
So how do these things answer why I do not use FrontPage?
If we are given a problem to solve, the perspective from which we view the problem affects our analysis and eventually our solution. Some have the ability to see things from various perspectives while others find it difficult to change perspective. (I guess this is why the world still have racism and religious prejudices.)
I see web page construction from a structured-oriented view. I see no need for FrontPage because a text editor and browser supports very well the approach I am taking.
Frontpage is not evil but…
I am not saying using FrontPage is evil. The purpose of a tool is to help us accomplish tasks easily, or with less effort than doing it without the tool. In the software domain, the use of WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) and the GUI (Graphical-User-Interface) has been one of the most effective technique of making tasks simpler. There is no doubt that software like Microsoft Word has helped a lot people especially those writing documents. If you work on a computer, there is a big chance you have used Microsoft Word. Because of the experience, you would have come to expect that every software application provides a similar ability.
Of course, not all tasks is better done visually but for designing web page it makes sense if you can do it the way you would design a teaser. I will not be surprised if you find FrontPage a very useful tool because it supports very well a presentation-oriented approach.
One common mantra, especially in management domain, is “I do not care how is it done, just get it done”. FrontPage allows you to get it done and the fact that you can focus on getting it done, allows you to ignore how it is done.
Fine, FrontPage still allows you to see the HTML – to see everything that is going on behind the scenes. But that is an optional thing to do. I bet you do not have time to do it and it does not interest you. In case it interests you, there is a bigger problem. FrontPage shows you how he does it, not how it should be done properly. You, as the person, is at the mercy of FrontPage, the tool. I cannot live with that.
If you have been relying solely on FrontPage and not really learning HTML, you may come to accept that FrontPage does the correct thing. It is like the case of Dr. Evil (in Austin Powers) who have been raised by a Belgian couple to be evil and knows no good deeds.
You may say, “I do not need to know the inner workings of car, I just need to drive”. First, as I have said before, a good structure lends to a flexible design. Second, if you understand what is happening in your web pages, you have control. Control allows you to improve things, to innovate, and to fix things when they are broken. Lastly, HTML is very darn simple so the only reason I could see to skip learning proper use of HTML tags is pure laziness.
I am really a keyboard guy
Another reason why I tend not use FrontPage or similar tools is influenced by my preference to use the keyboard in almost every computing tasks that I do. As a programmer and aspiring writer, I live and breath via the keyboard.
The most popular task in computer is saving documents. While most people would use the mouse, I prefer to use the keyboard. I am not comfortable leaving the keyboard, touching the mouse and positioning the pointer over the ‘save’ button. Sometimes, I would miss it and the ‘File Open’ dialog box would pop out instead.
Every time I use a new software, the first thing, I check is the ‘save’ shortcut, which is often, ‘Ctrl-S’. In Windows 98, the version of Notepad has no save shortcut but the Windows 2000 and XP version have it.
I guess non-programmers would find it odd that programmers would rather use the keyboard in everything we do. The keyboard is our primary tool and we want to be masters of it.
So if you want to use FrontPage, go ahead but I encourage you to take time to learn proper HTML and consider creating a structure first for your web pages before presentation details. I also invite you to learn CSS.