web's eye view web's eye view
06.17.98  [current] and [back] issues and a bag of urls!
alan levine
Maricopa Center for Learning & Instruction


as the old saying goes

A Picture is Worth

when pictures were crafted art

A Thousand Words...

with never an adjustment for inflation


especially on the 28.8 web of the 90s

What is the Value

where one of the three "w"'s is for "wait"

of a Picture of...

content of format?
THIS IS GOING TO SOUND LIKE AN ANGRY DIATRIBE because... well it is. I am writing about the incredible waste of web wait time consumed by web page designers that fight the very spirit of the HTML codes behind the curtain. These rascals bloat their pages with un-necessary bandwidth-slogging image files because they are too short-sighted to be more creative.

Web pages were never meant to explicitly define layout, but to provide content, meaning, and contextual linking of information. Is it really true that "content king" or is it the "look of content" that rules?

I'd be willing to toss out a few examples, but it is likely to get me into trouble or the offending sites will clean up their act and make me look like a liar. Surf and wander aimlessly among sites, especially the *.com ones, and with ease you will land a big, bandwidth-sucking, graphics-for-text site.

here's the stinking beef
WHAT EXACTLY AM I RAVING ABOUT? My gripe is the use of a image embedded in a web page that is merely a picture of words. Sure, that picture of "text" above grabs your attention, and stands out. Why is this so bad?

First, a picture takes an order of magnitude more time than HTML text to transmit. So you have to wait for a page full of them to load before you can discern the meaning. It's typically not a problem to the designer testing on their own desktop computer or over their T999 intranet. The equation flips around when you are sitting on the end of a modem waiting for... those... slowly... appearing ... pictures... of... words.

This wait is compounded by web sites that are laid out in complex HTML tables. These once frowned upon web page elements are now the de-facto standard for doing web pages that are not boring streams of wall to wall text and headers. But here's the catch of tables... the web browser displays NOTHING until it reads in and interprets everything between the <table> and the </table> tags. So if your very first web page element is a table, many users are staring at blank nothing-ness, fingers milliliters from the mouse button, while that table loaded with images (of text) are plopped in.

Second, a page full of content that is presented as images exist only as visual representation of words, and thus are not indexed by web search engines. It seems obvious that most web designers want to make their content find-able among the web. Some do realize this and make sure that image tags include "text" alternatives as well as embedding search-able key words in <META> tags.

Likewise, content delivered in a GIF animation, Shockwave, Java, Flash, and such is always trapped in that medium and never is cataloged by your favorite spiders, robots, or crawlers.

Third, the question that begs (at least from me), "What value is this image adding?" What is it doing that some clever HTML coding could not do?

why do they do it?
WE MUST FIRST UNDERSTAND THE MOTIVATION OF THE OFFENDERS. Why would a designer make a picture of words? What is the compulsion?

Most would say it is a lack of HTML's provisions for using fancy fonts, controlling spacing, and other typography issues. Hey! It was by design that HTML was left simple! That's why the 100 gizillion people cranking our home pages are hooked! And back in the early days of HTML 2.0, there were few options for making the text look any different from a phone book or a Physicians Desk Reference..

Another common reason for text as pictures is for controlling the width of columns in table-defined web pages. If I want a column of links vertically on the left side of my page, if they are all graphics, then I can rest assured that they will have the same pixel width on all browsers. If I do them as HTML marked text, they might wrap or other horrible things. It's the original faux-pas of just about every web page tinkerer-- the trap of designing web pages that look beautiful on their own particular computer+monitor+browser brand and size.

The end result is some cheesy looking stack of bevel edged buttons with jagged edge text plastered on top.

Yet another desire is for visual effects such as drop shadows, those pervasive page curls ("Yes, I too have Kai's Power tools for Photoshop!"), or rotated, distorted, or perspective effects. The question here is how important this visual is for your purpose. The question is what people are thinking while they are waiting to see your content.

enough, what can a human do?
THERE IS AN IMMENSE JOY IN the challenge of a creation process of using limited tool sets such as HTML. At least in my opinion. The newer HTML 3 and 4 options provide many alternatives that open up doors for clever designers.

The <font> tags allow you to specify colors, sizes, and even typefaces for your web pages. You should always consider using font faces ones that are typically found on computer systems. (You may be one of only a handful of web cruisers that have RinklesStone Gothic installed). Stay with reasonable faces like <font face="helvetica,arial"> or <font face="palatino">

A number of low tech look sites make very clever use of the <pre> tags and clever spacing. yes, it is a limited look, but might be appropriate. And it loads fast.

If you use tables for web page layout, spend some time at the feet of the masters, like Killer Web Page author Dave Siegel, for really getting a grasp on how to control the width of table elements. See his tables tutorial. It can be done. It is done in this very page.

And don't forget what you can do by inserting some blank spaces. I am talking about the special HTML character for "non-breaking space" or &nbsp; which allows you to do things like:

s       p       a       c       e
i       s
f       r       e       e

nobody is perfect
BEFORE YOU WRITE ME TO SAY I AM A HYPOCRITE I firmly admit that I use images in my web page. I am not a text-only vigilante. And on some our web sites, I do use some graphics that have text, mainly as a logo, or a title.

But in all pages, unless initially noted as graphic intensive, we use (and re-use) the barest of web page images. We have spent time in our alchemy lab learning how to pinch and squeeze them to a puny size (Okay, we spent some time memorizing the excellent books by Lynda Weinman).

And we also proclaim the virtues of the Bandwidth Conservation Society. Also, see the excellent columns on web usability by Sun Engineer Jakob Nielsen and his explanation of Why This Site Has Almost No Graphics.

Please write and disagree with me. Show me the errors of my ways and I will retract. Highlight my own examples that contradict my words.