.COM – LIVE
Hosted by Leslie Walker
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, April 22, 1999 at 1 p.m.
Welcome to ".com - Live," a real-time, moderated discussion with the people who are shaping the Internet's emerging business strategies. I'm Washington Post reporter Leslie Walker, your host.
My guest today is designer Roger Black. He is the chairman and chief creative officer of Interactive Bureau International, whose clients include MSNBC, Barnes & Noble Online, the Discovery Channel and, most recently, drugstore.com.
Black (left) has recently expanded his consulting firm to handle one of today's most pressing design challenges: How to keep Web navigation simple and intuitive as television, telephone and computers merge on the Internet.
Hello everybody and welcome to Roger Black, the former art director for Rolling Stone and the New York Times who is one of the few print designers to move successfully into interactive design for the digital era. Roger's team designed many pioneering Web sites, giving him more experience than most designers with emerging navigation and layout conventions on the Internet. His print design firm is also known for creating the look of such print magazines as Newsweek and Esquire. He's here and answering your questions now!
Leslie Walker: Roger, can you start by telling us your basic design philosophy and how you translate it onto the Internet. Are there common elements between your design strategies for both print and online--and what are the key differences designers face in creating for both?
Roger Black: A good designer is the advocate of the customer. In print, that's the reader. With TV, they're "viewers. On the Internet, we tend to call them "users." The trick is to look at a page as though for the first time. Ask yourself, what does he or she want? And if you can't give them what they want, can you give them what they need?
Leslie Walker: What do you see as the most crucial components of a first-rate Web site? Are there one or two sites you consider the best on the Web?
Roger Black: The thing many web sites miss is good content. That's what makes people come back. And the sooner you get to the content, the better.
Oakland CA: Which of the elements on a Web page--the graphics or text--are more important? Should your eye be drawn first to an image, or to a headline telling you what the page is about?
Roger Black: People seem to be genetically wired to look at motion first. Then still images--with a priority for other people. Only then do we look at text.
Washington, DC: What is your philosophy about designing for multiple screen resolutions. For example 640 x 480, 800 x 600, 1024 x 768.
Roger Black: I still think the biggest number of screens are 640x480. At Interactive Bureau we still like to fit everything onto one screen, particularly at the top levels. Since more and more people have 800x600 monitors, we often make sites based on a 640x600 page.
Austin TX: How important do you consider interactivity in a Web site? Can you give us some examples of interactivity online that you think are innovative or cutting edge?
Roger Black: Well this is not a bad example. I would point to AOL's forums, and to such sites as Parent Soup.
Newark NJ: How important do you think it is for a Web site to offer video and audio now and in the foreseeable future, when most users are still on slow dial-up lines from home, and the T1 lines at work aren't that fast, either?
Roger Black: @Home now has 500,000 customers, and there will be more than a million cable modems connected to the Net by the end of the year. So we should start providing richer files for them.
Miami: What should a person expect to pay--from a low to a high--to hire a design team to design a Web site? And do most companies do it themselves or hire a Web design firm like yours?
Roger Black: There is a big range. High school students will still do a page for ten bucks. I hear some of our competitors won't touch a job under half a million.
Kensington, Maryland: I have read your book "Web Sites That Work" and found it fascinating. I would love to be a part of your team. However, when I visited your web site, I didn't see any job listings. How does one find out about jobs open within Inactive Bureau?
Roger Black: We're hiring! Just look again at the home page, or go directly to: http://www.iab.com/jobs/jobs.html
San Mateo, CA: Are there any Web site "killers" - elements that will drive people away from your site?
Roger Black: -- Worst is insane java or other code that crashes your browser
The de facto design techniques such as left-hand navigation bars, headers & footers, banner ads, etc. seem to be settling in as common practice on the internet. Is there room for experimentation in a world -especially in the corporate arena- where the viewer is now expecting to see these visual elements?
Roger Black: Standards always start gelling until someone, who wants to stand out from the crowd, really does something better. Then everyone copies them!
Can we step back for a second and talk about how people are consuming information online. I'm interested in how you think the hyperlinked, interactive Web changes how people consume information--does it actually affect understanding?
Roger Black: People have always taken information in small bites. When you hear a long sermon, you tend to remember only one thing.
Pompano Beach, FL: What skills would you suggest for someone who wants to be a professional Web developer? I am currently taking an HTML class and am wondering what to study next: Java-Script, Perl, VB script, etc.?
Roger Black: First you'll want a smattering of understanding the various code involved on the Net, rather than learning any one computer language or script. Then, study databases. The key right now is knowing how to connect to different kinds of databases and middleware (like authoring tools).
Leslie Walker: You designed Barnes & Noble's Web site, and yet you are a big fan of Amazon, its big competitor. Can you give us the three-minute evaluation about what each of their sites does right or wrong?
Roger Black: Er, we designed the original Barnes & Noble site, not the current one. My view is that they subsequently copied Amazon, and if that's what you want go for the original.
We are more than halfway through today's chat with designer Roger Black. Keep those questions rolling in!
Bethesda Md: What are customers most often asking for in their requests for new interactive site?
Leslie Walker: A good question--and I'd also like to know what the biggest misconceptions seem to be when customers first approach a Web project.
Roger Black: The short answer is: "How do we make money?"
washington: As a researcher who is spending more and more time on the web, I want to use this space to PLEAD with designers to ALWAYS include the date of the last update to the page. I often cannot use information because I have no idea how old it is! Shouldn't things like this be part of web design 101?
Leslie Walker: Hmmm....I, too, like seeing when information was created online, because otherwise a story or article could be stale and viewers have no way of knowing. But I don't know that I've seen sites where every single page is time-stamped. I'm interested in Roger's view.
Roger Black: Agreed. I hate it when pages are dated according to your computer's clock.
New York, NY:
Question #1: Do you consider interviewing your client and their design-technical staff one of the most important processes when beginning a project?
Roger Black: Yes. Almost all the information needed to make a good Web site exists at our client's company. Our job is to bring it out, build consensus, and get a sign off on a master plan, or brief.
People are fascinated by Internet addresses and Web site names. The name of a Web site is often its address-or URL--which is very different than in the traditional world.
Roger Black: Eventually brands work the same way everywhere. A brand is more than a trade name; it's about your relationship with your customer.
Washington DC: What database software is most appropriate for a small business website, what e-commerce solutions could you recommend?
Roger Black: Out of the box, I would look at IBM'S e-business solutions.
I work for the federal government and TRY TO add DESIGN to pages. There are a lot of constraints, but mostly lots & lots of text.
Roger Black: First thing to do is go back to the elemental HTML styles, and add hierarchy to the text. Use a big introductory paragraph. Put in subheads.
San Francisco, CA: It seems that these days design studios are run like apprentice shops, where the design "guru" name brings in the clients, but the work is done by the sweat shop. How are things run at Interactive Bureau?
Roger Black: This has to be a planted question!
Silicon Alley: I was cruising your Web site at iab.com and found the pages VERY slow loading--graphically intense. Do you have a guideline you use on how much the maximum file size of a page should be?
Roger Black: We tune sites to the audience. Most of our customers come to us on broadband lines.
San Francisco, California: How many Web sites has your firm designed and which of all was the most fun? Also, which was the hardest and why?
Roger Black: Ha ha! The current job is always the most fun.
McLean, VA: Roger--where do you teach? Do you have any affiliation with good design graduate programs, say at Yale? How important is giving back to the profession at this point in your career?
Teach? Egad, I am too impatient to teach.
Leslie Walker: One final question. Can you peer into your crystal ball and tell us how you think the Internet of tomorrow will look -in what key ways will we experience it and navigate it and interact with it differently than today?
Soon, the Web will be just one part of the Internet. We are doing a lot of work to get ready for Enhanced TV--the set top box arena.
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