The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Enter symbols
separated by a space:

Look Up Symbols

Made Possible by:

Related Items
 On Our Site
  • Most recent .com column
  • TechThursday
  • E-mail

    Hosted by Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, April 22, 1999 at 1 p.m.
    Leslie Walker
    ".com" columnist Leslie Walker.

    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, Roger Black whose clients include MSNBC, Barnes & Noble Online, the Discovery Channel and, most recently,

    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.

    Discussion Transcript

    Leslie Walker: 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?

    The key differences is the two-way possibility of the Net--like this chat. A designer has less control, but there is the possibility of instantaneous gratification!

    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.

    The two sites I use the most are and

    MSNBC has my loyalty in part because they're a great client, but mainly because they do a terrific job editing the news, and presenting it so it's easy, enjoyable and rewarding to get at.

    AskJeeves is the search engine I like best because it has a bit of personality and the results work. I think that's because they have editors trying to figure out what people are going to ask about the Web before they ask it.

    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.

    It would be a mistake to imagine that that people read much of anything. They scan and browse text, particularly on the Web.

    One typical suggestion about the text: Make it bigger. A big headline will be read faster than a small one. Large text type is easier to read than small type.

    It's crazy to have say this aloud, but most Web sites forget it.

    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.

    Only we can be sure that people have large monitors (like in a company intranet) do we go for 1024x768.

    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.

    I think interactivity is still under-appreciated--by web developers and most of all by the crowd from the old media. I keep trying to tell clients that the Net is more like the telephone than the television.

    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.

    But broadband probably means *more*--not *fast*.

    Nevertheless, people will wait for a download (think of a gamer) if its something they really are interested in.

    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.

    Most of Interactive Bureau's customers do a lot of the work themselves. They're looking for high-end design and strategy. That's the specialty of firms like ours. We aggregate broader experience quickly, and can attract the kind of designers and consultants who thrive on doing a lot of different projects instead of just one.

    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:

    Good luck!

    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

    -- Close second, numbing boredom. No content on the surface, no sense of fun or energy

    -- Also really bad: Slow server or fat sites that take forever to download.

    Alexandria, VA: 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?

    When higher bandwidth comes along, will these practices be kept around simply because it's what we're used to seeing?

    Roger Black: Standards always start gelling until someone, who wants to stand out from the crowd, really does something better. Then everyone copies them!

    I hope that there will be more experimentation, and there are still lots of non-commercial sites that create inspiration for me.

    But never underestimate the fear of change or the love of convention!

    Leslie Walker: 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?

    I think of a story as a very linear thing, for example, and the Web sure isn't linear. I don't know about you, but I find it unsettling the amount of multitasking I do today--surfing simultaneously in four browser windows while sending a message on my ICQ window, too. Do you think this will help, hurt, or in any way change how future generations learn and understand stuff?

    Roger Black: People have always taken information in small bites. When you hear a long sermon, you tend to remember only one thing.

    The Net is great at delivering what I like to call "information transactions." You go in with a particular question, get satisfaction, and get out.

    It's not so good at delivering random news, the way a good newspaper can--despite the efforts of Salon and Slate. And still worse at entertainment--with the exception of games.

    I've always like to do several things at the same time. I've taken two phone calls since this started, and the Fed Ex lady arrived. Younger people seem to do much more multi-tasking than us ancient boomers.

    But I doubt the PC will ever succeed in providing continuous streams of entertainment, like movies. The Internet might deliver digital entertainment. But you'll look at on the TV screen, lounging back on the couch.

    Or, you'll sit under a shade tree, reading a good book until it's too dark to read anymore . . . .

    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).

    No one knows it all. The trick is to know enough to make a sound recommendation of the right approach. And to know what specialty skills need to be hired.

    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.

    Nevertheless, Barnes & Noble has interesting content, like their chat with authors. So I still go to both.

    Leslie Walker: 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?"

    It used to be that Web sites were for promotion. Now they about transactions.

    Like everything else, most people imagine it's faster and cheaper than it really is--to make a great site. IAB proposals are on a fixed fee and fixed schedule basis. So we can guarantee the time and 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.

    What do think, we're idiots?

    Of course a lot of web sites don't want you to know how old their stuff is!

    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?

    Question #2: How do you deal with the situation when the client insists on something that you'd rather not implement in your design, considering they are paying the bills?

    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.

    The second question is like going to the doctor but not taking the prescription.

    If we have done our job right, clients don't make these mistakes. Every now and then an irrational decision gets made, and you throw a fit.

    Just as often as these aberrations, the client comes up with a brainstorm in the middle of a project, and they're right!

    Leslie Walker: 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.

    So my question is, what advice do you give clients trying to figure out what to name their Web business. How are "brands" different in cyberspace?

    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.

    The clearest, most obvious name works best (example: Then, promote the hell out of it.

    Later the actual name is less important than what it stands for (example: Rolling Stone).

    People forget that at the beginning Amazon didn't make sense as a brand name.

    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.

    The database question is too general. Every case is different, and needs a different answer

    Washington, D.C.: 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.

    I read your response about motion, still & text. Any further suggestions like frames, banners something to help with all of the text I have to include on the pages?

    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.

    Pull out some quotes and set them in a bigger size.

    Use indents to give the reader a little white space.

    And a little picture now and then can go a long way. Check out, Salon, and Slate.

    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!

    We're all equals at IAB, we just have different assignments. The main differences in our firm: we have more senior professionals on each job, and there is a lot of collaboration for every client--within each studio, and across state and national borders to the other offices.

    A lot of clients remark when they first visit that the mood is different at Interactive Bureau. It's calmer. My challenge is to maintain this culture as we grow.

    Silicon Alley: I was cruising your Web site at 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.

    But let me check out the server today . . .

    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.

    The first jobs were the hardest, because no one really knew what the Web was all about. It's amazing that the launch of came out as well as it did. But something was right, since the team leader on the client side, John Sanford, now runs our Seattle office!

    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?

    Roger Black: Teach? Egad, I am too impatient to teach.

    What we are doing, is creating a publishing imprint. There are six books already in the works, and at least two should be out this year.

    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?

    Roger Black: 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.

    The converging software and hardware companies are now at work at hooking the net up to other appliances beside PCs and TVs. Like the thermostat.

    Design has played a big role in the Web, becuase it was new territory, and people needed help just to find their way. The expansion of the Internet means our work is just starting.

    To answer your question, Leslie, I think people will begin to expect that Net is connected to everything. If they want information, or need to communicate, they'll just have to say a word or push a button.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar