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An Interview with Jennifer Niederst

by Tara McGoldrick Walsh

Jennifer Niederst has been designing for the Web since the early days of the medium, and she was the original designer of O'Reilly's Global Network Navigator (GNN), which was the first commercial Web site. She has also taught Web design at the Massachusetts College of Art and the Interactive Factory in Boston, Mass.

Jennifer has authored four popular O'Reilly books on Web design, including the recently released Learning Web Design. Tara McGoldrick from recently got a chance to ask Jennifer about her new book and the current state of Web design.

McGoldrick: What is the most significant change in Web design since you got started in 1993?

Niederst: I guess the biggest difference is that you can do so much more with Web design now, both visually and functionally. Back then we had a couple dozen HTML 1.0 tags, and if you wanted to get really fancy, you could use a CGI script. Now Web sites are much more beautiful and robust. HTML itself has evolved quite a bit and now style sheets are coming of age, giving visual designers much more fine-tuned control over the page than we ever dreamed of.

Another significant change is that many Web pages are dynamically generated now using XML and other back-end solutions. Instead of crafting each page by hand as we did in '93, designers now develop systems and templates so that pages can be put together on the fly.

Related Reading

Learning Web Design: HTML, Graphics, and Animation
A Beginner's Guide to HTML, Graphics, and Beyond
By Jennifer Robbins

McGoldrick: When you started, one primary design challenge must have been how to take what was essentially a text-based medium and make it graphical and dynamic. What are the primary design challenges for new Web designers today?

Niederst: Yes, back then, the Web was largely a text-and-pictures kind of medium. It was all about designing a "page," similar to a book or a magazine, according to the principles of solid graphic design. We've definitely moved toward a more application-based model, where a Web site is perceived as a place where you do something, not just read something. This has required that Web designers become aware of the principles of usability and interface design. Designing a site that works, and not just looks good, is the top priority.

McGoldrick: O'Reilly has a reputation for publishing fairly advanced technical books. Is Learning Web Design truly a beginner's book?

Niederst: Yes, it starts at the absolute beginning, describing the Web environment and providing important context for the more technical information that follows. The book assumes only that you've done some browsing on the Web, you know how to use your computer, and you have a desire to learn how to make basic Web pages.

The level of technical detail in Learning Web Design is typical of a book from O'Reilly--nothing is dumbed down or glossed over. What makes it different is that the information is presented in a highly visual manner (there are over 300 figures) using many step-by-step tutorials. It guides you through each topic as though you have a teacher there with you.

McGoldrick: What is it about your book that differentiates it from other beginner books on the same subject?

Niederst: There are undeniably many books on HTML and Web graphics on the shelves these days, a testament to the fact that so many people are looking for guidance. I think what sets my book apart is that it is so complete. It covers the basics of the Web environment, HTML, Web graphics, design techniques and tips, usability & interface design, and introductions to advanced Web technologies. It's my entire beginner Web design course in one book.

I am especially proud of the chapter titled "Building Usable Web Sites" that covers information design, interface design, and navigation. This is one of the most important factors in making a Web site successful, and I think it is omitted from most other Web design books. I'm also pleased that I was able to cover general Web design techniques as well as a list of dos and don'ts to provide some guidance on design decisions. There's more to creating Web pages than just knowing how the tags work or which graphic file format to use.

McGoldrick: You draw a lot of material for Learning Web Design from your teaching experiences. What makes your teaching method unique?

Niederst: I like to spend a lot of time up-front explaining how the Web works and some of its quirks, and even what makes it extremely frustrating at times. I've found that when my students start with a basic understanding of the medium, its history, and its limitations, it makes it easier to learn the specifics of tagging and image production. It's context that makes all the difference, because some aspects of Web design are strange, particularly if you have prior print design experience.

McGoldrick: Why do you like teaching Web design?

Niederst: Although I've been doing Web design for eight years, I still remember what it was like to make that transition from print design to the Web. It was confusing, and I wished I had someone to explain how things worked. Since the medium was so new, we were all figuring it out as we went along. (To a degree, we still are.)

After writing my first book, Designing for the Web (no longer in print), I found that I was a very good "explainer." I really enjoy taking big, complex topics and chopping them up in a way that is easily understandable. It's similar to what I do as a graphic designer, taking a visual mess and making it clear. My brain just naturally likes to make sequential order out of chaos. When I realized that others benefited from and appreciated those efforts, I was hooked.

McGoldrick: In your book, you say it's not too late to learn Web design, that there is plenty of room for people who want to start learning now. What does it take to be a good Web designer? Do you have to be artistic or technical?

Niederst: People come to Web design from many backgrounds. It straddles the creative and technical worlds in an interesting way. The thing to remember about Web design is that it actually encompasses many disciplines: graphic design, interface design, programming, management, etc., so there is room in the Web design world for all types.

I usually recommend that people capitalize on their current strengths and interests. If they are currently a visual artist or graphic designer, then it makes sense to adapt those skills to the front end design of the site, as I have, and work on how the site looks. If someone comes from a programming background, there are all sorts of opportunities for designing and producing how a site works.

McGoldrick: Is it harder to teach a designer about the Web, or a Web-savvy person about design?

Niederst: I think it's much easier to teach a designer how to adapt to the Web. Designers have been using computers for design work for years and are familiar with style sheets, file types, and other technical restraints. Many of these skills are easily translated into Web-specific requirements. It just requires a shift in thinking.

McGoldrick: Is there one question you are most often asked by students learning Web design?

Niederst: Oh, I don't think there's one most-asked question, particularly since people come into my classes with varying knowledge of the Web. In general, people want to know what they need to learn and what software tools they need, which is why I dedicated a whole chapter to answering such questions.

There are a few specific questions that invariably come up. Many people ask if they need to learn Java, to which the answer is an emphatic NO. Learn Java if you want to be a Java programmer, but it is certainly not required to be a Web designer. The other question I can be guaranteed will be asked in a beginner class is how to make the background of a page a different color (use the BGCOLOR attribute in the <BODY> tag of the document). It's funny how people sometimes seek out very specific bits of information while others are after the broad picture. I tried to address both of these needs in Learning Web Design.

McGoldrick: What is the hardest thing for beginners to grasp in learning Web design?

Niederst: The hardest big-picture concept to get used to, particularly for those from a print background, is that the page will look different to different users. Due to the nature of the medium and the fact that the final display is controlled by the browser, platform, display device, and individual preferences of the user, you don't have the kind of control over presentation that you do in print.

The result is that you don't know how big the "page" will be, how dark the colors will look, or the size or font of the text. This usually comes as a big surprise. Some print designers are horrified at the prospect of giving up control.

McGoldrick: What is one common mistake you see most beginners make in their first designs?

Niederst: The common beginner error is too much of everything. Too many colors, too many animations, too many fonts, varying text alignments, and so on. The key to a successful design, on the Web and in any medium, is restraint and control. For instance, choosing a limited palette of one or two colors and sticking with them. I address many of these popular beginner pitfalls in the "Dos and Don'ts" chapter of the book.

McGoldrick: Since HTML was not originally designed to handle the detailed specifics of page layout and presentation, there have been a lot of hacks (HTML elements used in ways other than they were intended) over the years that Web designers have used to control page layout. Does your book cover tricks like using single-pixel transparent GIFs to effect where elements show up on a Web page? What do you think of these kind of work-arounds?

Niederst: In general, I discourage hacks (like using list elements to get indents and, most notoriously, single-pixel transparent graphics for spacing), but until style sheets are consistently and universally supported, I think these work-arounds will be around for at least another couple of years.

In the book, I tried to paint as thorough a picture as possible about practical Web design techniques, so I did introduce the single-pixel technique and some other tricks. However, I also tried to provide important context on why it's not good Web design form and should be avoided. So the decision is in the students' hands.

McGoldrick: Besides beginners, your book also targets graphic designers making the switch to Web design. What is the biggest hurdle print designers must get over when making a career change to the Web?

Niederst: Well, as I mentioned earlier, there's a period of adjustment, of learning when to let go of absolute control over the page display. Web design takes away control over all the things graphic designers are traditionally responsible for controlling: font, colors, page size, alignment, and so on. And forget kerning! You need to develop a new relationship with the designs you create . . . . It's more like designing a range of possibilities.

Another key difference in the day-to-day work is that graphic designers in the Web world work much more closely with programmers and technical teams. In the print world, there is some dialog with pre-press and the printer, but in Web design, the visual and technical design and development processes are very closely integrated. Designers need to understand the technical vocabulary and processes.

McGoldrick: A large section of your book is devoted to graphics. What are the most important software tools that a beginner should use to work with graphics?

Niederst: Which tool you use is largely a function of personal preference and budget. However, if you are serious about creating professional Web graphics, then it is wise to invest in a robust tool that has advanced Web-specific features built in. Adobe Photoshop 5.5 and higher (bundled with its Web-graphics utility, ImageReady) is undeniably the industry standard. Just about every professional designer I know spends a good portion of every day using Photoshop.

Another great Web graphics tool is Macromedia Fireworks. It is both a drawing tool and a bitmap image editor in one, and it produces very small graphics. It is also well integrated with Dreamweaver, the industry's standard Web authoring tool. If you're on a Windows machine and on a budget, Jasc Paint Shop Pro is a less expensive alternative to Photoshop; however, it doesn't have the advanced Web-specific features of the other two tools. In the book, I include step-by-step demonstrations of graphics creation techniques using all three of these programs.

Don't miss these two other O'Reilly books by Jennifer Niederst: the best-selling Web Design in a Nutshell and the HTML Pocket Reference.

McGoldrick: Is it still necessary to learn the nuts and bolts of HTML to create Web sites, or have the tools advanced enough so a designer may safely skip this step?

Niederst: At this point, it is still definitely necessary to understand and even write HTML if you want to do professional Web design. Not only are the tools not good enough to excuse you from learning HTML (you'll invariably want to tweak and edit their code), but I'm pretty sure they've stopped trying.

In the beginning, the Web authoring tools hid the HTML source in the same way that PageMaker and Quark hide the PostScript source that makes up the page. Since then, the priority has shifted. The latest version of Dreamweaver has improved its interface for accessing the HTML source while working on the page layout, which shows that it is intended to be used as an HTML editor in tandem with its WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) features. Having the HTML out front is a feature, not a bug.

I suppose if you are creating Web pages at the hobbyist level (say, making a Web page to share photos of your grandchildren or your dog), you can use a Web page layout tool like FrontPage without any understanding of what's happening behind the scenes. But if you have any inkling that you'll take your Web design to a professional level, you will be expected to know your way around HTML.

McGoldrick: Do you recommend creating separate sites for Internet Explorer and Netscape, or are the days of designing browser-specific sites behind us? Do you have any thoughts on Web standards?

Niederst: Until the version 3 and 4 browsers fade out of public use (they currently make up as much as 25% of current use), there will need to be some compensation for browser differences. Whether that means serving up different site versions, making use of smaller-scale work-arounds, or just avoiding advanced scripting features is based on the individual site and its target audience.

Like just about every other Web developer out there, I'm excited to see the battle of the browsers finally quieting down. The latest releases of Internet Explorer 5.5 for PC (5 for Mac) and Netscape 6 are very encouraging in terms of standards support. A great place to learn about Web standards and the efforts to get browser developers, tool developers, and content developers on the same page is the Web Standards Project. For standards to really work, they have to be implemented by everyone, not just the browser manufacturers.

McGoldrick: Is there something you'd like to learn about Web design, which you haven't had time to take on yet?

Niederst: If I had all the time in the world, I'd like to try my hand at Flash. There's a lot to learn there, both in terms of figuring out the software and, more importantly, to start thinking of designs in terms of time and cause-and-effect, not just static information on a page.

McGoldrick: You began your career as a graphic designer. Do you ever miss your life before the Web, that of the traditional graphic design experience?

Niederst: No, I don't miss it because I've never stopped! I consider myself a designer and I don't discriminate between Web and print (or even craft) design. I had to pick up some new skills to make my designs appropriate for the Web, but I still enjoy designing all sorts of things and I like to maintain a balance. It's not like once you design a Web page you can never go back. I'm sure many designers are just adding Web design to their repertoire of media design. That way, they can provide complete and integrated packages for their clients: a logo, a print brochure, business stationery, and a Web site.

With the economy being so tech-centric for the last few years, Web design became an all-consuming lifestyle for many designers, but I think it's going to balance out again.

Jennifer Niederst was one of the first designers for the Web. As the designer of O'Reilly's Global Network Navigator (GNN), the first commercial Web site, she has been designing for the Web since 1993. She is the author of Designing for the Web, Web Design in a Nutshell, and the HTML Pocket Reference, all by O'Reilly. In writing Learning Web Design, she draws from her experience teaching hundreds of absolute beginners.

Learning Web Design: HTML, Graphics, and Animation

Related Reading

Learning Web Design: HTML, Graphics, and Animation
A Beginner's Guide to HTML, Graphics, and Beyond
By Jennifer Robbins

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