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
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
Web Design. Tara McGoldrick from oreilly.com recently got a chance
to ask Jennifer about her new book and the current state of Web design.
What is the most significant change in Web design since you got started in
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.
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
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.
O'Reilly has a reputation for publishing fairly advanced technical
books. Is Learning Web Design truly a beginner's book?
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
What is it about your book that differentiates it from other beginner books on
the same subject?
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
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.
You draw a lot of material for Learning Web Design from your
teaching experiences. What makes your teaching method unique?
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.
Why do you like teaching Web design?
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.
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?
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.
Is it harder to teach a designer about the Web, or a Web-savvy person
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.
Is there one question you are most often asked by students learning Web
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
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.
What is the hardest thing for beginners to grasp in learning Web design?
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
What is one common mistake you see most beginners make in their first
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
Is there something you'd like to learn about Web design, which you
haven't had time to take on yet?
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.
You began your career as a graphic designer. Do you ever miss your life
before the Web, that of the traditional graphic design experience?
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.