Home Page Design Advice from October 1991, 3 Months After the Web's Public Debut

In the early days of the web, its developers created a backchannel for discussing its progress. They called the mailing list www-talk, and it remains an active discussion group. This week, Ed Summers, who writes code for libraries, released the archives of the list's emails from 1991, when the web was born, until 1994

There are thousands of messages for historians to sort through from this remarkable time in the web's history. But I want to highlight one early message from Tim Berners-Lee to Edward Vielmetti, an Internet engineer. 

"I'd be interested to hear any thoughts you have on what it takes to make a good home page," Vielmetti had asked. "I suppose you want to be sure that a user doesn't get so completely lost that they can't find their way out, enough local information that people feel more or less at home. hm hm hm."

Berners-Lee's response, at the very dawn of web design, managed to encode a massive design dilemma that remains today. Here it is, in part (emphasis mine): 

Good home page design is an art -- like the cover of a magazine, or a quick-reference card. 

Of course it depends on the readership. The CERN home page has to start with the CERN things to minimise the number of keystokes/clicks for the largest number of users. At the same time, it needs pointers for someone with a broader interest to rapidly find a wider topic, and it has to suggest to people what is behind it so that later they will use it again on another topic. The competition for the first 24 lines is hot! I have thought of having a "Latest additions" link, so that people who though they know the web can check for new bits.

There is also the question of whether to make the layout really open (lots of white space), with 5 well-explained links on each page, or to cram in as much as possible.

Berners-Lee, for all his brilliance, was not a media person. There is a vast gulf between the design of the cover of a magazine and the design of a quick-reference card. In fact, home pages struggle with trying to balance between these two wildly different analogues. 

A magazine cover tends to have a strong graphic focal point. There are maybe 10 lines of text, all short and choppy. Insofar as they give you any information about what is contained therein, magazines covers are intended to tease more than inform. The cover is marketing, intended to make you buy a product. Some sites have begun to take the magazine cover approach seriously, like the new Monocle magazine.


Reference cards have an entirely different function. They are intended to provide the fastest access to the most information. No one would put a large photograph in the center of a reference card. Most significantly, the purpose of a reference card is allow you to use some other resource; it is a printed front end to some other system to which you already have access. This has been the approach that most media companies have taken online. Take the Washington Post, for example, which has 47 links on the first screen of its home page: 


Both the cover model and the card model are totally valid ways of thinking about a home page. But what's amazing is that the two visions continue to coexist. Having been in meetings with all kinds of media and tech people, many of them still have one or the other model in mind. We really haven't gotten beyond thinking about home pages with one or the other of these analogies. 
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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