There are tiny typographic battles being fought on the Web, from page to page and site to site, skirmishes in a larger conflict between text and links. Like many wars, this one has a thin ideological gloss that obscures a deeper economic and territorial conflict.
The field of battle
Text-based sites. Take a look at U&lc (which is where you are right now, in case you hadn’t noticed) and the way it handles links. Unaccessed links are a tasteful dark blue (#003366) and accessed links are a subtle dark grey (#666666 – the color of the beast?). On my monitor, these colors are very close in color to the black text, and give a uniform look to the type on the page. (The colors may look different on different monitors – life is uncertain.) This color scheme is congruent with contemporary ideas of good typographic design, as you’d expect in this venue. Words and phrases don’t reach out and grab you by the throat as you’re trying to read, screaming Look at me! and Click here! At first glance, there don’t even seem to be any links in the text, at least when viewed on my monitor.
Links-based sites. Now take a look at Jakob Nielsen's site, Use It. It’s got 36 links on the home page, set in the text like pebbles in pavement. The fact that the links are in blue and purple plays hob with the visual hierarchy of the text. To my eye, Use It is ugly, but a good argument could be made that it is more Web–like, more “usable” in the Web sense, than a site in which the links are less obvious. Nielsen’s site is about moving around via links, and the site, like Nielsen himself, assumes that it is inherently unpleasant to read online. (Jakob Nielsen is a justly respected, even worshipped, expert in Web usability – see his recent column Differences between Print Design and Web Design for more of his thoughts on this matter.)
Hybrid sites. So as not to cast stones at anyone else, I use for example here an article, Winter Wandering, that I wrote a couple months ago, for GORP, a site that is, to say the least, link intensive: thousands of lengthy articles intertwined topographically like Klein bottles. This particular 3-page article was conceived as a way to lead readers to other articles already on the site, by presenting the links thematically. Done without frames, it has site navigation at the top and bottom, article navigation on the left and at the bottom, additional links to related topics at the bottom, a sidebar in the text that delivers links to four articles on peripheral subjects, and links within the text to 43 other articles on matter directly related to the subject, some of which links are also included in the article navigation. It’s completely over-the-top, linkwise. And it’s the links within the text that are most problematic in terms of design. How do you present that many links without the article being completely scattered visually? You can’t. If I were doing it over, I’d have limited myself to at most a dozen links to other articles instead of four dozen. In my own defense, I can only say that the purpose of the article was simply to make people click on the links it contained. The reader proceeded until confronted by an irresistable opportunity to investigate the Everglades or whatever, and then left without a backward glance. How many people moved linearly through the piece to Page 3? Not many, I bet.
The roots of the conflict
History. The Web, as every schoolchild knows, was created by scientists for scientists. After it was functional, they let in the artists and writers, and there’s been hell to pay ever since. We haven’t developed a consensus on rules for integrating satisfying links with sound design and good writing. There are other ways to present the links in this very column, for instance, that would separate them from the text: indented below the relevant paragraph, for instance, or simply separated from the sentence structure.
Politics. Part of the conflict on the Web is between the way typography is used in print and the typographic needs of links. The typographic hierarchy of print media is pretty well established. Designers who play well with type in print media may feel an instinctive need to downplay links, to subordinate them to text, just as typography per se generally subordinates itself to the text. Writers, too, are usually concerned with the flow of words, of moving readers through ideas to a conclusion, rather than pushing them off in mid-sentence to an entirely different discussion. But the Web wants to link, and links want the reader to know they’re there. When faced with this type of conflict over goals, it’s best for all parties to sit down at the table and and prioritize. Designers and writers coming to the Web from other media need to recognize the Web itself as a partner in the design process. Unless you take its needs into consideration, there will be no peace.
Jakob Nielsen says (in Differences) that he expects this conflict to continue for a decade. Essentially, he believes the source of the problem is the size and resolution of computer screens. I think it’ll be over as soon as the majority of the combatants realize that they have common goals, and that those goals can be achieved without the use of brute force. The Web, as Carl von Clausewitz put it, is ultimately a continuation of sound design principles, with an admixture of other means.
More thinking about links:
Links on the World Wide Web – An entire chapter from Web Site Usability: A Designer’s Guide by the intelligent Jared Spool.
Linking – Master Hypertext – Webmonkey’s Jeffrey Veen considers linking an advanced Web technique, not an after–thought in Web 101.
Editorial Style From the Yale C/AIM Style Manual. An overview page that includes a lot of good stylistic advice.
Sun’s Guide to Web Style: Links – If you like rules, these are useful ones.