Modern Website Design: Layout

June 28, 2011

There have been many books written about website design, and I am not about to take on the challenge of disputing any of them or trying to explain every facet of design. In this short blog, I want to explain what I have come to understand as the modern layout of websites. The term "layout" may have many different definitions, but for this article I am talking about the basic structure of your website, meaning separation of concerns, data transfer from host to client, how to handle changes in data, and when to change your page structure.

Separation of Concerns

It is important when sitting down for the first time to build a website to come up with an outline. Start by making a list of the parts of your website and the functions of those parts. I always start at the base of my web structure and work from there. HTML is always the foundation of a website; it defines the structure and outlines how you will display your data – plain and simple. It doesn't have to include data or styles, nor does it need to be dynamic ... At its essence, it's a static file that browsers can cache.

Client-side scripting languages like JavaScript will take care of client-side animations and data dispersal, while cascading style sheets (CSS) take care of style and presentation, and server-side scripting languages like PHP or Perl can take care of data retrieval and formatting.

Data Transfer

Where is your data going to come from, and what format it will be in when the client receives it? Try to use a data format that is the most compatible with your scripting languages. I use JavaScript as my primary client side scripting program, so I try to use JSON as my data format, but that's not always possible when dealing with APIs and transferring data from remote computers. JSON is quickly becoming a standard data format, but XML* is the most widely accepted format.

I prefer to use REST APIs as much as possible, because they sends the information directly on the client, rather than using the server as a proxy. However, if a REST API is not available or if there is a security risk involved, you get the advantage of being able to format the data on the server before pushing it to the client. Try to parse and format data as little as possible on the client side of things, the client should be concerned with placing data.

Changes in Data

In the past, websites were made from multiple HTML documents, each one containing different data. The structure of the pages were the same though, so the data changed, but the code was nearly identical. Later, using server side scripting programs, websites became more dynamic, displaying different data based on variables passed in the URL. Now, using AJAX or script injection, we can load new data into a static webpage without reloading. This means less redundant code, less load on the client, and better overall performance.

Page Structure

It is important when displaying data to understand when to change the structure of the page. I start by creating a structure for my home page - it needs to be very open and unrestricting so I can add pictures and text to build the site. Once the overall loose structure is established, I create a structure for displaying products (this will be more restrictive, containing tables and ordering tools). The idea is to have as few HTML structures as possible, but if you find that your data doesn't fit or if you spend a lot of time positioning your data, then it might be time to create a new structure.

The Impact of a Modern Layout

Following these steps will lead to quicker, more efficient websites. This is (of course) not a new subject, and further understanding of web layout can be found in Model-View-Controller frameworks. If you find that you spend too much time writing code to interface with databases or place data, then frameworks are for you.

-Kevin

*If you have to deal with XML, make sure to include JavaScript libraries that make it easier to parse, like JQuery.