The Rudiments

An approach to web design

The core technologies of the world wide web, HTML and CSS, provide an embarrassment of riches for an author to design and publish a web page that presents words and images to their audience. With the same technologies an author can also create a web page that gathers input from a visitor, does useful work, and responds. The most rudimentary web page, if created with a modicum of care, is accessible to visitors who do not use their eyes to read nor their hands to touch, to visitors with poor internet connectivity and to those using computing devices with scant resources.

This essay proposes a list of rudiments, the base properties of web pages. Every web page naturally has these rudiments, which come practically for free when the HTML has been designed with basic respect for the medium. Indeed it takes a special effort to erase them.

The rudiments:

  1. A web page is semantically clear.
  2. A web page is legible.
  3. A web page is modifiable.
  4. A web page is resilient to failure.

How can these rudiments be erased? Here are some ways. A web page can be created as a blank husk that functions only to download a JavaScript, which then generates the page programmatically. If the visitor’s device does not run the script or there is a syntax error, the page will remain blank; this erases rudiments 2 and 4. A page can be created from a so-called “<div> soup” of elements with no semantic meaning. It can be styled to look correct, but it will be illegible to users of assistive technologies; this erases rudiments 1 and 2. The <canvas> element is a structural void in a page that can be made accessible with enough effort by the author, but it can never be modified by the visitor; this erases rudiment 3. In extreme cases of overuse, the <canvas> element erases all four rudiments.

How can the rudiments be secured? A web page can use <main>, <nav>, <article>, and the many other semantically meaningful elements to clearly describe its structure. It can be concise and somewhat readable without styling applied to it. It can be created without the assumption that JavaScript will be available on the visitor’s device. Static content can be sent to visitors pre-assembled so that even the most basic of user agents will be able to display something legible.

Web pages having this list of rudiments can still be disagreeable to some of their visitors. The difference is that when the page has these rudiments, the visitor can do something about it. Unnecessary images, unwisely chosen web fonts, horrid styling, and nefarious JavaScript can all be disabled or overridden by a visitor who does not want to experience the page as the author intended. When something goes wrong on the visitor’s device, on the web server, or anywhere in between, the web page still has a chance to remain useful. If the visitor has a special accessibility need then it can often be met without the author having to commit time or money to the solution. None of this requires that web pages be simpler, uglier, or less featureful, only more respectful of the visitors for whom they exist in the first place.

This author believes that web pages are often complex but need not be, and many could be reduced to a more rudimentary state without adversely affecting their ability to serve their immediate purpose – in fact many web pages could better serve their purpose for more of their visitors more of the time if they were reduced to a more rudimentary state. Others need not agree with these assertions. Whatever an author decides for their page, their choices can be altered by a visitor in disagreement, so long as the rudiments are not erased by carelessness, or worse, by deliberate action.

A web page belongs to its visitors. This is a unique and valuable quality of the medium that we authors must do our part to protect.