Margaret Turner, Computer Based Art and Design:Electronic Media, University of the Sunshine Coast, Locked Bag No 4. Maroochydore, Qld,4558, Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org
At this moment in time it is a challenge for teachers of web design to present to students, a set of discreet design principles that can apply across the board. The web design environment is immature and in flux; specifications and software editions change almost daily. A lecturer can not know what might be useful to designers in this arena in 1 year, let alone 3 when the students graduate and enter a career. This paper argues for two important design principles that are enduring. The first regards the design of an information structure to underlie a site and the second looks at the necessity to design for an inclusive access.
Are there enduring design principles that can be extracted and taught at this early and chaotic moment of the emerging electronic media design environment?
Electronic media is a complex and fluid zone of clustered interests with conflicting agendas, poor knowledge distribution, high expectation and constrained supply. The many players include standards writers, national and international telcos, internet service providers, proprietary software manufacturers, information technology experts, graphic designers and, of course, the users. They are participants in a formative process that is an educator's nightmare. Is there anything of lasting worth to be taught when the genre is inchoate?
It is apparent that the medium asks for very different considerations to that of print media. While there are cross-overs from print, like the use of type face, colour and white space, the differences are substantial, enough to say the Web is a completely different design environment. These differences concern the fundamentals of media format, the context, display medium, the apparatuses of continuity and sense-making. The format of the web "window" is wide rather than long and deep rather than flat. It lends itself to a distributed rather than a hierarchical structure.
There are recognisable traits that assert their legitimacy as enduring principles. The foremost are concerned with the information that underlies display. In order to be useful to humans, information needs to be understood by them. It needs to move from data to knowledge. This transformation of information is critical to successful communication and thus design. The design of a web page needs to foreground and enhance the connections and interactions of the data. I would argue that as a first principle, a web site designer must start with a plan which structures information in ways that allows for connection, interaction and interference that is meaning or "sense-making" (Dervin,1999). Out of this information organisation evolves both the navigation and the interface design. The second key and abiding principle is to design a page for access by the maximum number of users. The Internet web site is in a formative process and it needs to find a form that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Access to digital culture is emerging as the important political issue of the new millennium.
This paper elaborates these proposed principles individually by charting the key factors that constitute the problematic or terrain in which they work and demonstrates how they operate as enduring principles. Illustrations of the principles at work are provided with diagrams of exemplar web site design.
A web site designer must start by structuring the information content in ways that allow for connection, interaction and interference. This principle concerns the format of a web site: the structure, sense-making, navigation and interface.
Tim Berners Lee birthed the World Wide Web to the Internet in 1994. At this very early stage, web authoring was taken up by information technologists. They were not visual designers but they were hot with code; they were young, they could see the potential and they were looking for a niche in the nerd world in which to make a mark and make a dollar. They took vanilla HTML and pushed it hard to make it do some pretty cool things. They are responsible for the spectacular improvements made in the standards and they continued to push for still more to happen. But youth and vision only take a new thing so far. The shape of web pages today displays a lack of visual understanding and thus an incapacity to push the boundaries of design as the boundaries of code were pushed.
It was a strong-stomached graphic designer who in those early days would leave the "What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get" (WYSIWYG) software, Illustrator or Freehand and Pagemaker or Quark to place and design structure in the html code environment. The WWW was new, uncertain in its potential and clients saw it as a simple thing that any kid could do for $A10 an hour. No designer in their right mind would want to compete with that. And things change and grow. Everywhere now graphic designers are offering web design facilities to their clients. And customers are getting to know that a good web site is not ancillary to their advertising. Web site required capital investment; money for set up and more for committed maintenance. A web page is now acknowledged as a sophisticated visual product.
There are many clusters of interest, beside graphic designers, however, who have influence on the way the Internet/World Wide Web design environment is growing. W3Consortium represents one of these clusters. W3C are an international industry consortium, jointly hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science [MIT/LCS] in the United States; the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique [INRIA] in Europe; and the Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus in Japan. It is funded by Member organizations, and is vendor neutral, working with the global community to initiate and establish mark up language standards [HREF1] These languages are designed for display not only on traditional monitors but also on palmtops, mobile phones, and for audile or even braille print out for those with sensory impairment. They are defining the leading edge of web media.
A second cluster of interests represents the browser manufacturers who are primarily in business to make profit. Their agenda is competition and commercial success. For these cogent reasons, the proprietary browsers from this group lag behind the W3C in implementation of the latest markup standards. They seek to create custom tags that users with other browsers can not access. In their terms this makes sense, it is good competition.
The software manufacturer's cluster is also profit oriented. They have a market of design and non-design professionals, with and without technological skills, who need to create highly functional web pages and they want the WYSIWYG software to do it now. Its a pretty impossible task. The resultant software that meets this demand is buggy, clunky and generates some awful code. It also seduces amateurs into adding functionality to a web site that is accessible only by the few.
The Telephone companies and Internet Service Providers rest uneasily in the mix here competing for bandwidth, data flow and money generally. Their attention is diverted by obsession with the game of international size and rivalry and is not on providing access to everyone, least of all wide band access.
Last, but not least, are the users; an uncertain cluster with no core agenda. Their needs are individual and diverse. The motivators for users to get online are varied; from the anxiety to not be left behind to very real possibilities that online commercial activity can provide wealth for some in the near future. The online capacity of users likewise ranges the continuum, from beginner to cyberphreak, but importantly for its impact on design, most of these users are not driving state of the art equipment nor are they connected by intravenous cables to the Internet.
A networked online world of some shape, almost certainly not utopian, is probably inevitable. If one reads the wishful hype, the world appears to be moving rapidly to a utopian online life of "unrestricted and instantaneous access to information regardless of physical location" A world where the communications between people will "increasingly be mediated by machines" (Rodowick,1999). But will it be soon?
According to a recent survey by Yahoo (Rangar,1998), The United States has only 25 percent take up of Internet access and many of these users browse with text based browsers. Young Americans are fervent game players in MUDS and MOOS, which are all text based environments. Australia is close behind the States in Internet Access take up with 24 percent. In Europe the coverage drops dramatically. The German Internet activity is seven per cent, in Britain six percent and two percent in France (Rangar, 1998). The rest of the world is somewhere way behind Europe. China is the new great web hope, it beckons with huge promise. China is set to grow from 1.2 million to 10 million subscribers in the next four years (Zingg,1998). Another impediment to the dream of a networked utopia is bandwidth - instantaneous connection anytime, anywhere, requires networked broad bandwidth everywhere. Gartner Group research shows that the rollout of broad band connectivity is, and will be, slow because of the need for governments to make substantial capital investment. At a best estimate, the average Australian, US and European telecommuter and consumer web surfer will be stuck with today's speed limits for the next for or five years. They predict that by the year 2002, 20 percent of Australia will be in reach of direct satellite link or cable connection and most of those in the city of course (Hayward, 1998). That's not even looking at the rest of the world. Some will have the luxury of choice, one of two cables or satellite, while too many will still have nothing at all.
With so many players involved across the spectrum, what is the consumer response to all this? Surveys of average internet shopping customers - average, being those who use the internet for pragmatic retail business rather than the enthusiastic early adopters - states that 42 percent of web sites currently fail at customer service [HREF2] and a staggering 62 per cent of people using shopping sites give up before they find what they want (Horey,1998). These average customers don't measure the service they get relative to what is possible on the Internet, they want the kind of service they get in a real world shop. They have no patience for unanswered email queries and links that don't work. They are willing but they only shop where the service is good. Walls - the structure.
Out of this milling of dreaming, of possibility and necessity, the web designer needs to aim for a site that is user friendly and conveys the intent of the client successfully to the customer base. The crucial first step in Web design is to focus on the structure rather than the display of content. A common trap for web designers is to go straight to the design of the wallpaper before walls are built or, to extend the metaphor, before doors and windows are positioned. A structure and context that shapes the content are the web site walls and the appropriate exit links are the doors and windows. As in building a house, the pattern or colour of the wallpaper becomes meaningless where there is no articulating framework.
It is significant as well as convenient that the latest versions of markup languages have now been divided into structural and display elements. Print designers have always dealt with the structure underlying design but page layout is not the same as web space structuring. This needs to be made explicit because this structure - shape and number of walls, placement of the windows and doors - is an important factor in our making sense of content. The sense-making structure was so much part of the print medium that it did not need conscious consideration. These print structure terms are instantly familiar - book, magazine, flier, covers, pages, titles, index, headings, chapters, exposition, conclusion, paragraph, precis, summary, et al. We are in the process or finding or making the equivalents for Electronic Media. Words like 'site map' and 'front page' have emerged but their meaning is not yet clear. Is 'site map' a table of contents at the beginning, an index at the back or something else? The pervasive metaphor of web "page" does not assist designers in thinking through this new opportunity. When we publish to the screen we leave behind the A4 paper priorities of top left and work within a field. A field allows for multiple points of interest. Or maybe the web page is a stage.
"Information, meaning and understanding lie predominantly in the connections not in the words themselves". (Stringer & Hamden,1997) In order for it to become communicable, information needs to be organised into a meaningful form, in ways that make clear the relationships between its parts. Further, the way the information is clustered and linked will shape the way visitors make sense of the information within the site. Figure 1 demonstrates how organisation of information can shape its meaning. By default, our print reliant (Western) culture privileges the top left hand side of the text object, so that an item entered at the top left hand is seen to be the more important. It enters a hierarchy of sense-making.
In these two flow chart designs for a University web site a principle decision has been made to divide the information in two large segments to suit the perceived nature of the organisation. The name of the box on the left of the two second layer boxes of both flow charts, could be interpreted as having higher priority. The first flow chart (i),has the student box on the left, the second flow chart(ii), the staff box is on the left. They each establish a context within which a visitor would make sense of content, the first suggests that students are the priority concern, the second, staff. Neither flowchart is right or best, each simply affects the construction of meaning of the information conveyed and would thus affect the design of navigation and interface.
For the web interface we need to find appropriate new ways of mapping. We need to construct a structure where the relationships between the parts are made clear and where individual items can be seen as equally important rather than sitting within an hierarchy. Flow charts are being used extensively and, as an organisational structure, have powerful mapping or charting characteristics. They fall short, however, of the needs of a web site. The 'flow' of information tends to stick to established paths and is easiest to navigate in the obvious and downwards direction. It is "gridded thought ... confined to horizontal plane ... limited ... to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points" (Deleuze and Guattari quoted in Massumi, 1992 p6.). There is resistance in the structure of a flow chart to connections being made by chance.The box at the bottom of the tree is not in touch with the box at the top and, probably, vice versa, nor is it in ready connection with boxes elsewhere in the structure.
What kinds of structures might be more appropriate to the task. A structure is a description of a set of relationships at a moment in time. It charts conventions, patterns and expectations. To be useful it has both fixed and temporal qualities, that is, it is reliable and it is open to new usages. Deleuze and Guattari describe a distributed field which they call a Lake (Deleuze., Guattari, 1996, P351-423 ). In this distributed structure paths need not follow established lines of communication but can be linked by proximity and/or flavour and/or affinity and/or influence and/or difference. "(O)ne can rise up at any point and move to any other". (Deleuze&Guattari quoted in Massumi,1992, p6)
Figure 2: The lake (a, b & c).
In the lake (Figure 2) each of the elements, no matter how disparate in flavour or separated by distance, are each in connection with all the other elements at once. One can see this as a diffuse, less focused field of seeing in which more than the obvious is present. When "i" moves into the lake (a) "i" is close to "a holden motor car" the colour "blue" and a cup or a smell of coffee. A person and a tree are further away but still connected, likewise 'A' and "64". Move "i" to another location (b) and while "i" moves out of strong connection with the holden towards a sneeze, there in no disconnection with any of the other nodes. If the users attention changes from "i" to "64" (c) then a different clustering of influence and proximity and affinity is discovered. All the while the user is alert to the peripheral. Flows between information can remain at the same intensity each way. Each link will take the user along paths of typical connection, but there remains more opportunity for the personally useful trajectory through the information on the site.
"1&2 Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other and must be. This is very different from the tree to root, which plots a point, fixes and order." (Deleuze&Guattari, 1996, p7)The web interface and its three dimensional field is an ideal place in which to construct complex paths to knowledge building that more closely echo the human thought style. The human style on thought is not linear, it has been forced into linear patterns by the available documentary media. In order to take advantage of this complexity a variety of charting methods would be used for the process of organising the information. The aim of these structural mappings is to tease out the complex connecting pathways, the relationships between clusters of data and the interference patterns (or disinformation) set up by the organisational structures while maintaining a clear sense of a coherent whole. A web example of lake modelling is Ted Nelson's Birthday Card designed by Roy Stringer and Roger Hamden.[HREF3]
Drawing the flow charts and mind maps of information clustering assists the next part of web construction, designing the windows and doors, or the links. These are the narrative device that are the equivalence of the pages and book bindings in print media. We make the intent of the web site clear or obscure, make it easy or hard work with the clustering and placement of navigation links on the page.
Links to an information cluster perhaps need to be grouped together on the web page. The structural charts indicate the different families of information - say 'sales', 'about us', 'newsletter'. Currently, it is typical web design policy for links to be simply grouped one under the other on the left of the page. This list does not contain any extra information as to meaning. Spread the three families of links over the width of the page and extra information is added. The extra information is 'these links are not the same'.
Figure 4 - 1. An undifferentiated list, 2. Clustered and spread families of links
In Figure 4 first column (1) gives a listing of links without clustering or indicative priorities, the second (2) begins to cluster but link names tell little of what lies at the other end of the link. There is still a default prioritising of the left hand side of the screen but increasingly it is becoming evident that circular distribution themes are being used to provide links to areas that are equal in weight (ABC children's page/Warner Bros) Further meaning is added if the links indicate what it is that is likely to be encountered at the other end of the link. In a building, for instance, a door indicates a different kind of exit to a window. Outside doors are different to internal doors. The structural chart clearly indicates what will be the most obvious content of a link, this needs to be conveyed to the user with a link name or image that indicates the flavour of that which is to come.
Figure 5. Link names that indicate what is at the other end.
In Figure 5 the third (3) indicates clustering and segmentation of the page into category areas - the left is about the shop and what it sells, core business. The right hand is event connected but not the core business of the site. Below is the information about the enterprise. Additionally the link names seek to warm the web visitor up to what is at the other end of the link. They actively invite following. Amaze Limited [HREF3] are working to devise new ways of site navigation. They talk about discovery engines not search engines and transparent user interfaces. They are working on the "creation of intuitive navigation systems for a range of products, from interactive TV handsets to CD-ROMs of the human immune system". Their navihedron is being used in the construction of the Western Australian transport website. [HREF4]. After much workshopping with customers, the designer Paul Houghton arrived at 12 themes that were relevant to their customer base rather than the institution's organisational structure. "The identification of these themes is one part of the picture, these are then arranged around an icosahedron. The 12 points access 96 possible pages rather than going through 2 or 3 layers of hierarchy - as a result no subject is more than three steps away."(Bell,1998).
The walls are built, the navigation designed, now its time to think of what things look like inside, to think of the wallpaper. Again there is a need to first think structure rather than detail. At the interface level, the structure is the context. When someone reads a book, they know where they are. A book is a concrete object that can be held in the hands, whether read at the bus stop, on the bus or at the kitchen table on reaching home. The context of a book is firm and the reader well held. They are within the boundaries of two covers and there is an index to consult if they get lost. The internet is a very different environment. It is not concrete it is subjective, it is not even visible. The realms of the electronic reside in a bunch of 1's and 0's which, with electrical current have the potential to be here or there or nowhere.
It is a designer's task to provide 'hand holds' for the surfer. These handholds can be colour, background design, motif, a visual metaphor. Importantly, they need to be standard across the site to reinforce the visitor's sense of being in one place and to enhance the quality of holding that allays anxiety. Colour can be used both to indicate different streams of navigation and to set the ambience of the site. For example the background of each page is white and each cluster of information is banded with the same colour on the left or along the top. The front page of the site would have a rainbow side band that indicates all areas, or the links would be placed within the appropriate colour boundaries. (example) Early web page makers had a particular fondness for a small GIF used as a wall paper like motif in the background of a page. In my experience this has limited success as it tends to interfere with the information in the foreground. Nonetheless it is a technical possibility with the HTML system and if used sparingly can provide useful ways of clustering information on a page. (Example) Some sites use the combination of corporate colour in the background and distinctive logo to create the look and feel. A card filing system can be a successful visual metaphor, it is used by the Queensland Artworkers Alliance web site [HREF5] Once past the front page, most of the site has the same metaphor which doubles as a navigation system. A visual metaphor needs to enhance the underlying information of the site and a suitable metaphor may emerge spontaneously from the flow charting process. An inappropriate metaphor will not assist in the sense-making of the information. To conclude this section, the designer needs a clear understanding of the information in the site and its interrelatedness in order for the relationships between information and display to be congruent, effective and communicable. They need to organise data in categories that add to meaning, and design interface, links and names that likewise add to meaning. No matter what is forthcoming in extra functionality within the mark up languages the key need of users is a structure that communicates meaning. This gives this principle its status as a key and enduring principle
The second key and abiding principle is to aim to design a web site to be accessible to the maximum number of users. The Internet web site is in a formative process and it needs to find a shape that is inclusive rather than exclusive, that potentially reaches everyone.
Access is a political as well as a design issue. The political problematics of access are huge. The Internet is being canvassed as the marketplace of the future. A marketplace is where the action is. One needs to be there and circulating to make (by chance) the connections and to participate in the opportunities that emerge. The Internet will be not just the place where information is shaped and distributed, a place of commercial or social exchange, it will also be key in capital flow and in the way we are governed. Banks and sharemarkets are rapidly moving to digital transactions, banks for instance encourage consumers to bank by telephone by placing an impost on cross-counter transactions. To those penalised, this move to on line banking may seem problematic. On the plus side of the networked society ledger, there are dreams of a democracy, where issues concerning the people are debated in online forums and where politicians are briefed on issues by their networked constituents. Such forums are already in trial in the US. This is representative government.
Access to this marketplace is the key issue in World Wide Web development. Currently, the distribution of access to the Internet is uneven and exclusive. If one lives in the biggest cities of the most populous states of the world's wealthiest nations, speaks English and is employed by government or multinational institutions, then one is likely to have the privilege of easy access. The number of people within this category world wide is tiny. According to statistics from Euro Marketing.com [HREF6] 157 millions world wide have gross access to the internet, meaning email and/or www through direct connection or by modem. (EMC,1999) This figure represents just 2.5 percent of a world population that is encroaching on 6 billions. The standards of connectivity and access amongst this group is uneven, but what of the rest? Without access to the web window of opportunity, they have no possibility to participate in the shaping of the commercial, social, governmental and informational networks and exchange. "(T)he question of access is one of the principal political questions of digital culture" (Rodowick,1999).
American law makers have legislated that the internet is a public access space [HREF7] and Australian Policy [HREF8] is set to follow the US lead and this is where if affects the designer directly. A public access space must cater for those with disabilities. On the Web impairment or disablement is not only of the physical and sensory kind. It is also about inadequacy of online access or technophobia or cultural sensitivity. Putting ramps and lifts in the public space equates to designing for the slender ribbons of access that half-heartedly penetrate the wildernesses, not the luxury of double cabling our cities enjoy. When potential customers are in the Australian Outback or in China (10 million by 2003),(Zingg, 1998) then their troublesome access lines are an impairment designers ignore at their client's peril.
What this diversity of access indicates is there are clusters of users of the Internet whose needs are very different. The most privileged cluster includes the early adopters with their large capacity machines fitted with the latest versions of software and the broadest band connections to the Internet they can afford. They want everything and they want it now, but they are not typical of the user profile. The largest cluster are those who connect to the Internet from the backboned office or via (big) city phonelines. They include business people in mobile offices, researchers and surfers looking for fun and easy shopping. They would like high functionality, if they can get video, that's good but they are more interested in seeing what the site contains. If video and sound mean long download time then they will go to another site. With metered online connection, lengthy download time is a tax on their work and pleasure. They want the goods and they want service, fast.
A third cluster are those who arrive on-line, via libraries and other public access points and the remote access users, remote meaning outside the exclusive zone of privileged proximity to the Centre, wealth, employment and language. They are looking for information primarily, and to join the privileged community of on line users, they too are counting the minutes of time online. Again large images and any other functionality outside of standard browser configurations, that add to the download, are a penalty. These different connection standards vary from modest to grainy. It is tempting to build for the first cluster and give the web site latest version plug-ins, sumptuous graphics and video, but there is a significant access ability gap between the first cluster and those in the other two. Designing high functionality sites for the first cluster means potential customers are turned away. A significant number of people using the WWW are physically and sensorally disabled. People with physical and sensory disabilities are going to have a higher than average ownership of computers than is the norm in the whole population. This is because computers give them access to information and a way to communicate with others, anywhere, access that is often difficult for them in the everyday physical world. But by far the biggest potential for the Web are all those who, for whatever reason - they are technologically challenged, they don't speak the language or they don't have a phone or even electricity - are not connected to the Internet.
A number of organisations, among them W3org,[HREF1]are working to implement standard markup languages to enable web content to be rendered in different ways, for instance audile screen readers for visually impaired and those accessing the web via mobile phone. Given these emerging standards it is an easier task for the designers of that all important web wallpaper to take into account the output device in order that the content is not tediously meaningless when rendered in different output formats. Take for instance the use of left-hand navigation bars, which when put to audile browsers become impossible. "At best, they impose a significant performance overhead on audio-based visitors, as the contents of the navigational bar is rendered over and over, with each new page. At worst, they can convey the false impression that navigational attempts have been unsuccessful. After all, for the first minute or so, every page sounds exactly like every other page! There's simply no immediately perceptible feedback about the success or failure of a given navigational event." [HREF9]
In order to design accessible web sites, the designer must research for whom it is they are building the structures. Define the target audience, and get to know, not just what they want but also their online access ability and their cultural preferences. Access is about making the Web easy, a place where anyone can belong.
When talking access we are again talking at the level of the wallpaper (see Principle 1). When we design for access the structure of the information remains the same, the wallpaper must change to reflect the output bandwidth/device. Much as we might paint a room on the cold side of the house yellow and one on the hot side blue. The structure does not alter (though that might be desirable) but the environs can change by a surface application of information. What for instance will a surfer make of web content if they access it via a TV, palm top personal organiser, a mobile phone or a wrist watch. While we may commonly think of surfing the Web as taking place on a desktop computer with a 15in high res monitor, the future creators have visions of accessing the net in more leisurely circumstances. The style sheets exist for different display options, mobile and voice page viewing technologies and electronic agents such as indexing robots, what is needed is the willingness for designers to implement options to suit all media outcomes. [HREF10]. It is good practice to provide flash pages that allow users to choose between versions that suit their internet configuration - ie text based, audile, non-style sheets, non-frames etc and be sure to provide the different versions. Web pages look different on different browser and different platforms. Its important to check a draft web design on a variety of platforms and different resolution monitor screens, including portables.
When designing for accessibility we need to use the functionality of the mark up language and the strength of organisational design rather than images to bring the pages alive. Gratuitous imaging on the net even if the bandwidth is copious, is not a useful design path. The world of print media has become massively image based, perhaps because 'we can', but the power of communication out of this visual richness has not necessarily been enhanced. There are those who would even argue that the visual complexity has done quite the reverse. It is important that designers do not just transfer this visual complexity directly to the Web stage. An image is needed only if it adds to the content, the navigation metaphor or the context. No matter how good compression gets, the cost per use ratio of downloading large images does not compute and will not - probably for at least the next 10 years. (Hayward, 98)
Without boundaries there is no differentiation only formlessness. Designers who use their capacities to make sites that cater for the mass internet user base will find the characteristic ÔlimitationsÕ are in fact what gives the unique flavour of the internet a concrete expression. Thus we shape the web when we design for everyone not the few; design display for multiple media outcomes; supply alternative versions of site; use images only to enhance the meaning of the site and always keep an eye on the download size. By building in accessibility as a key principle, designers do what they are good at, innovative design, which will leave the amateurs baulked at the gate, unable to meet the challenge, bewailing the inadequacies of band width and user internet configuration. Accessibility as a second core principle is what will sort the design professionals from those who aren't.
I have argued that there are two enduring principles emerging from the nascent medium of Electronic media. Principles that can and need to be taught even while the medium is in flux. Design of information is the first principle because without it and without a clear context, the information on the web site does not transform into meaningful communicable knowledge. And secondly we must design for accessibility because without it the transfer of information is partial and exclusive. These principles will establish, the graphic design professional's web credentials as providers of quality design that enhances meaning.
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