Sustainable Web DesignNothing lasts forever. Sooner or later clothes wear out, homes need repainting, and kitchen pantries need restocking. Everything has a shelf life, and that includes your web site. Due to the dynamic nature of the Internet and constantly evolving technologies, eventually that shiny new web site will need some remodeling.

That said, there are a number of ways in which you can future-proof your web site next time it is redesigned. Doing so won’t mean your site will never again need to be revamped, but you just might lengthen its lifespan by a few years.

The most obvious sustainability tool available to us today is the judicious use of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). By separating presentation from content, we can create a web site whose design can be easily changed in the future without a great deal of trouble. An excellent working example of this practice can be found at CSS Zen Garden. Click on any of the design names in the right column and you’ll see a complete, instant visual redesign while the content remains static. All of the style information is contained in one small file which can be easily changed. This is possible only when content and presentation information are kept completely separate from one another.

Another important way to sustain your site is to follow good coding practices, use proper syntax, make appropriate use of markup language, and adhere to current web standards. This set of standards exists for good reason. Imagine a country without rules where “anything goes”. With no standards in place, it doesn’t take long for mayhem to develop and things to spiral out of control. The same thing happens on the web.

Using include files for areas of your site that are repeated on every page not only saves time, but also makes future updates much easier. PHP is a great tool for repeating content such as headers, footers, navigation and contact info across multiple pages.

Now what about changes to content? I believe that the use of a database is essential to creating a sustainable site. By moving content and links out of HTML pages and into database tables, a site becomes much more sustainable and measurably easier to maintain.

One of the biggest mistakes I see amateur web designers make is in regard to file naming conventions, and it’s one that can severely hinder the usability and sustainability of a site. Here’s a short list of simple rules to follow when naming files for the web (or anywhere really):

  1. Always use lower-case letters a through z.
  2. Never use spaces in file names.
  3. If you want the effect of a space, use a hyphen.
  4. Name files contextually for the sake of end-users and search engines. Name files what they are.
  5. In short, never use any characters besides a-z, 0-9, and the hyphen when naming files and folders/directories.

Last but not least and this is important: what happens to your site if your web developer is not around to take care of it next year? People go out of business every day for a variety of reasons, and it’s important to take that into consideration where your web site is concerned. It might sound a bit unpleasant, but if I happen to die in my sleep tonight, your site shouldn’t suffer. I’d like it to continue on successfully, without giving your next web person a giant migraine trying to figure out my train of thought when I built it. Carefully commenting the code files of your site will help ensure that any developer in the future will be able to open the files and carry on without missing a beat.

I’m certain this brief list could be added to, but these are the highlights to keep in mind for increasing the shelf life of your next web site. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to stock that pantry again…

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