Designing Online Zines for Fun and Profit

written by guest blogger Melanie Fletcher

Heya -- I'm Melanie Fletcher. In addition to being a science fiction writer/fencer/quilter/bellydancer/herder of cats, I'm also the webmistress for the quarterly speculative fiction zine Helix.

I wish I could say that I got the job after a continent-spanning talent search by the editors for the hottest zine designer around. The truth is, the senior editor talked about starting a zine in his SFF.Net newsgroup and wondered what it should look like. Being a helpful sort, I opened Dreamweaver, slapped together a page very similar to the one you see today and said, "How about something like this?"

Of such things are webmistress positions born. Despite early comments that the top graphic looked like an Asia album cover, I'm still pleased with the site design of Helix. There have been some changes, of course; the original rough draft had a two-column layout, which was changed to a three-column design so that we could put donation info and a PayPal button in the right-hand column (yes, we ask readers to donate money if and when they can -- it helps support our brilliant writers) while keeping story links in the left-hand column and actual content in the center column.

Once we all agreed on the general layout, I went to work on the zine's look and feel. First and foremost, it had to be user-friendly. Even now, a fair number of people don't like to read off monitors because it gives them eyestrain; this, plus the fact that I had ergonomics drilled into me as a fledging web designer, prompted me to come up with a layout that was 1) simple to use and 2) easy to read.

The "simple to use" part was a doddle. I had a fair amount of experience designing GUIs and writing user guides for online tools, so I already had a good grasp of how the average English reader worked with a computer screen -- left to right, top to bottom. So I put the Menu bar with links such as Home, Contributors, Submissions, Staff, About Us, Privacy Policy and Contact Us spang at the top of the page, right underneath the masthead graphic. These links are at the top because they 1) go to pages with basic information about the magazine and its contributors, 2) appear in every issue, and 3) don't ever change. As a result, I don't have to worry about jiggering the layout each issue to make sure that people who don't have cinema-sized monitors can read the page without horizontal scrolling. Besides, we have tracking code in the site HTML that tells us how often various pages are accessed; if you're a writer, you won't be surprised to learn that the Submissions link gets some of the highest hits in each issue.

Along the left side of each page is the Contents bar; this contains links to the issue's fiction, poetry, columns and editorials. The Contents bar lets you jump around the zine without having to return to the index page (my motto is, why induce extra carpal tunnel syndrome if you don't have to?).

So that's "simple to use" taken care of -- what about "easy to read"? Well, you may notice that Helix uses a very simple color palette -- black, white, grey and red. I could have gone with something more splashy, but I picked those colors for a reason -- they look the same on practically any monitor, browser and platform. So the zine's bordering columns are black with white or red text. The central column, where the meat of the zine is featured, is the oldest color scheme in the world -- white background, black text. Ergonomically speaking, black text on a white background or white text on a black background are the best color schemes for reducing eyestrain. Helix provides you with both, because, hey, we care about our readers, dammit.

Helix also doesn't use Flash, ginormous graphics or obnoxious Javascript. Yup, the site looks simple, because the reader is not supposed to be oohing and aahing over the site; rather, the reader is supposed to be enjoying the incredible fiction and poetry in each issue. Rodrigeo Prieto, the cinematographer on Frida, once said, "If I do my job properly, you won't notice the lighting -- your attention is on the story, where it's supposed to be.

That's what I've tried to do with Helix. If you don't even notice the layout, I've done my job.
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Expatriate Chicagoan Melanie Fletcher is a woman of simple tastes — she likes to write, preferably for money. She also draws, quilts, fences, knits, bellydances, and functions on way too little sleep.

Sabredance_sm During the day, she works as a technical writer and web designer, and wears the Web Goddess hat for Helix SF. At night, she turns into SF Writer Girl, and has the SFWA membership card to prove it. Her fiction can be found in anthologies from Circlet Press, Yard Dog Press and DAW Books, as well as online zines such as Quantum Muse and Helix SF; her Helix story "The Padre, the Rabbi and the Devil His Own Self" recently received Honorable Mention in the 2006 Year's Best Science Fiction anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. Her current Yard Dog Press "Double Dog" release, Sabre Dance, is best described as a swashbuckling adventure of "Musketeers meet the Arabian Nights."

Melanie's web site is at: melaniefletcher.com

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