A List Too Far Apart?

On the off-chance that you’ve spent the last few days living under a rock, let me be the first to tell you that A List Apart has been redesigned.

There has been no shortage of opinions expressed about the new look. Like the old saying goes, opinions are like assholes: some are more well formed than others. No, wait… everybody’s got one. Yeah, that’s it.

Assuming that the internet won’t collapse from the weight of having one more opinion piece piled onto it, I’m going to weigh in with my mine.

What is it that it is, this opinion of mine? Well, this is what it is: my opinion that I have (that is to say, which is mine) is mine.

My opinion that belongs to me is as follows.

Ahem. Ahem hem hem.

This is how it goes. The next thing I’m going to say is my opinion. Ready?

I really like the new design.

Oh, you want more? You want all the sordid, seedy details, do you? Alright, you scavengers… how about that typography? It’s classical. It’s beautiful. It’s elegant.

Elegance is something that permeates the visual design: elegant use of whitespace, an elegant colour scheme, elegant rollovers, and just check out the elegant issue number bug.

But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?), I can’t say I find the rigid layout very elegant.

Here we go again; yet another fixed, liquid, elastic debate (sounds more like a topic for baby diapers than web design). Run away now!

Still here? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I have a problem with the fixed 1024 pixel wide layout of A List Apart. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that they should have stuck with 800 pixels. Arguments have already started raging about this with some people fighting for 800 and others campaigning for 1024. To me, the whole debate seems pointless.

Arguing about 640, 800 or 1024 pixels is like arguing about whether Pepsi tastes better than Coke when really, a nice glass of water would be much more refreshing. The numbers game is a red herring. A big fixed-width red herring.

When you nail a layout to a set number of pixels, you’re bound to alienate some people. It’s inevitable. The best you can do is try to alienate the least number of people possible. No doubt this is what the folks at ALA are attempting. They know that their audience, web designers, probably have nice big wide monitors so they’ll probably appreciate a nice big wide site.

But I’m a web designer. I have a nice big wide monitor but I like to keep my browser open at about 800 pixels (although I enjoy having the window taller than it is wide). That’s my choice.

Now, if a site is 800 pixels or less wide, I don’t get horizontal scrollbars. But it’s not true to say that the site is accommodating my needs. It’s just a coincidence that the website happens to fit within my browser window.

For a site to truly accommodate me or any other visitor, there shouldn’t be any content that requires horizontal scrolling to view. Oh, and I also want readable line lengths no matter how wide my browser is.

A tall order? Certainly. Liquid designs are hard, that’s no secret. That’s one of the reasons why you don’t see very many of them. And when you do find them, they are often badly implemented. But the rewards gained from successfully creating an elegant liquid design are proportionally greater.

Liquid designs aren’t always the right choice though. Context, context, context. That should be what drives the decision.

Now, every site is different but there is a bit of a formula for deciding between fixed and liquid: count the columns. If you want to create a single column design like the Web Standards Awards, I think fixed is probably the way to go (or rather, elastic, but that’s another story).

If you want to create a four column design like say, A List Apart, liquid fits the bill. By employing some concertina padding, you can ensure grace and readability at almost any size.

Jon has beaten me to the punch, but I too was somewhat concerned to read Jason’s remarks to Andy:

"ALA has always tried to be one of those sites at the front of the pack. We don’t support 800 x 600 anymore, nor do we 640 x 480. Do you? People flipped when sites stopped supporting 640 x 480… now no one says a word. Things change. Trust me, you are going to see more sites stretching out their legs and putting their feet up."

There’s nothing trailblazing about using a larger fixed width. Unless, that is, your definition of trailblazing includes those Flash sites that pop up a new browser window that then expands to fill the whole monitor. I’m sure those designers thought they were leading the pack.

There is a tension that exists between the designer’s preference and the user’s. There is a line that, when crossed, results in one pissed off user.

But enough. This is starting to sound bitchy and that’s not my intention at all. There’s been enough snarkiness about the new ALA design and, like I said, I really like the design. I would just like to offer some constructive criticism. To that end…

I’m not asking Jason and Eric to rebuild A List Apart for me (although a nice width-switcher a la Simplebits would be nice). Lord knows Eric has enough on his plate as it is. Instead, I have a very modest proposal:

Give me an ID on the body tag, something like <body id="alistapart">. I’ll then put my money where my mouth is and come up with a user stylesheet that frees the site from its prison of pixels.

Then I can read my favourite article of all time at whatever width I want.

Have you published a response to this? :