In a comment on Roger’s post about fixed and liquid layouts, Cameron wrote:
This issue seems to generate a heated debate every time it’s mentioned. I imagine one could pen an article with the headline “Fluid or fixed?” and nothing else, and yet dozens of comments would inevitably appear.
But rather than use that title, I couldn’t resist borrowing a pun from Andy, prompted by a post from Scrivs called What Resolution Will You Design for in 2007? (a classic example of the fallacy of many questions).
Now, firstly, we need to draw a distinction between monitor size and browser size. In other words, the difference between screen resolution and the viewport size:
There’s a real danger in thinking that “the numbers speak for themselves.” Numbers don’t speak for themselves; numbers need to be interpreted.
The numbers clearly show that monitor sizes and resolutions are getting bigger. The most common interpretation of that is
more and more people have bigger displays. But an equally valid interpretation of the numbers is
the range of displays is bigger than ever. It’s a subtle but important distinction. One interpretation focuses solely on the size of the highest numbers; the other interpretation focuses on the range of all the numbers.
The way I see it, the range is growing at both ends of the spectrum. Yes, desktop monitors are getting wider (though that doesn’t mean that viewports get any wider above a certain size) but handheld and gaming devices are likely to remain at the lower end of the scale. The Wii, for example, has a resolution of 640 x 480.
Mind you, the iPhone turns the whole question on its head with its scalable browsing. At MacWorld, Steve Jobs demonstrated this by visiting the New York Times, an unashamedly wide fixed-width website. On the Apple site, Wikipedia—a liquid layout— is shown fitting nicely on the display. The iPhone deals with both. Still, rather than letting my liquid layouts scale down to the iPhone’s width, I should probably start putting a
min-width value on the
Speaking of which…
A common argument against using liquid layouts is the issue of line lengths. On the face of it, this seems like a valid argument. Readability is supremely important and nobody likes over-long line lengths. But it’s not quite as simple as that when it comes to readability on screen compared to print, as Richard noted:
Surprisingly, I find short line lengths tiresome on screen; I don’t really subscribe to the empirical prescription of 7–10 words per line for comfortable reading. Most novels have 10–15 words per line and I think the upper region of that range is more appropriate for screen.
In any case, the idea that liquid layouts automatically means long line lengths on large screens is, I feel, a misconception. The problem is that a lot of the examples of liquid layouts aren’t very good and line lengths do expand without limit. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In my opinion, the most important addition to Internet Explorer 7 is the
max-width property. It means that we can now really start to look at creating fluid layouts within defined parameters, as demonstrated by Cameron in Andy’s book. In fact, I think we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in creating seamless adaptive layouts (and, more importantly, seamless adaptive page elements) using the dual power of
That still leaves Internet Explorer 6 and below. Should they get unbounded fluid layouts or should they get a fixed width fallback? The second is certainly an option using conditional comments, which is the Microsoft-approved way of dealing with rendering inconsistencies. I think that the lack of support for
max-width certainly falls into that category. Call it transcending CSS if you will; I call it routing around damage on the designer’s network.
I want to hear what you have to say… if you’ve got something new to say. Let’s not just rehash the same old arguments that would inevitably appear had I simply asked “Fluid or fixed?”