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Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

Alright! It’s time for the final talk of the day at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jen is wrapping up a CSStastic afternoon with her talk Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed. These are my notes…

Ready for another hour of layout in CSS? Well, Jen will be showing no code in this talk. She’s actually nervous about this particular talk. Is she really planning to say “Everything about web design just changed”? That sounds so clickbaity! But she really believes we’re at an inflection point. This may be the sixth such point in the history of the web. One of those points where everything changes and we swap out our techniques.

For the last few years, we’ve been saying that everything changed when mobile came along. But actually, the real fight has been going on for longer than that. It’s the battle between wanting art and dealing with how the web works.

There’s a seminal book called Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel from 1996. In it, he describes the first time he saw the same site in two different browsers. His reaction was panic. The web gave control to the user. David Siegel wanted more control. And that’s how we got spacer gifs and tables for layout.

What are the five major changes in the history of web design?

  1. Simple HTML. There was only one kind of layout: flow layout. There’s no CSS, but the browser is still thinking of everything has having a box. Text takes up as much space as it needs. Images take up as much space as their size. This is flow. There wasn’t much you could do until tables came along. They were created for tabular content but abused for layouts. The “We need art!” crowd used what was available to them at the time. Lots of slicing and dicing.
  2. Flash. It was hard to get HTML tables to work in multiple browsers. Flash seemed like an amazing chance to start over. And we could do things that were previously only possible in CD-ROMs. As a designer, you take an element and place it where you want to go on the stage (the UI tradition that goes all the way back to Xerox PARC). We made some crazy sites, explored a lot of possibilities, and got a lot of control. But the downside was the lack of accessibility. We went back to getting to grips with the web as its own medium. Jeffrey’s book, Designing With Web Standards, was a rallying cry to allow HTML to return to doing what it was meant to.
  3. Fluid Layouts. This was a return to the way the web always behaved—content takes up as much room as it needs to. But this time there’s a certain amount of control over how things are laid out. Still, we pretended that nobody has screens smaller than 640 pixels or bigger than 1024 pixels. We still live with the idea of fluid columns today.
  4. Fixed-Width Layouts. The “We need art!” crowd wanted more control than fluid layouts offered. We pretended that everyone’s screen was at least 640 pixels, or later 800 pixels, or later 1024 pixels.
  5. Responsive Web Design. Unveiled by Ethan at An Event Apart Seattle in 2011: flexible grid; flexible images; media queries. It’s a return to fluid layouts, but the addition of media queries gives us more control. The idea of fluid image was a bit radical. Up until that point, we thought of images as always being their intrinsic size. But something Ethan said that day was “It’s not just about layout.” And it’s true. For the last eight years, it’s been about more than layout. You set out to redesign your website and end up redesigning your whole business. Responsive web design is, frankly, what the web is now.

But let’s talk about layout. What’s next? Intrinsic Web Design.

Why a new name? Why bother? Well, it was helpful to debate fluid vs. fixed, or table-based layouts: having words really helps. Over the past few years, Jen has needed a term for “responsive web design +”.

Responsive web design has flexible images. Intrinsic web design has flexible images …or fixed images. Whichever you want.

Responsive web design has a fluid columns. Intrinsic web design has fluid columns and rows.

Responsive web design uses media queries. Intrinsic web design doesn’t necessarily need them.

The name comes from words that have been floating in the ether. In Rachel’s talk, the words “sizing” and “intrinsic” came up a lot. This is about the nature of the web.

Let’s look at images specifically. Before responsive web design, images overflow their container if they are bigger than the container. Fluid images (as used in responsive web design) shrink and grow depending on the size of their container. You can also make images fluid in a vertical direction. If we make the image fluid vertically and horizontally, the image looks distorted. But now if we use object-fit: cover we can specify how we want the image to react.

Fixed or fluid? With grid layout, you can mix fixed and fluid. You can make a layout fluid until it hits a minimum size, at which point it stays fixed.

There are four stages of squishiness:

  1. fixed
  2. fr units (fluid)
  3. minmax()(fluid until fixed)
  4. auto (a return to flow)

That’s a powerful set of tools that may take us years to explore.

We can do truly two-dimensional layouts: rows and columns. Every one of those four stages of squishiness works for rows as well as columns. This means we can create intentional white space. Jen made a video about this and got the response that this was always possible, but it’s different now: it’s more intentional. You can set heights and widths.

We can have nested contexts now:

  1. Flow
  2. Flexbox (formatting context)
  3. Grid (formatting context)
  4. Multicolumn (formatting context)

Floats never created a new formatting context, which is why used clearfix. Now we don’t need hacks. You can mix and match, choosing the best layout tool for the job at hand. You can have a grid layout that has flexbox items within it. The Firefox dev tools allow you to inspect each layout type separately. You can use the nightly build to get the latest tools.

Then we’ve got ways to contract and expand content. We have more options now. For a while, we’ve had the option to squish and grow (e.g. with fluid images). Another is wrapping and reflowing (like we can do with text). Another option now is to add and remove whitespace. Maybe the content size doesn’t need to change; the whitespace shrinks and grows instead. An even more radical option now is to have things slide behind one another and overlap deliberately.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use media queries (meaning we’ve effectively got container queries). But we can still use media queries, as needed, to tweak the details.

So intrinsic web design is:

  1. Fluid and fixed
  2. Stages of squishiness
  3. Truly two-dimensional layouts
  4. Nested contexts
  5. Expand and contract content
  6. Media queries, as needed

We have a whole new sandbox that we can play in. You can find examples at labs.jensimmons.com.

See also:

New Year’s Resolution

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 body element.

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 max-width and min-width.

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?”

Fixtorati

Technorati has been redesigned, or realigned if you prefer. It’s gone a bit gradient happy but overall, it’s quite a pleasing visual aesthetic.

For some reason though, they’ve chosen to lock the pages into a fixed width of 1024 pixels.

Now, I understand the reasoning behind fixed-width layouts. I can see the justification for wide fixed-width layouts on content-heavy sites like A List Apart (even if I disagree with it). But forcing users of what is fundamentally a web app to set their browser to a certain width seems counterproductive to me.

The content on Technorati is user-generated. Usually, that user is me. It has my favourites, my watchlist, and my search terms. I should be able to interact with that content in my way.

This is something that, as with so many things, del.icio.us gets just right. Upcoming is on the right track too. These sites allow me to interact with my data without putting me in a straitjacket.

Flickr is still avowedly fixed but the image-based, rather than text-based, nature of the data I store there makes this somewhat understandable.

Now, don’t misconstrue this as a tirade against 1024 pixel wide layouts. The problem would still exist in an 800 pixel wide design. Choosing an arbitrary number of pixels in which to serve up user-generated content is the issue here. On the one hand, Technorati is a very Web 2.0 sort of site, based on user-generated distributed content and collective wisdom. On the other hand, its visual design is grounded in a very Web 1.0 idea of top-down control and inflexibility.

I like Technorati a lot. It’s come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. I’d like to use it every day. I’m even willing to put up with the oversize ads. But I resent the feeling that I should adjust my browsing environment to the needs of the site, rather than the other way around.