I must admit I’ve been wincing a little every time I see a graph with a logarithmic scale in a news article about COVID-19. It takes quite a bit of cognitive work to translate to a linear scale and get the real story.
Saturday, May 23rd, 2020
Tuesday, February 18th, 2020
Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.
I may well be biased, but I really like this project. I’ve been asking myself why I find it so appealing. Here are a few of the attributes of Utopia that strike a chord with me…
Collaboration is at the heart of Clearleft’s work. I know everyone says that, but we’ve definitely seen a direct correlation: projects with high levels of collaboration are invariably more successful than projects where people are siloed.
The genesis for Utopia came about after Trys and James worked together on a few different projects. It’s all too easy to let design and development splinter off into their own caves, but on these projects, Trys and James were working (literally) side by side. This meant that they could easily articulate frustrations to one another, and more important, they could easily share their excitement.
The end result of their collaboration is some very clever code. There’s an irony here. This code could be used to discourage collaboration! After all, why would designers and developers sit down together if they can just pass these numbers back and forth?
But I don’t think that Utopia will appeal to designers and developers who work in that way. Born in the spirit of collaboration, I suspect that it will mostly benefit people who value collaboration.
If you’re a control freak, you may not like Utopia. The idea is that you specify the boundaries of what you’re trying to accomplish—minimum/maximum font sizes, minumum/maximum screen sizes, and some modular scales. Then you let the code—and the browser—do all the work.
On the one hand, this feels like surrending control. But on the other hand, because the underlying system is so robust, it’s a way of guaranteeing quality, even in situations you haven’t accounted for.
If someone asks you, “What size will the body copy be when the viewport is 850 pixels wide?”, your answer would have to be “I don’t know …but I do know that it will be appropriate.”
Employing algorithmic layout design means doing away with
@mediabreakpoints, “magic numbers”, and other hacks, to create context-independent layout components. Your future design systems will be more consistent, terser in code, and more malleable in the hands of your users and their devices.
See how breakpoints are mentioned as being a very top-down approach to layout? Remember the tagline for Utopia, which aims for fluid responsive design?
Elegantly scale type and space without breakpoints.
Unsurprisingly, Andy really likes Utopia:
As the co-author of Every Layout, my head nearly fell off from all of the nodding when reading this because this is the exact sort of approach that we preach: setting some rules and letting the browser do the rest.
Heydon describes this mindset as automating intent. I really like that. I think that’s what Utopia does too.
Be your browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.
The idea is that you give it rules, you give it axioms or principles to work on, and you let it do the calculation. You work with the in-built algorithms of the browser and of CSS itself.
This is all possible thanks to improvements to CSS like
calc, flexbox and grid. Jen calls this approach intrinsic web design. Last year, I liveblogged her excellent talk at An Event Apart called Designing Intrinsic Layouts.
Utopia feels like it has the same mindset as algorithmic layout design and intrinsic web design. Trys and James are building on the great work already out there, which brings me to the final property of Utopia that appeals to me…
I’m a great believer in the HTML design principle, Evolution Not Revolution:
It is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away.
Then there’s the idea of typography being fluid and responsive—just like Jason Pamental has been speaking and writing about.
Utopia takes these building blocks and combines them. So if you’re wondering if it would be a good tool for one of your projects, you can take an equally iterative approach by asking some questions…
Are you using fluid type?
Do your font-sizes increase in proportion to the width of the viewport? I don’t mean in sudden jumps with
@media breakpoints—I mean some kind of relationship between font size and the
vw (viewport width) unit. If so, you’re probably using some kind of mechanism to cap the minimum and maximum font sizes—CSS locks.
I’m using that technique on Resilient Web Design. But I’m not changing the relative difference between different sized elements—body copy, headings, etc.—as the screen size changes.
Are you using modular scales?
Does your type system have some kind of ratio that describes the increase in type sizes? You probably have more than one ratio (unlike Resilient Web Design). The ratio for small screens should probably be smaller than the ratio for big screens. But rather than jump from one ratio to another at an arbitrary breakpoint, Utopia allows the ratio to be fluid.
So it’s not just that font sizes are increasing as the screen gets larger; the comparative difference is also subtly changing. That means there’s never a sudden jump in font size at any time.
Are you using custom properties?
A technical detail this, but the magic of Utopia relies on two powerful CSS features:
calc() and custom properties. These two workhorses are used by Utopia to generate some CSS that you can stick at the start of your stylesheet. If you ever need to make changes, all the parameters are defined at the top of the code block. Tweak those numbers and watch everything cascade.
You’ll see that there’s one—and only one—media query in there. This is quite clever. Usually with CSS locks, you’d need to have a media query for every different font size in order to cap its growth at the maximum screen size. With Utopia, the maximum screen size—
100vw—is abstracted into a variable (a custom property). The media query then changes its value to be the upper end of your CSS lock. So it doesn’t matter how many different font sizes you’re setting: because they all use that custom property, one single media query takes care of capping the growth of every font size declaration.
If you’re already using CSS locks, modular scales, and custom properties, Utopia is almost certainly going to be a good fit for you.
If you’re not yet using those techniques, but you’d like to, I highly recommend using Utopia on your next project.
Tuesday, February 11th, 2020
Andy takes Utopia for a spin—it very much matches his approach.
This is the project that Trys and James have been working on at Clearleft. It’s a way of approaching modular scales in web typography that uses CSS locks and custom properties to fantastic effect.
Utopia is not a product, a plugin, or a framework. It’s a memorable/pretentious word we use to refer to a way of thinking about fluid responsive design.
Friday, August 23rd, 2019
If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell.
A nice steaming cup of perspective.
If there were a nuclear holocaust in the Triassic, among warring prosauropods, we wouldn’t know about it.
Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
Fifteen years ago, I went to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay:
I’m back from the west of Ireland. I was sorry to leave. I had a wonderful, music-filled time.
I’m not sure why it took me a decade and a half to go back, but that’s what I did last week. Myself and Jessica once again immersed ourselves in Irish tradtional music. I’ve written up a trip report over on The Session.
On the face of it, fifteen years is a long time. Last time I made the trip to county Clare, I was taking pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. I had a phone with me, but it had a T9 keyboard that I could use for texting and not much else. Also, my hair wasn’t grey.
But in some ways, fifteen years feels like the blink of an eye.
I spent my mornings at the Willie Clancy Summer School immersed in the history of Irish traditional music, with Paddy Glackin as a guide. We were discussing tradition and change in generational timescales. There was plenty of talk about technology, but we were as likely to discuss the influence of the phonograph as the influence of the internet.
Outside of the classes, there was a real feeling of lengthy timescales too. On any given day, I would find myself listening to pre-teen musicians at one point, and septegenarian masters at another.
Now that I’m back in the Clearleft studio, I’m finding it weird to adjust back in to the shorter timescales of working on the web. Progress is measured in weeks and months. Technologies are deemed outdated after just a year or two.
The one bridging point I have between these two worlds is The Session. It’s been going in one form or another for over twenty years. And while it’s very much on and of the web, it also taps into a longer tradition. Over time it has become an enormous repository of tunes, for which I feel a great sense of responsibility …but in a good way. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s also something that gives me great satisfaction, in a way that’s hard to achieve in the rapidly moving world of the web. It’s somewhat comparable to the feelings I have for my own website, where I’ve been writing for eighteen years. But whereas adactio.com is very much focused on me, thesession.org is much more of a community endeavour.
I question sometimes whether The Session is helping or hindering the Irish music tradition. “It all helps”, Paddy Glackin told me. And I have to admit, it was very gratifying to meet other musicians during Willie Clancy week who told me how much the site benefits them.
I think I benefit from The Session more than anyone though. It keeps me grounded. It gives me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise get. And in a time when it feels entirely to right to question whether the internet is even providing a net gain to our world, I take comfort in being part of a project that I think uses the very best attributes of the World Wide Web.
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
Tuesday, September 25th, 2018
I don’t really understand what this colour tool is doing or what it’s for, but I like it.