Josh (the blog)

Hey there. I’m Josh, a SydneyCanberra-based maker of Internets. I don’t update this very often.


Screen Design Sucks

In my copious amounts of spare time, I’ve been contemplating redesigning this site. And disliking the fact that screens are different sizes.

Maybe it’s just that the sites I’ve spent the most time building with CSS at Raw Ideas have been sufficiently indifferent to anything less than 1024×768. Or that the content of these sites is so disposable that sustainability isn’t really a great concern. Either way, I know what I should be doing in terms of design, then I’m aware of what is being done for various reasons, and they’re not matching up.

For this site, I’ve got a design concept lined up… my only concern is execution of that.

Felix Miata is an absolute legend by whom I find myself constantly pursuaded (though not always, for various reasons–mostly professional/design inhibition/the culture of superficiality-over-function so prevalent in web design–, able to follow), and he’s built this really compelling example of why not to use fixed-width/px-based layouts. I don’t think he particularly cares about design, and comes across somewhat like RMS does in his fanatical advocacy of a particular approach to styling web pages.

Only, unlike Stallman, his agenda is not some arbitrary and often unrealistically-founded ideology (yeah, I’m trolling. Go on, rant. Stallman can’t see past his own version of open-source, and his attitudes provide no realistic migratory path from closed- to open-source solutions; such zero-tolerance rejects the pattern that has become established in IT, so there’s no point in moronic reminscences of a time when there were only twenty people in the world using computers and they all shared, yada yada yada. No one cares.) but a practical NEED and independently corrolated evidence regarding people’s desires for larger text on websites.

So the text is staying big here. But that’s a given (well, at least on this site… I’m trying to sway other places, and the best I’ve got thus far is text-resizing styleswitcher controls on a design I got handed last week. Usability will prevail! Gosh that sounded like the government propaganda guy from V for Vendetta. Ah well. This post is now officially very digressive!), not my main concern.

No, my main concern is this site winding up looking like the BBC’s does on enormous screens (see Felix’s page linked to above). I’m a fan of whitespace as much as the next guy, but 800×600-wide on a 2000-pixel wide screen just doesn’t do it for me.

And, going the other direction, I just bought a mobile/PDA which means I’m now going to be designing mobile stylesheets as well (at least I have that option!) for a 320-pixel wide screen. All new challenges.

Fluid layouts are all dandy until you introduce graphics.

Here, I’ve got a policy of editorial graphics (i.e. pretty much everything except photos that exist outside of blog context/are linked to as files denoted as full resolution) not exceeding an inviolable maximum of 700 pixels. This is, in my thinking, not negotiable. I’m building for an 800px wide minimum, which means a main-content column width of 760px tops.

Plus I can get away with lots more in terms of editing photos from my excellent-except-for-in-low-light-as-most-consumer-digital-cameras-are camera when the publication requirement is kept low. I like to fill the column with colour as much as possible in a vain attempt to balance out the (comparatively voluminous) amounts I write… I’ve started to use the “Read more” functionality again for publishing essays and other not-originally-designed/written-for-web material (where PDF equivalents are available), in order to hide fulltext from the front page. You’ll note that on the second of today’s Cymbeline posts.

So, I’m torn between keeping everything narrow and keeping control, or, well, not.

Centred layouts, when done properly, cater even for people with StupidlyLargeScreensâ„¢. They’ll probably be using 120dpi fonts to start with, which makes things reasonable even at “Normal” font size. IE will go up two more steps… every other browser well beyond that. That’s probably reasonable. The “challenge” to me there is simply to size the centred layout in em’s, so that scales as well. My greatest concern is that I cannot style images to fill a set percentage of their parent element (scaling appearances don’t, for the most part, concern me… this is mostly pulled off without too much damage if the difference is slight), because of vast amounts of legacy content. I think specifically of instances where I’ve floated images that exist purely to support the article, not providing any great amount of content in their own right… these images are usually from 200 to 400 pixels in width, and often sit adjacent to text. Refer to Cymbeline example again for an instance in which images are helpful and effective, but it would be foolish to style them globally.

Legacy content is the reason this can’t be achieved… I could conceivably go throughout every one of the just-shy-of-1000 posts on this blog (in other milestones, we had a second birthday three days ago) and add classes as appropriate. But I won’t.

My (final, because I need sleep) concern with scaling layouts is using background images in CSS, which don’t scale, and can’t be sized in percentages unless you do stupid things with redundant markup (non-semantic IMG tags) and abuse z-indexes to the more worn edges of sanity.

It all comes down to loss of artistic control. I embraced that with the present design, which I’m well aware people say looks like crap. You know, I don’t mind hearing that. The fact remains, it’s probably the most functional design I’ve ever built.

That said, I’m off to get my hands dirty with some ink.