Everybody knows that designing for the Web is not like designing for print: The shape is fluid not fixed, the font selection is limited, and there aren’t enough dots-per-inch to do proper typography anyhow; the effect is that you have to give up fine control over layout. Which was true until 2010.
The Transition · It hits me especially hard because I’ve always been interested in typography and design (I didn’t say I was good at it, just interested), and I come out of the publishing-technology business. I remember the sustained howls of anguish from design professionals when the Web came along and everyone wanted to use it and suddenly many of the things they they thought they knew became wrong.
The Web obviously didn’t remove the need for visual excellence; it just made the designer’s life harder by subtracting standard tools. The user could reshape the window or enlarge the type or suddenly be using a computer with a really small or really big screen. The dots-per-inch plunged from 600-and-up to 100-and-down.
In exchange for all that visual polish we gave up, we got a dynamic content-addressable world-wide multimedia-rich hypertext; most people found the trade fair enough.
That Wired App · It’s what shoved me into this epiphany that I suppose everyone else had sometime last year. The app’s 500M+ in size and, everyone says, enthralling. The way it works is explained by Layton Duncan in Bundle Diving in The WIRED iPad app; the page formats are just graphics, with overlays for interaction. They’re designed down to the pixel level; pre-Web page-layout techniques in action.
I’ve seen this movie before; in the early days of the Web, a few transplanted designers threw up their hands in frustration at its impoverished visual vocabulary and did more or less as WIRED has; composed in a page-layout program, exported as a graphic, and pushed that onto the Web. Which was considered evidence that they Just Didn’t Get It.
And at the moment, there are indeed peeved born-and-bred Web designers explaining why WIRED Just Doesn’t Get It: check out Joe Clark’s Smart designer exports dumb pictures of text and Jon Gilkison’s Is This Really The Future of Magazines or Why Didn’t They Just Use HTML 5?
Well, yeah. As Eric Gill wrote, “A letter is a thing, not a picture of a thing.” At some level, what WIRED has given us is a travesty.
Oh, Wait · At another, it’s a rational response to the new environment found on mobile Internet devices. They typically don’t use resizeable windows; you work within the constraints of a specific fixed rectangle. They have densities that are now approaching the 300dpi where print starts; if Wikipedia’s List of displays by pixel density is accurate, the next iPhone will exceed it. I can certainly testify that my Nexus One is the highest-resolution electronic display device I’ve ever owned; it makes conventional monitors (and the 132dpi iPad) look dingy.
Granted, vertical scrolling in the browser style is still common, but on the iPad in particular, a page-flip metaphor has replaced scrolling in many applications. If you abandon scrolling, you immediately open the door to multi-column layouts, which are controversial but, in the right circumstances, highly effective.
What’d you say I’d get? · I am reminded of an acronym that had fallen into disuse: WYSIWYG for What You See Is What You Get. It was the rallying cry of the first electronic-publishing systems, the ones that made Steve and the Woz their first few boatloads of money. It was always a complete lie, because what you could display on a screen was never remotely comparable to the experience of the same layout on real paper with a factor-of-ten-higher pixel density. But it was useful.
In the early days of the Web, some of the authoring software claimed to offer “WYSIWYG Web Publishing” which was an even bigger lie and not even a useful one; still, I remember Adobe getting a standing ovation at the first public demonstration of PageMill in 1994, when they dragged-and-dropped a GIF in the authoring system and then refreshed Netscape and it was just where they’d put it. In that version of that browser on that computer on that day, anyhow.
But, I dunno... the people who pulled that WIRED app together, What They Saw was What We Got. There has to be a better way to achieve the effect. But the fact remains that a lot of what we think we know about Web design is starting to be wrong.