I’ve a confession to make. I’m an armchair mountaineer. I’m too much of a coward to actually put myself in the type of risk mountaineers do, but for the last decade or so, I’ve been reading as many mountaineering books as I could get my hands on. And I’d like to start by telling you a famous story of Alpine mountaineering.
This is the North Face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. The Eiger (meaning: Ogre) is a staggeringly difficult face to climb. Nearly two vertical miles high of ice-coated loose rock. It’s a treacherous place. It’s also the place I proposed to my wife in 2003. But that’s another story. The story I’m going to tell you starts in 1936.
In the winter of 1936, Andreas Hinterstoisser (pictured), Toni Kurtz, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer set about tackling the face of the Eiger – then unclimbed. They’d established the rough route, and after a day had reached an impassable, sheer area of rock just underneath the Rote Flüh – a prominent feature on the face.
Let’s leave that story there for now and come back to it later.
Let’s talk about responsive design.
Responsive design has changed my work and, ultimately, how I do business. This talk is about how it’s done that. But before I do that, I’d like to tap about the definition of responsive design.
If you talk to some people, responsive design is just fluid grids and media queries. To other people, it’s that your website fits on a tablet or mobile phone and changes to adopt. To others, it’s the way to save money by consolidating teams. Responsive design – like AJAX, or Web 2.0 – has become a buzz-word to represent a change. A change in our industry. A change in the way people are consuming content. That’s the type of responsive design I’m going to talk about.
I’m going to talk about three specific areas of how it has challenged the way we work at Mark Boulton Design.
It’s strange to think that there was a time on the web where content was a second-class citizen. As a student of editorial design, I’ve always found this odd. In the past, whenever I heard ‘content is king’, my response was generally ‘er, yes’.
Responsive design has challenged how we commission, create, edit and design for content. I’d like to talk a little bit about how this has affected two clients of ours. Firstly, our work with CERN.
I’ve talked about CERN before at conferences, but not really in this amount of detail. When we started working with CERN a few years ago, the whole project was framed in one sentence by the head of the CERN web team…
We have a content problem.
And they did. They didn’t really know who their audiences were, how to talk to them, or what they wanted. Following months of research, it became clear the audience for the CERN site was comprised of students, scientists, the general public and CERN staff. Interestingly, all of those four large groups had a common need: updates. They wanted to know what was going on. But here is the problem: each group of people needs to hear the same update in different ways. Let’s take an imaginary use-case of an announcement for a new particle that’s been discovered.
For the general public, they are generally learning a lot about CERN from elsewhere. Not on the CERN site. So, they are coming to the site from another trigger – either another website, or the TV, or a magazine or newspaper – and their overall comprehension of the work done at CERN is minimal. The update needs to be worded to accommodate that. But that update also needs to appeal to scientists working in high energy physics and associated fields. They want the detail, in the language that suits them. Already, our one update is fragmented. Throw in students and educators, then our update is going to have to work very hard if it’s just one piece of content.
Therefore in the CERN redesign process, the editorial structure of updates needs to be fragmented and structured in such a way to accommodate different words for different audiences. A responsive design challenge that has nothing to do with how something looks, but how it is structured and how it works in the CMS.
This brings me onto my second point on structured content.
We’ve also been working with Al Jazeera for a few years on redesigning their digital platform. Throughout that process, in just that short space of time, we’ve seen the rise of responsive design and how it affects how content is created and viewed. One example of this is just the process of how news works.
We often think of a news story as a page. A useful, familiar construct. It has a headline, a stand first, some paragraphs and maybe an image or a map. But after studying how their editors work, it became clear that this is not what a news story is. News is always moving.
A story starts as a seed. Something that comes down the wire…
There has been an earthquake in Japan.
Nothing more. Not yet.
Then, over time, the story grows and, like a snowball rolling down a mountain slope, more content starts getting attracted to it – maybe a tweet, other articles, images, video, timelines, quotes etc.
Because a news story is not a page. A story is the link between bits of content. The question here is how do we – meaning editors and designers – curate and cajole this content to most effectively tell the story?
The answer does not lie only in design. The answer lies in how content is structured and categorised. Meta-data is the new Art Direction.
Responsive design has been perhaps most visible in its ongoing challenges to process. How we do what we do is coming under increasing pressure, and here are several ways in which I’ve noticed how.
I started out working in advertising. As a student, I was an intern for a couple of years at an agency in Manchester. Other than the work, one of the things that has become clear now I run my own design business.
When advertising agencies talk about work, they talk about it in terms of accounts, not projects. When you win work, you win an account – for a period of time. An account is commitment over a period of time.
We will work with you on all our projects for 12 months.
This means a client will invest in you, and the time it takes you to learn their business, familiarise yourself with the challenges and give you the space (and budget) to do great work.
Projects are not a commitment. Projects are relatively risk-free.
You will deliver this website for this much money in this time-frame.
Approaching work this way leaves little room for any ongoing commitment, from client or agency. It’s like a first (and only) date. And with that comes a distance.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen my peers move from agencies and studies move to products and client-side. In doing so, they are closer to the problems. With the space to move in an agile way without the constraints of any binding commercial relationship. This reminds me of a story from Kevin Spacey about his work on the House of Cards
Kevin Spacey recently gave a rousing talk at The Telegraph in which he talked about how TV commissioning works in the US. He went to all the networks in the US to pitch the show. They were all interested, but each one wanted to do a pilot. A pilot which, in 45 minutes, would establish the major plot-lines, introduce the characters, the love-triangle, the cliff hanger.
“It wasn’t through arrogance that we weren’t interested, but we wanted to tell a story that took a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex character that would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would need space to play out.”
The House of Cards was about the long game.
To me, many web projects can feel like a pilot. Relatively low risk, low on commitment to work together without the time and space for the problems to play out. Proximity to the problem – a hand forced by responsive web design’s challenges – comes from working closely, over a long period of time. An account, not a project. A season, not a pilot.
In 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Manilla. Forman was the favourite having beaten Ali three years before. he was strong. Young. And a great boxer. He was sure to win.
Throughout the fight, Ali let himself get hit on the ropes. To give the impression he was tired, lose, and close to defeat. All the while, he was whispering in Foreman’s ear ‘You’ve got nothin”… ‘nothin”. Forman blew himself up trying to knock him out. This technique was coined the ‘rope-a-dope’.
Just going back to my last point for a moment. One of the results from being closer to the problem is that you have more exposure to the mess of design. Making things is messy. And to some people – especially clients, who can expect nice shiny things handed to them – may not be expecting to be exposed to that.
Sometimes they will freak out. And it’s our job to sit back on the ropes and take it on the chin. But, instead of goading them, we should offer words of reassurance. We should shift our process to something that may feel more comfortable. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, after all.
Getting in the browser sooner. Looking at content sooner. Iterate. All of these things have a knock-on to design and how it’s received by a client.
For a few years now, I’ve talked about the fidelity curve. A simple graph to explain to clients that over time, we increase the fidelity of a prototype and slowly layer on the visuals. This is so we can fail quickly on low-risk, low-fidelity work. Mostly this is good and works well, but recently, I had an interesting discussion with a client in which they asked where the design was.
It’s an interesting question, because in this process, the design is everywhere. And unless you take the client along every step of the way – knee deep in the mess of design, being closer to the problem – then how do you manage the expectation that, at some point, a client will expect a presentation, or a reveal’ of how the product will look.
“I want a responsive…”
As I said, responsive design is a trend. Or, rather, an awakening. As such, a lot of organisations and businesses are behind the curve . But one thing many people aren’t asking (and, I know this because I ask) is ‘is it worth it?’ or ‘Do you really?’
In 2011, our first responsive site was a site for World Skills London. It was a fun project, geared around a single event in London in which 200,000 visitors would attend and watch the various activities in the competition. As part of this project, we designed a responsive map. A cool diagram with a responsive image map that would scale and allow users to get from A-Z in the event by using their phone. Cool.
Except, during the project retrospective, it became clear that, actually, only 25 people used it. It was not needed.
Let’s go back to the Eiger and Hinterstoisser and three other men trying to climb the North Face. If you recall, after a day or so, they had arrived at a seemingly impassable face of rock under the Rote Flüh. After much deliberation about trying to re-route, Hinterstoisser decided to have a go at traversing the feature. And he succeeded, and with that, opened the gateway to the rest of the face and rest of their climb.
Today, the same traverse is still used across the same slab of rock.
Last week, I did a survey on Twitter about the business of responsive design. After 500 or so responses, it’s clear that everyone is finding everything hard right now. The change is so big, and so rapid, that we’re struggling to keep our heads above water. And this especially goes for those working in-house or clients.
Breaking new ground is always difficult.
But, just like Hinterstoisser, take heart in knowing that what we’re working on right now is a legacy for designers and developers in the months and years ahead.
– December 1st, 2013
There is a storm coming.
For those of you reading this who have experienced a severe weather event know all too well the sequence of events leading up to it. First, there is a warning – either through the media, verbally, or from the old woman in town who can feel it in her bones. Then, there is the sense of it coming, and that can take minutes, hours or days. Either way, there is a feeling of calm before the havoc. Battening down the hatches, preparing your self, property, business and family. Preparation is important in surviving something potentially catastrophic.
I read a post today from the Karen Mcgrane called Responsive Design Won’t Fix your Content Problem. It was nicely validating for me reading what mirrored so many of Mark Boulton Design’s clients, especially over the last eighteen months. The post describes the difficulty organisations are with adapting to their digital content being published across a variety of channels. Reconciling that against existing business and technology structures is hard for big organisations but, in my experience, that’s what’s been happening for the past years.
Responsive design is our storm. Acknowledging the way the web really is, and reconciling it against the plethora of new devices and reading behaviours has been a seismic shift in the creation and reading of digital content. Organisations have been spending the last couple of years coming to terms with it.
Quoting Karen’s article from a recent project she was working on:
Our executives assume that since they made the decision to go responsive, every other decision would just be tactical details. In fact, implementing responsive web design raises issues that strike right at the heart of our business and the way we work. We need to fix our review and approval processes, our content management system, our asset management system, our design standards and governance. We need to clean up our outdated, useless content. But it’s hard to get people to step up to solve these bigger problems, because they don’t think they’re part of “responsive design.”
This exactly mirrors my experience.
What starts out as desire to change for the better, to make a web product responsive, is the start of problem escalation. Before you know it, organisations are talking about needing structured content, but to do that they need a new CMS, but to do that, they have to procure a new CMS and migrate content. Now, that’s not all bad. Organisations have been doing this. Preparing solid foundations on which to create digital experiences for wherever the user may be.
The storm. The critical mass of creating content for an increasingly broad digital space is just around the corner. Are you prepared?
– November 21st, 2013
I get the content in Word, copy into the various boxes in the CMS and then see how it looks. Normally I spot a few typos, or it doesn’t appear where I want it to, then I have to go back and find the article again – which isn’t so bad, it’s normally at the top. The real pain is when I have to add another link to that list over there. (whispers) Normally I ask James (a developer) to do that for me, though as I can’t do it.
This was a conversation I had with a person recently about how they use their CMS. A real-life content person. I say content person, not ‘creator’ as you may have noticed she doesn’t write the content. She just ‘gets it’. She’s a piece in the publishing workflow. A cog in a machine. And our tools are failing her and are only going to get worse.
In that workflow, there is a bit that’s a clear trend amongst the people I’ve spoken to about this.
then see how it looks.
And that’s the thing, right there.
Since we’ve been using computers to make websites we’ve tried to make them like print. Of course, early on, that was fair enough. It was familiar. We knew the rules and tried to make the web like it. Even now, with the realisation that the web has changed – or rather, we’re being honest to the way the web is. It never really changed, we just tried to make it something it wasn’t – we’re still enforcing a print-like mental model on it. Not necessarily us designers and developers, though. This is coming from people who write and manage content. Just like printing out an email before they send it, they will want to preview a website to see how it looks.
The problem is this: The question content people ask when finishing adding content to a CMS is ‘how does this look?’. And this is not a question a CMS can answer any more – even with a preview. How we use the web today has meant that the answer to that questions is, ‘in what?’.
Let me first off define what I see WYSIWYG. WYSIWYG is not a limited toolbar for adding semantic value to your document. The kind of toolbar you find on Medium, or on Basecamp. As you can see they are similar. They are used for applying semantics to document structure; giving words emphasis, making unordered lists, or numbered lists, making words headlines. However, they’re not there for the user to get creative. They do not change the colour of a word.
When I think WYSIWYG, I think of the Word toolbar. This type of WYSIWYG is for adding tables, images, forms, type and colour. It’s a toolkit to create pages of content. Just like desktop publishing. And that’s the dangerous thing. Content creators are used to having these tools at their disposal so they can craft their document. Why? Because writing isn’t done in a CMS, it’s done elsewhere.
It’s been a turbulent few years for web designers and developers. We’ve had to relearn what we’ve created and finally acknowledge – through the timeliness of Responsive Design – that the web is a fluid and chaotic place, and we should be embracing it and not making it like print. We’ve learnt to deal with the loss of control. The problem is, though, our content people are still thinking of pages. They’re still thinking of previewing. Of designing for the desktop. They’re writing in Word and fine with it.
So, that’s the challenge. How can we help people – just as we have – relearn how the web is now?
Just like when people have a content management problem, a lot of people are turning to technology for the answers. And just like content management problems, my experience is software can’t fix it. Because it’s a people problem, not a software problem.
There are three spaces * for content people – not creators, because not all content people create loads of content. Some just manage it – push it from here to there. Those places are:
The problem I see is that the CMS tries to deal with all three spaces equally well. And as such, generally fails to deliver an optimal experience because it’s trying to do too much. What if your content management system was actually three distinct applications designed to work together? Just a thought.
But, back to WYSIWYG.
The issue with WYSIWYG for me is that by using them the content person is considering the content as what they see. But content is more than that. Especially if it has meta data, and is split up and compiled from here and there. A ‘page’ maybe a dynamic template pulling in content from a dozen places. How do you change meta data there?
If we consider the majority use-cases of correcting typos, restructuring slightly, or small on the fly editing, then the smaller toolbars for adding semantic value are useful. But for most use cases, a WYSIWYG is not useful for content people. It’s just familiar.
One of the other pain points of a complex dynamic website, where ‘pages’ are created with bits of content from all over the place is ‘where the hell do I go to find that bit of content to edit it?’. That is a painful moment in a content person’s daily life. Normally, after watching them, they go off deep into search, or ask someone else who knows better. Accessing these smaller nuggets of logic-based content is problematic. This is why inline-editing and WYSIWYG is coming to the fore – addressing the use case in the live environment.
Why is this a problem?
As I said before, it’s hiding the truth. That being, the content is more than you can see. Instead of inline editing of the content, why not just make the start of that journey a little easier? Why not provide a way of quickly getting to exactly that bit of content with a link? There we will see all of the stuff that is the content but not the words: the display logic, taxonomies, meta data etc. But if we want to change a type, we can do that with our little toolbar.
Structured content is the right way to go. It makes our content portable and malleable. In fact, it makes it much more useful. Slapping a WYSIWYG on top of a form field is not the way to go. That’s not structured. Live WYSIWYG is not the way to go for large-scale websites because it reinforces that content is just what you see. When, in fact, a piece of content could have a whole bunch of other headlines and summaries that would only be displayed in certain contexts, along with meta data and rules. We need access to ALL THE CONTENT and provide simple, little tools to let people make typo changes and apply semantic structure and the like once they’re looking at the content in a staging environment.
‘How does this look?’
should change to:
‘How does this read?’
Device agnostic. Screen size independent and devoid of design. Let’s help content people focus on what the words and pictures are, rather than what the words and pictures look like.
– September 3rd, 2013
My uncle is a quiet man. He smokes a pipe with a wry smile. Like he knows something you don’t. For years he restored traction engines; huge, victorian, steam-driven machines. He did it for the love of it. I have wondered if he did to escape. Like a lot of men that age, he spent a lot of time in his shed on his own, surrounded by the smell of oil, grease and pipe tobacco. A dusty pile of tabloid newspapers in the corner. Slowly whittling away on a small piece of metal, making some grommet or flange or something.
Sounds romantic doesn’t it?
Now, how many times have you heard web designers and developers talk this way about their work? For me, it’s been increasingly. And personally I find it concerning. For starters, it’s a designer-centric way of working. It’s a selfish exploit to pour love into your work. If you’re working commercially, who pays for that time? You? Well, that’s bad. The client? Well, that’s ok if they see the value. But many don’t.
Giving your work love is not just about giving it time. But, time can often be better spent than whittling away on some nubbin’ or grommet just because you think that’s where you can give the work your love. Your craft.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent more time on projects not whittling. Whittling happens in the very latter stages of work and I really don’t find myself in that place very often. Mostly that’s because the clients I work for have a myriad of big, sticky problems that need working out before you start ‘crafting a user interface’, whatever that means. I’m more often than not in a place where my own job, as a designer, is to not make something I love. But to make something appropriate. Something that does the job well. Something that responds to a hypothesis and serves a need. Not necessarily something loved and beautiful. And that’s ok.
Craft is an emotional word not appropriate to describe the job of designing. It’s too self-centred. Too mired in arts and crafts and puts a difficult-to-measure parameter into the minds of clients.
‘I want a beautifully crafted interface from a passionate designer’
‘I want a self-centred designer to spend way too long on the shiny than actually solving the problem or having the difficult discussions’.
If my uncle was restoring traction engines for a living, he would’ve been out of business. Craft is love. And love takes time. And time is scarce and probably best spent elsewhere.
– July 16th, 2013
Twenty years ago today, CERN published a statement that made the World Wide Web freely available. To mark this anniversary, CERN – together with Mark Boulton Design – are starting a project to restore the first website and the associated assets of the World Wide Web project.
I first started using the internet in about 1988. I had a mate whose dad worked for IBM so he had an early PC connected – via the phone line – to a rather sophisticated little modem. The internet wasn’t the web back then, it was a mix of bulletin boards, rudimentary email clients and IRC. You may think that it was a primitive, but in reality, the prospect of near live discussions and collaborations with people all over the world was pretty incredible. As friends do, we lost touch, and my connection to the internet was lost with it. I did other things: failed my A-levels, learnt martial arts, chased girls, learnt the guitar and went to art college. My connection with internet picked up again in 1994. And, oh boy, was it a different place entirely. In just a few short years, the web went from idea to proposal to freely available. And the world was changed forever.
As web designers and developers, we spend a lot of time trying to explain the difference on the web. “It’s not TV, it’s certainly not print” (oh, no, it’s definitely not that). The web is its own thing. But unlike other media – ones which have physical artefacts, which get left behind to rot, to be found and stuck on a shelf in a museum – the web doesn’t have that. Pixels don’t decay, they just disappear. Forever.
Preserving our digital heritage is as important as preserving our physical heritage. There are a few people and organisations in the world who get this: The Long Now Foundation and Archive.org, to name a couple, but I’m not sure that’s enough. The need to preserve must come from our desire to learn from the past. I have two young children and I want them to experience the early web and understand how it came to be. To understand that the early web wasn’t that rudimentary but incredibly advanced in many ways. Currently, it’s impossible to do that. And, together with CERN, that’s what we’re hoping to provide.
From today, we’ve started work on the project objectives. The talented web team at CERN have already reinstated the first URL and uploaded a version of the website from about 1992. The restoration has begun.
– April 30th, 2013
In 1955, Beatrice Warde gave a presentation to the Typographer’s Guild in London (now, the International Society of Typographic Design) which later became an essay titled: ‘The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible’.
A wonderful piece of writing in which Warde describes the role of typography – or rather the role of the designer - in printing. The general premise is that good typographic design shouldn’t be seen.
When you listen to a song in a language you do not understand, part of your mind actually does fall asleep, leaving your quite separate aesthetic sensibilities to enjoy themselves unimpeded by your reasoning faculties. The fine arts do that; but that is not the purpose of printing. Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.
Let’s take that last point. Morgan Freeman has a memorable, wonderful speaking voice. One that adds colour and weight to the words. His words are not just audible, and understandable, but they are rich with personality. His voice adds to the words he speaks.
I disagree with Warde. Type should not always be invisible, it should be appropriate. Sometimes, it’s a typeface’s job to be overt, loud and suggestive, in order to communicate the content in the best way. But, yes, sometimes typography has to melt away into the background. To support the content and the reader. To help them.
On the web, because we’re quite often presented with long-form text (and by that, I mean more than a few paragraphs), we get a little obsessed with body copy. Good typesetting of body copy should be like that of setting a novel; the type should disappear. But, not all typography is body copy, and to consider it in these narrow terms is to do the practice of typographic design a huge disfavour.
Whenever we design with words, we’re designing with type. And words are not always long form paragraphs designed to be very easy on the eye. Sometimes it’s a logotype, a button, a richly designed layout, a data table or form. The application of typographic design is just so broad that to say it all has to be invisible is to imply the goals of typographic design are the same across the board.
Legibility is a baseline requirement for typesetting anything. It’s like edible food. It shouldn’t really be a measure of what is good or not. Just like audibility and comprehension are baseline requirements for speech. There is more flavour in words; spoken or printed. There is more flavour in type, that if applied well, transcends content from being merely legible, to that of being pleasurable. After all, that’s why we have different typefaces: each brings with it characteristics that flavour the words.
In my opinion, there is merit to visible typography because in the hands of a competent typographer, a text can truly sing. Not because they have left their mark out, but because they have worked their art on the words.
I agree which him completely. It’s the difference between something edible and exquisite. The difference between average and better. Which is why all this invisible, reductionist UI approach is starting to grate on me a little because it suggests we have the same goal for all our work; to make it invisible. It’s more complex than that. It’s an over-simplistic measure of success that is put far more eloquently than in this post from Timo Arnall.
Of course, I say all of this under the one big caveat that, in typography, there are no rules. Just good decisions. But, let’s make some decisions shall we? Not make everything invisible because, apparently, that’s the way it should be.
– March 14th, 2013
On the run up to Christmas, that wonderful annual advent calendar 24 Ways published an article called: How to make your site look half decent in half an hour . In some designer quarters, this was jumped upon as a load of unconsidered twaddle written by a developer who shouldn’t be dishing out design tips. Aral Balkan took this task and has written a great article that follows my thinking as to what ‘design’ is. All good. But, I’d like to comment on what I thought that 24 Ways article was about, and really the indication of a perception of design across web professionals.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching a workshop based on my book, Designing for the web, to lots of web people, but mostly to developers, front-end devs, UX folk and project managers. All of them have come along to the workshop to learn just one thing:
‘How do I make this thing I’ve done look less shitty?’
Now, if you’ve read my book, or my blog for a while, you’ll know that I see design as a holistic practice; a practice of understanding content, of audience needs and goals, of brand, of psychology, and, of making things look less shitty. As much as designers would like to think we’re the guardians of all things considered practice, taste, and learned process. We’re really not. Some of the best designers i’ve worked with have embraced the passionate learning of students and amateurs. People who are not interested in becoming professional designers, but want just enough knowledge about an aspect of design to make their thing better: be it their resume, their website or their father’s cafe menu.
There is nothing wrong with getting stuck in. I’m not a carpenter, but I’ll get stuck in and learn and renovate my bathroom. I’m not a bike mechanic, but I’ll learn enough to maintain my road bike. I’m not a developer, but I’ll hack around with a bit of PHP to get to where I need to be. Many people would not class themselves as designers, but they can arm themselves with techniques to make themselves better at an aspect or technique of design.
There are many ways to Define The Damn Thing, but for me, design is really just the result of a bunch of questions and answers. These questions may be asked by the materials you’re working with, the constraints of the project, or the audience you’re designing for. They may be big questions such as ‘how can we increase quarterly revenue by redesigning this checkout procedure?’ Or, they may just be small questions like: ‘how can I make this content just look a little less shitty?’. These are both equally valid questions.
The answers to these questions are design. Some answers are big. Some are difficult. Some seem like magic. But most, in my experience, are well-trodden cowpaths of practiced techniques. Simple little things we do to make less shitty things.
So, design is veneer. But Aral is right, it’s not just veneer. Even if you wanted it to be, visual design is not a thing, and we should be mindful to not present it as such. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t help people who aren’t designers make less shitty things by giving them a few hints and tips along the way.
– January 15th, 2013
Filed in: design
The humble hyperlink is an incredibly simple, powerful tool on the web. In fact, many would say that our ability to link one resource to another via hypertext is what makes the web what it is. But, I think this humble link could do a little more than it currently does.
When the web was invented, the hyperlink linked resources together. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the type of resource that may be linked. In the early days of the web, resources were documents of text. They then changed to images or tables of data within text, but it was still text. Now, an html document is still the resource, but the primary piece of content maybe something completely different: video, audio, a download to a file, it may be secure. A link may trigger an action along with linking, such as going fullscreen, a pop up, or linking to another site. All of these things are valid links, but we have just one element with a bunch of attributes in the code to describe them. I’m not so sure it’s enough any more.
It’s correctly marked up in the HTML, but perhaps badly framed editorially. You, as the reader, do not know what that destination is until you click it. ‘Just make the link text better’, you may be saying. Ok, how about this:
That’s better. It’s implying a link to an article. The meta data for the user expectation of this content is in the content itself. But, we can’t always rely on our content creators to reliably do this. And what if the content was more complex, like a report:
Is this a link to a web page, a PDF, a word file, a link to download an app from the app store? What is this?
And that’s the issue. I’d like to know what I’m getting before I click it. I think we need more meta data around our hyperlinks that can give us more of an indication what we’re getting before we get it. I became painfully aware of this just a couple of days ago when I clicked a link and started downloading an HD video, over Edge, that started auto playing. Luckily I wasn’t on data roaming at the time.
There could be a few ways we could do this. Obviously, we could just write the type of link, destination and other stuff in the content. But, if that destination changes somehow, that’s an added overhead for the content creator. Plus, you could end up with quite verbose link texts.
We could use the
<type> attribute introduced in HTML5 to specify the Media type (formally MIME type) of the linked document. This is exactly what we should be doing, actually, but the options don’t necessarily map to our content needs, or provide all of the content type requirements. For example, I may want to link to a video, as that’s what I want the reader to watch, but the HTML resource is not a video at all, but a video embedded in an HTML page with a whole bunch of other things. In that case, the
<type> attribute would be inappropriate. The same could be said for audio, or any other primary content that is embedded within an HTML document.
I feel we need two things: some visual affordance for the user that they’re going to a particular type of content; and this affordance is rendered through an attribute, or something similar, in the HTML of the link.
In designing around this problem, I’ve noticed through my research that we’re already doing this. We already have conventions used on sites like Wikipedia, and others, for indicating, after a link, what will happen when you click it. Here’s are two examples from the BBC and Wikipedia.
The thing is both of these examples use the icons to append list items. They’re not in paragraphs immediately following the link wherever that link may be.
…a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.
Sparklines are efficient representations of complex data that typically sit within content to provide additional semantic value to the content. They’re a small hit of additional information. A picture speaking a good few words.
And I think he’s onto something there and it’s something we could use for this problem.
What would it be like to expand on what we have now? How could we provide more meta data – where appropriate – than just an icon as demonstrated on Wikipedia and the BBC.
What we could do, is include some more information, for quick visual digestion, alongside an icon. We could take Tufte’s Sparkline rationale and apply it to this small, inline iconography. We could use a Sparkicon.
I’m defining a Sparkicon as a small, inline icon with additional link meta data to describe either the content and/or the behaviour when the user clicks the link.
I’ve looked a couple of examples of how this might work. The first example shows two icons to indicate behaviour when we click the link. The first is a full screen icon, the second is one we already know: an ‘external site’ link.
The second set of examples are icons for particular content or media types: comments and video. The comments includes a count of existing comments attached to the link document. The video spark icon includes a video duration. This could also include things like aspect ratio, or HD, or whatnot.
I think the challenge with sparkicons would be to give enough feedback to the user to let them know what’s going to happen, or where they’re going to go, or download and what are the consequences of clicking this link. That’s the important thing, and history tells us we can’t rely on the words to do that.
But we also need to be mindful how much of an interruption this will be to the ebb and flow of reading long form content. Also, how much added visual noise would this add? At this point, I just don’t know, but I plan on putting this to test soon on a couple of projects: both personal and professional.
There are plenty of challenges, particularly how this could just be some kind of applied graphics through a simple addition to a link attribute. Standardisation is also an issue – this type of icon would be only really useful if it’s a shared convention.
But, it’s just an idea right now that i’m plugging away at. More to come.
– January 10th, 2013
Filed in: design
At Mark Boulton Design we get quite a few project enquiries and over the past twelve months we’ve seen an increase in requests for these repositories as a project delivery. This is just fine for us, as we tend to propose them anyway in some form or other to document our work. But there is an inherent concern in delivering this type of thing to a client. When is it done? And how is it created? And making sure that is discussed with a client, in depth.
My first exposure to style guides was through print and branding. Corporate style guides are rules of execution; position this logo like this, use these colours, this type, crop photos this way. Adherence to the guide is critical and there’s always someone policing them. Having been involved in the creation of a few of these printed style guides, they are always designed after a body of work and then – almost without exception – never updated to reflect slight organic changes as a brand or design system grows. This is why digital style guides are good. They allow growth.
I’ve read recently that some designers are starting with patterns. Taking small modularised chunks of content and then compiling for display in different circumstances. This, of course, if great for taking an adaptive content approach. Thinking of our content in small chunks is useful. But, I can’t help but thinking that approaching design in this way is a folly and will result in generic, cookie cutter work.
DHH from 37signals wrote a great post recently about the abstraction of code and when it should be done.
Future coding is a lot like playing the roulette. If you can guess where the requirements of tomorrow will land today, you’ve just scored the ultimate programmer’s prize: looking like a wizard. You saw the future and you were right! High five, brain!
That’s the almost irresistible draw of “flexibility”—often just a euphemism for building half or whole features before you know how they’re supposed to work or whether you need them. Just like in Vegas, the worst thing that can happen is to be right about this once in a while.
And that’s exactly how I feel about creating style guides. There’s a lot of talk about us designing systems for the web. Well, sometimes, we’re not designing systems at all. We’re designing a couple of pages for a marketing web site. Creating a whole pattern library for a project like that is not only overkill, but completely inappropriate.
But the same can be said for a large scale project too. If you don’t know what the patterns are, you could be abstracting too early – bowing to the lure of future flexibility.
I guess it’s a question of balance, and one I’m becoming acutely aware of recently. For me, style guides are still there to document a design system. But they’re not a tool kit of parts. Before you design a tool, you have to know what to fix first.
– January 8th, 2013
Filed in: design
The evolution of the grid from geometric form and canons of page construction is quite clear. In no other period of history was the grid used as a core aesthetic as was in the 1950s and 60s where it emerged – almost simultaneously – from several design schools in Europe. From then, the grid system’s influence has been pervasive.
Today, the grid is viewed by many designers with equal amounts of distain and fervore. Its detractors – and there are many – claim a grid system is visual straight-jacket, designed to inhibit creativity and that using one produces dull work. Of course, I think that’s rubbish; there are no bad grids, just bad designers. In the hands of a competent designer, a well-constructed, considered grid system is the frame on which the fabric of the design is hung. It should create balance, provide landmarks and visual cues. It should allow the designer to exercise just the right amount of creativity and provide immediate answers to layout problems.
For the past 800 years, the printed page has been constructed in pretty much the same way; from the edges. The desire to create the most aesthetically pleasing book always starts with the size of the physical page. That page is subdivided to give us the optimum place to put our text and images.
Fast-forward 800 or so years to 1997.
The web is just about hitting the mainstream. I was working as a junior designer in a small firm in Manchester, UK. Typically, as the young guy in the studio, it was my job to create the websites for clients whilst the ‘serious’ designers looked after the large fee-paying clients on their branding, print design and advertising and what not. Remember, this is the early days of the web.
Designers who were exclusively designing for medium back then were doing what they knew; applying the rules of print design to the screen. We used tables for layout, shim-gifs and all manner of terrible ways to achieve our goal of ordered, controlled layout. And it drove us all crazy. And you know what? Despite all the great progress made in the last 15 years – web standards, inclusive design, UX, semantic thinking etc. – when you really think about it, as designers we haven’t really grown that much. Or rather, we’re still trying to force what we know into a medium that it doesn’t quite fit. Our practice of creating designs for the web is still mired in the great thinking that was done over the last 800 years. But who can blame us? 800 years of baggage is hard to get rid of! But that’s what we need to start doing; we need to start thinking in a new, and different way.
For print design, the ‘page’ is the starting point for creating your layout. The proportions define the grid within. The content is bound the book for pleasing effect. The ratio of the page is repeated in the smaller bodies of text for a feeling of connectedness when the reader moves from one page to another. For print design, the process of designing grids, and the layouts that sit on top of them, is a process with one fixed and knowable constraint: the Page. On the web, however, there is no page.
Consider the browser for a moment. The browser is a flexible window into the web. It grows and shrinks to the users screen size. The user can move it, stretch it, scroll it. The edges are not fixed. It is not a page, but a viewport.
Let us pop back to 1997 again. I’ve just been asked to design a website for a new art & architecture gallery in Manchester. The project is an exciting one, with some great potential for some really creative design and layout work. Typographically, it was a bit of a dream project. I’d been involved in the branding, the logotype design and the design work for the publications. I’d designed a grid system that would work across all of the media from flyers to signage – a kind of universal grid with the proportions of the logo as its starting point.
The time came when I had to knuckle down and design the web site. I started the design, as I usually did, on paper. Then Photoshop. Then Dreamweaver (trying to avoid looking at the code it produced – not because I was purist, but because it scared me to death!). The website design I created was based on a fixed width, fixed height modular grid. It had it all: ambiguous navigation, hidden content, images instead of text, all created with tables. It was cutting edge. But I know now, I hadn’t created a website, I’d created a brochure that happened to be on screen. I knew then, as I do know, that it was wrong. What I’d created had no place on screen at all – the wrong design for the medium. Instead of trying to understand the web, and the browser, I’d taken my existing thinking and shoe-horned my controlled design into it.
Now, let me ask you a question. If you replace Photoshop with Fireworks, Dreamweaver with Textmate, and tables for layout with Web Standards, how many of you are still designing this way? How many of you are still thinking of pages and edges? It’s ok. I am still, too.
800 years of baggage is hard to shed. There’s a lot of engrained thinking. Thinking that is, in fact, really great design and compositional theory. But, because of the attachment to the fixed page, we’ve not accepted the web for what it really is: fluid, chaotic, unordered, open. On the web, there is no page.
If there’s no page, no thing with edges, then how can we begin to define a grid? One of the goals – as described by Jan Tschichold – was to create a layout that is bound to the book. How can we bind anything on the web if there is no page from which to start? I propose we stop trying to find the browser’s edge. We stop trying to create a page where there isn’t one, and we welcome what makes the web, weblike: fluidity. We start creating the connectedness Tschichold talked about by looking at what is knowable; our content.
It has been said that as web designers, we’re not designing around content, but rather we’re designing places for content to flow into. Particularly in large organisations, it was commonplace for designers not to know what the content is, or would be, but rather, at best, they’d have some idea of how the content would break down. At worst, they wouldn’t have a clue and basically guess. ‘Oh, this is an article page, so it must have a bunch of headings, some body copy, some lists’. Feel familiar?
Separation of content and presentation is the mantra of the Web Standards movement. So you may think this disconnect started when the web standards movement was in full flow, but it started way before then. I look back at when I worked in web design agencies in the early 2000’s and, as a designer, I was off in my little corner designing the three templates that the client was paying for, and that the Information Architect had defined. I had wireframes of these exemplar templates and was pretty much following them the number. What I was doing was designing in the dark. I had my blinkers on. I had no idea what the content would be in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years time. In fact, I’m pretty sure the client didn’t, either.
What I was doing was designing a box. A straight-edged, inflexible box that couldn’t grow with the content as it didn’t take into account existing graphical assets, either. Thankfully, skip 10 years to the present day and things are getting better. We have content strategy. We have a relatively mature UX industry. As designers, we’re in a much better position to know, not just what the content will be right now, but what it will be in 1,2 ,3 years time. Now we have this knowledge, we can use it to our advantage: by using it to create our grid system.
I’ve talked about baggage. Hundreds of years of thinking in the same way: canvas-in. We’ve taken grid design theory from the world of the physical page and tried to make work in a medium where there are pages with no edges. A medium where the user is able to manipulate the viewport. Where context matters – is the reader sitting at the TV, a desk, using an iPad or hurredley walking from one meeting to another snatching some news on the way on their mobile device. Where do we begin to design on these shifting sands and still retain the reason for using a grid system? Before I get on to that, let’s remind ourselves what those reasons are:
Creates connectedness Grid systems help connect or disconnect content. They help people read and aid comprehension by chunking together similar types of content, or by regular positioning of content, they can help people navigate the content. Connectedness helps brands tell a consistent story in layout.
Help solve layout problems We all need answers to layout problems. How wide should a table be? What should the whitespace be around this boxout? Grid systems help us with that with predefined alignment points.
Provides visual pathways for the readers eye to follow A well-designed grid system will help use whitespace dynamically and in a powerful way. By filling a space with negative space instead of content, we can force the direction of the readers eye more effectively than anything else.
As with the printed word, the word on screen would benefit from some rules of form; a new canon of page construction for the web. A way of constructing harmonious layouts that is true to the nature of the web, and doesn’t try to take constraints from one medium into another. That starts with the content and works out, instead of an imaginary fixed page and working inwards. I’m going to repeat that, because it’s important: we start with the content and work out. Instead of starting with an imaginary fixed page and work in.
The new canon can be best described as an approach. A series of guidelines, rather than a single diagram to be applied to all. This first part of the canon are a series of design principles to adhere to. These design principles were created to provide a simple thought framework, an Idea Space; a set of guiding principles to be creative with.
Define a relationships from your content. If none exist, create some. A grid for the web should be defined by the content, not the edge of an imaginary page. Look to your content to find fixed sizes. These could be elements of content that is out of your control: syndicated content, advertising units, video or, more commonly, legacy content (usually images). If none of those exist, you must define some. Make some up. You have to start somewhere, and by doing it at a content level means you are drawing content and presentation closer together.
Use ratios or relational measurements above fixed measurements. Ratios and relational measurements such as pixels of percentages can change size. Fixed measurements, like pixels, can’t.
Bind the content to the device. Use CSS media queries, and techniques such as responsive web design, to create layouts that respond to the viewport. Be sympathetic to the not only the viewport, but to the context of use. For example, a grid system designed for a small screen should be different to that intended to be viewed on a laptop.
By using these principles to design to, we’re drawing closer relationships between our layout, content and device. Tschichold would be proud.
– This blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming book on designing grid systems for the web, published by Five Simple Steps.
– December 9th, 2012Next