Control

Ross called me a control freak today.

It came as a bit of a shock to someone who considers himself fairly easy-going 90% of the time.

But it turned out he was talking about the styles/templates I’m making for Blogware. He touched the raw nerve I talked (see: Ranted) about the other day.

Specifically, he was talking about my predilection for using pixel-based layouts instead of percentage-based ones. The idea being that a percentage-based layout would let everything expand or contract depending on the visitor’s resolution and would nicely morph everything into place.

It’s a nice fantasy.

Theoretically, it should be possible. This is the World-Wide Web, where normal constraints of print design don’t exist. The end-user can view the site at whatever resolution makes them comfortable. People with 14-inch monitors or bad eyesight can surf at 640 by 480, eagle-eyes or geeks with 24-inch plasma monitors can surf at 2048 by 1536 or whatever other ungodly resolution they can achieve. Everything will work out fine no matter what.

It’s a nice fantasy.

It doesn’t work that way.

Every operating system and every web browser has its own take on the “correct” way to display a web page.

MacOS displays colours lighter than Windows or Linux, due to differences in monitor gamma profiles.

Old browsers (4.x and back) on old Macs (pre-OSX) display fonts smaller than Windows or Linux, due to the default Mac resolution being 96dpi, while Windows and Linux use 72dpi.

Opera couldn’t do proper DHTML until version 7.

Netscape just plain sucked prior to version 6. IE sucked prior to version 5.

The list goes on and on.

As a web designer, I’m expected to create a site that is interesting, entertaining and useful. Oh, and it’s supposed to work with every browser ever built, because we can’t lose one viewer even if that person is surfing with Netscape 2.02 on an OS/2 box. Looks great in IE, usable in Netscape has become a mantra for web designers. (I’m guilty of it, too.)

It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy. And I was never too sane to begin with.

But back to the control freak issue.

When I design for print, what I send off to the printer (the kinds of printers with big printing presses, not the kinds of printers hooked up to your computers) is exactly what the printer sends me back, and exactly what the viewer sees. When I design for the web, what I send off to the server is exactly what the server sends back, but then the browser takes over. It may render it correctly, or it may make it look like something Dali would make using finger paints after taking a hit of LSD.

I’ve found that using pixels instead of percents greatly reduces the chance of the browser making my page look like Monet on crystal meth. So I use pixels.

In print design, you expect pixel-precision. (There isn’t really such a thing as a pixel in print design, but bear with me.) In web design, there are two schools of thought.

The first expects pixel-precision. Most designers who feel this way come from a print design background. You’ll recognize sites from these designers by resizing your browser window. No matter what size you make the window, the content on the page stays in the same place, at the same dimensions. They also tend to make sites with a lot of 50k-plus graphics on the home page.

The second school is people who have never designed a print ad in their lives or cropped a photograph without using Photoshop. They’re the designers who started on the web and their designs tend to reflect it: small graphics file sizes; spare, simple (but not necessarily sparse) design; expands to fill the entire available browser window, in order to put as much information “above the fold” as possible. (Although they usually have no idea what “above the fold” really means; they just heard some over-paid old-school designer use it and figured they should use it too.)

As in all things in life, the answer lies somewhere in between. Great web design should be able to encompass both schools. Beautiful layouts should be able to expand or shrink to the viewer’s resolutions and download in less than an hour on a 56K modem. And it would probably be possible, if not for the built-in limitations in web browsers. Instead we find something that kinda looks like what we envisioned. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough. And we go with it. Some designers have given up on HTML altogether and use the evil that is known as Flash, because they can get exactly what they saw in their heads, without being subject to the whims of browser interpretations.

Like many designers, pixel-based layouts work for me. And I’m sticking with them until browsers can keep up with me.

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