Tuesday 16 July 2002

Dick and Jane see Spot run

In a comment on my post about making the text on my site resizable, Kris wrote:

As a frequent lurker of alt.html, I often read not to specify any font sizes at all, except for headings when really desired. I suggest if your efforts betray you, this is plan B then.

To which I replied:

Kris, I don’t like the idea of not specifying body text sizes one little bit. The end result almost always looks like a “See Spot Run” reading primer.

Kris responded:

“The end result almost always looks like a ‘See Spot Run’ reading primer.”
Perhaps. The real pain may actually be the “letting go”. : )

Now I understand the concept of non-attachment as well as anyone. (One friend told me not so long ago that another had described me as “kind but detached”—which I thought was perhaps the greatest compliment I’d ever been paid, but that’s another story.) Rather, what struck me was the implication that, since weblogs are really about writing, the size of the text is inconsequential, that worrying over the font size is little more than a bourgeois affectation.

But first, let me make it quite clear that I’m not even sure this was what Kris meant. The smiley at the end indicates that the remark is wryly humorous. In other words, I could easily be projecting my paranoia onto Kris, whereas his/her comments on my posts have invariably been thoughtful and constructive. So I apologize to Kris in advance, but…

Humor me.

When I started building Web pages, the prevailing orthodoxy was that the author was responsible for the structure of the document and the reader controlled the display. Design didn’t come into the picture. Not for long. Designers, rightly appalled by the ugliness of most Web sites, stretched and bent HTML in order to create visually appealing sites.

CSS and accessibility represent, to some extent, an attempt to redress the worst excesses of the design faction by reasserting the importance of document structure whilst also providing designers with the tools for creating attractive sites.

Where do bloggers fit into this? What is the nature of weblog design?

As far as I can figure, bloggers approach the design problem in one of three ways:

  • A relatively small number engage a designer to create their weblog templates.
  • Many happily accept the default templates provided with their blogging software.
  • The rest tinker with those default templates or build new ones.

Weblogs from the first two categories are hardly ever visually offensive. Those of us in the third category create designs which, although not always professional, say a great deal about our personalities and visual preferences. Strangely, I’d never thought about this but I’m now aware of how much I enjoy and admire the designs of the weblogs I visit regularly. Sure, a weblog is primarily about the texts and images that make up the daily posts. But the look-and-feel of each blog communicates so much about the author’s attitudes and intentions.

I have an unbounded admiration for the designer’s pixie dust and I’d never consider working on a paid Web project without a designer. Yet it never occurred to me to solicit expert assistance for my weblog—creating one’s own design seemed like an integral part of the process. I started my blogging career with a dramatic “white text on a dark gray background” design that many visitors found difficult to read. I changed it. Over a few iterations it turned into the current design, which fits the following criteria:

  • I do not want a liquid layout (i.e. I don’t want the content area to resize dynamically) because I want an optimum line length of 50-70 characters at “normal” magnifications.
  • I want the navigation plus content to fill the 800 pixel width screen resolution specified by about 50% of Web users (although the site looks best on a 1024 pixel wide display).
  • I want the site to be accessible and to load quickly (thus CSS for positioning and text formatting).

I don’t kid myself that it’s a spectacular design but I do think it’s attractive (in a spare kind of way) and it’s functional. The size of the text isn’t a trivial issue since it directly influences the line length, which (together with the typeface) is a key factor in readability. Plus there’s the elusive issue of “balance.” Even though I’m not a designer, I know that the site looks crappy when the text is much larger or smaller than the 12 pixel Verdana I’ve specified.

In the interests of accessibility I’m happy to relinquish control over the text size to the individual user. But I do want visitors, first time round, to view my intended design. I guess I’m happy for Spot to run; I just don’t want to hang round with Dick and Jane to watch him.

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People, and designers in particular, want control.

For designers on the Internet, there is no control, they should all give up so they can focus more on what really is important, their audience.

"So I apologize to Kris in advance, but..."

No need to. My remark was intended to spark a thought and supossedly it did : ) <= another one of those smilies.

I have released spot, or at least unleashed the rope a great deal. I sleep better now.

"..because I want an optimum line length of 50-70 characters at "normal" magnifications."

That would be, say, 60 ems?

"..the 800 pixel width screen resolution specified by about 50% of Web users"

That unfortunatly says nothing about available canvas size. But I do think that there are circumstances one takes into account in which the site's appearance is optimal. Today, my boss, who knows little of the Internet at all -- go figure -- asked me why a project I am working on is starting to look awkward when he resizes the browser window to a size of less than 150x150. My initial response was evasive, in order not to invoke an endless discussion on something he does not know anything about at all. But when he kept asking, I replied that the site design's biggest feature is "the respect of user's choice". If the visitor chooses to watch the site in a microscopic window, he can go right ahead. I will not stop his freedom of choice by throwing intrusive javascripts at him in an attempt to prevent him from resizing the window, or any other hack that one can come up with. My boss didn't like the answer... He is someone who would like to tie potential clients to their chairs before he makes his phone call... or make them call him. I wonder if my giving up on this control thing makes me less 'commercially minded'.

"..I want the site to be accessible and to load quickly (thus CSS for positioning and text formatting)"


"I know that the site looks crappy when the text is much larger or smaller than the 12 pixel Verdana I've specified."

It doesn't look exactly like you intended. Let's keep it at that, ok? Would you call a friend ugly if she wears a dress that is not your taste? You write good stuff, that is why I come back at this site. I continue to do that even if I had to use my 640x480 monitor again, or my old mac that came with NN4.7 pre-installed. In that case it would be cool to have some choices in how I read the site.

I had to use my 640x480 monitor for 4 months after my other monitor died. First it was hell, then it became an inspiration.

"But I do want visitors, first time round, to view my intended design."

You cannot. Give up the desire.

(I think that last one sounded a bit harsh.. lets cheer it up with another smiley then : )

Posted by Kris on 16 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Design has heretofore been a creature to be shot and mounted on a wall. That doesn't mean it needs to be one henceforth.

The field of design is slowly learning that relinquishing total control presents intriguing challenges. I see no inherent reason "Jonathon's intended design" cannot be viewed at several different text sizes.

(Come on, max-width property! *grin*)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 16 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

oh, my kingdom for a proper implementation of max-width! (or max-height, for that matter.)

and that is the most crushing thing about converting to CSS...the promise is so great, and is only beginning to be fulfilled.

(is it terrible to say that (on my monitor at 1280x1024) I'd really like a slightly longer line?)

Posted by elaine on 17 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Not terrible at all, Elaine. But it would cause horizontal scrolling on 800 x 600 pixel displays...

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 17 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour