Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

Alright! It’s time for the final talk of the day at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jen is wrapping up a CSStastic afternoon with her talk Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed. These are my notes…

Ready for another hour of layout in CSS? Well, Jen will be showing no code in this talk. She’s actually nervous about this particular talk. Is she really planning to say “Everything about web design just changed”? That sounds so clickbaity! But she really believes we’re at an inflection point. This may be the sixth such point in the history of the web. One of those points where everything changes and we swap out our techniques.

For the last few years, we’ve been saying that everything changed when mobile came along. But actually, the real fight has been going on for longer than that. It’s the battle between wanting art and dealing with how the web works.

There’s a seminal book called Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel from 1996. In it, he describes the first time he saw the same site in two different browsers. His reaction was panic. The web gave control to the user. David Siegel wanted more control. And that’s how we got spacer gifs and tables for layout.

What are the five major changes in the history of web design?

  1. Simple HTML. There was only one kind of layout: flow layout. There’s no CSS, but the browser is still thinking of everything has having a box. Text takes up as much space as it needs. Images take up as much space as their size. This is flow. There wasn’t much you could do until tables came along. They were created for tabular content but abused for layouts. The “We need art!” crowd used what was available to them at the time. Lots of slicing and dicing.
  2. Flash. It was hard to get HTML tables to work in multiple browsers. Flash seemed like an amazing chance to start over. And we could do things that were previously only possible in CD-ROMs. As a designer, you take an element and place it where you want to go on the stage (the UI tradition that goes all the way back to Xerox PARC). We made some crazy sites, explored a lot of possibilities, and got a lot of control. But the downside was the lack of accessibility. We went back to getting to grips with the web as its own medium. Jeffrey’s book, Designing With Web Standards, was a rallying cry to allow HTML to return to doing what it was meant to.
  3. Fluid Layouts. This was a return to the way the web always behaved — content takes up as much room as it needs to. But this time there’s a certain amount of control over how things are laid out. Still, we pretended that nobody has screens smaller than 640 pixels or bigger than 1024 pixels. We still live with the idea of fluid columns today.
  4. Fixed-Width Layouts. The “We need art!” crowd wanted more control than fluid layouts offered. We pretended that everyone’s screen was at least 640 pixels, or later 800 pixels, or later 1024 pixels.
  5. Responsive Web Design. Unveiled by Ethan at An Event Apart Seattle in 2011: flexible grid; flexible images; media queries. It’s a return to fluid layouts, but the addition of media queries gives us more control. The idea of fluid image was a bit radical. Up until that point, we thought of images as always being their intrinsic size. But something Ethan said that day was “It’s not just about layout.” And it’s true. For the last eight years, it’s been about more than layout. You set out to redesign your website and end up redesigning your whole business. Responsive web design is, frankly, what the web is now.

But let’s talk about layout. What’s next? Intrinsic Web Design.

Why a new name? Why bother? Well, it was helpful to debate fluid vs. fixed, or table-based layouts: having words really helps. Over the past few years, Jen has needed a term for “responsive web design +”.

Responsive web design has flexible images. Intrinsic web design has flexible images …or fixed images. Whichever you want.

Responsive web design has a fluid columns. Intrinsic web design has fluid columns and rows.

Responsive web design uses media queries. Intrinsic web design doesn’t necessarily need them.

The name comes from words that have been floating in the ether. In Rachel’s talk, the words “sizing” and “intrinsic” came up a lot. This is about the nature of the web.

Let’s look at images specifically. Before responsive web design, images overflow their container if they are bigger than the container. Fluid images (as used in responsive web design) shrink and grow depending on the size of their container. You can also make images fluid in a vertical direction. If we make the image fluid vertically and horizontally, the image looks distorted. But now if we use object-fit: cover we can specify how we want the image to react.

Fixed or fluid? With grid layout, you can mix fixed and fluid. You can make a layout fluid until it hits a minimum size, at which point it stays fixed.

There are four stages of squishiness:

  1. fixed
  2. fr units (fluid)
  3. minmax()(fluid until fixed)
  4. auto (a return to flow)

That’s a powerful set of tools that may take us years to explore.

We can do truly two-dimensional layouts: rows and columns. Every one of those four stages of squishiness works for rows as well as columns. This means we can create intentional white space. Jen made a video about this and got the response that this was always possible, but it’s different now: it’s more intentional. You can set heights and widths.

We can have nested contexts now:

  1. Flow
  2. Flexbox (formatting context)
  3. Grid (formatting context)
  4. Multicolumn (formatting context)

Floats never created a new formatting context, which is why used clearfix. Now we don’t need hacks. You can mix and match, choosing the best layout tool for the job at hand. You can have a grid layout that has flexbox items within it. The Firefox dev tools allow you to inspect each layout type separately. You can use the nightly build to get the latest tools.

Then we’ve got ways to contract and expand content. We have more options now. For a while, we’ve had the option to squish and grow (e.g. with fluid images). Another is wrapping and reflowing (like we can do with text). Another option now is to add and remove whitespace. Maybe the content size doesn’t need to change; the whitespace shrinks and grows instead. An even more radical option now is to have things slide behind one another and overlap deliberately.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use media queries (meaning we’ve effectively got container queries). But we can still use media queries, as needed, to tweak the details.

So intrinsic web design is:

  1. Fluid and fixed
  2. Stages of squishiness
  3. Truly two-dimensional layouts
  4. Nested contexts
  5. Expand and contract content
  6. Media queries, as needed

We have a whole new sandbox that we can play in. You can find examples at labs.jensimmons.com.

See also:

This was originally posted on my own site.

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