In Flux

15 September 2013

I count myself lucky to work in such an exciting industry. When friends or family outside of web design circles ask me about my job I tell them that it is exciting. I often tell them that “No two days are the same”. In a recent moment of clarity I realised that there are very few parameters in our work that stay the same. The web as a medium changes every day, in fact it is changing all the time.

The television industry broadcasts to a specified aspect ratio. This aspect ratio fits the dimensions of TV sets and the broadcast is either squashed or stretched to fit the image depending on the size of the set. The viewer has limited control over what they see and how they see it. Using their remote control, they might have an option to change the aspect ratio from 16:9 to 4:3 which distorts the image and breaks the broadcaster’s intended design.

The newspaper industry generally operates to either broadsheet or tabloid sizes on a paper canvas. The reader has slightly more control than the TV viewer, they can fold the paper and take it with them or perhaps fold it to make it easier to hold and read. However this breaks the publisher’s intended design. The graphics and the text are broken between a line through the layout originating from the reader’s fold.

The web industry is more complex. The web is constantly in a state of flux. There are no absolutes. You could almost say that no two users computers are the same. Think about the parameters that affect how our work is observed: different screen widths and heights is an obvious example, but look deeper at the additional parameters that can affect screen size — in Chrome some users prefer to browse with the bookmarks bar in view, some without. Some people might have additional toolbars that reduce the viewing area further meaning their experience will be slightly different to someone else’s. Other factors that affect how someone sees our design include different colour profiles between browsers, different colour profiles between monitors, manually adjusted colours and contrasts, browser extensions that block advertisements, browser extensions that block design and show only the content, browser extensions that add functionality and manipulate designs like Skype’s phone number extension — just to name a few.

Under the hood of the browser a slight difference in the version number could introduce any number of tweaks that affect a user’s experience of a page — perhaps the javascript engine has been improved meaning user A’s computer presents your design better than user B’s computer. Maybe the font hinting has been tweaked between a revision number, Flash might be disabled or enabled, experimental features might be active or inactive, and diving deeper into version numbers — a browser version number might be the same between two computers but they might have different versions of Java™ or QuickTime plugins. I find it hard to believe that there are a wealth of identical environments viewing our designs, the notion of no two being the same doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The mind-bending truth is that this is changing all the time at micro and macro levels. A plugin version number can change, a browser can update automatically, the web as a platform can change and is constantly changing. The only absolute is change.

We need to be ready to respond to change. Screen size is just one parameter, but look closer and you’ll find a host of differences that are not present in other media — this is what excites me about the web. We can be true to the nature of the web, adhere to the core values that change slower than the rest like fluidity, typography, engaging content and accept change.