A Modern Default

21 January 2015

There are few things on the Web that excite me more than a new HTML document its raw form and the possibilities it brings. In an unstyled HTML document the contents are laid bare for all to see. Out-of-the-box HTML comes with an established typographic hierarchy and elements are distinguishable like the different variations of lists that we seem to have a strange habit of resetting and stripping of the characteristics that make it a list.

The default styles for HTML are sensible defaults. The type is legible, the layout is functional — in fact it’s almost entirely responsive, with a few small tweaks it can be completely responsive.

I have shared a project on GitHub called Modern Default HTML. It’s nothing overly remarkable, nothing fancy and it didn’t take very long to make. But I felt the need to publish it to show the few changes necessary to make the default web page accessible on all devices. There are a few similar projects out there, but perhaps this is a more focused effort at addressing the initial tweaks necessary for a completely accessible starting point.

My project goals were simple:

  • Stay true to the default and do the minimum required to make the default web page work anywhere
  • Don’t impose any solutions to common design problems (and there are plenty like responsive tables for example — the same solution may not apply to all types of data)
  • On a related note - there shouldn’t be anything in the default you will need to undo

I’ve been meditating on the idea that as designers we owe it to ourselves and anyone who comes into contact with the things we make that we stay as true to the sensible defaults as we possibly can within the typical constraints of a web project. The default web page is fast, functional and founded upon a clear typographic hierarchy. Any design decisions we make thereafter will either enhance this experience or tarnish it.

I’m asking myself more challenging questions in this mindset when designing even the smallest change: “Why is this better than the default?”, “What does this bring to the table?”, “Is this feature so critical to the goals of this page that the performance hit is necessary?”, “Does it break the default or is it loading a completely redundant asset?”

As designers we are in the position of power where we can both make and break the Web. We have a great foundation to work with by default, it’s up to us where we go with it.