Responsive Web Design: Design Theory's Experimental Frontier

Some questions to ponder while reading:

  • How does our understanding of grids change if the page size is no longer fixed?
  • How does our understanding of typographic layout change if column sizes are no longer fixed?
  • How does our understanding of visual hierarchy change if layouts are no longer fixed?

Important advances in simplifying the understanding of aesthetic formalism have often come about by quantifying design in mathematical terms. From the Greek golden section, to Müller-Brockmann's grids, the photographer's rule of thirds, the typographic scale, W3C colour contrast algorithms and Donald Knuth's work in computer typesetting - these all distil aesthetic ideas into formulas.

Traditionally the output mediums were of limited fixed sizes and so a sensible designer could redesign for a different size without much needed to quantify layout in response to weird output sizes. A few general rules of thumb and a good sense of aesthetics was all that was necessary.

Things have changed; Websites are now displayed on a wide variety of devices with different screen sizes and proportions. It used to be that a designer would simply ignore anything but desktop or design a second site for mobile. For over fifteen years web designers have been able to largely ignore increasing desktop screen-resolution by fixing their designs at a certain size within the browser window - effectively ignoring the live resizing of browser windows. This meant no difficult decisions regarding text-line lengths and image sizes relative to column sizes because this could all be fixed at design time. But as the number of devices increase (and thus variety of screen size) many web designers are realising that they should design responsively.

The gateway drug for responsive web design is the flexible grid. Designers are forced to think in terms of ratios (expressed in percentages) instead of pixels. Further to this as the web browser window size is moved into previously nonsensical proportions, the responsive web designer is faced with unique challenges to preserve "design integrity". Solving these challenges via flexible grids, media queries, typographic hacks and even changes to the visual hierarchy are forcing designers to express these visual relationships in code.

Responsive web design at its highest craft is about flexing within specified constraints then having alternative plans when those constraints are violated. How narrow can the browser window get before a column is dropped? How small can the logo go? How wide can a line of text be? All these decisions made by the responsive web designer and codified in CSS and JavaScript provide a living source of data for new understandings in layout and proportion.

Web designers are pragmatic people and don't like doing things twice. So as the body of aesthetic approaches in responsive web design grows many of these heuristics are becoming encoded into behaviours in JavaScript frameworks that are freely shared. Here, JavaScript and CSS code provide good documentation of the ratios and formulas at work. So while web designers pragmatically solve the problems of non-constant screen sizes, their experimentation leads to a new way to look at layout, proportion and hierarchy and this will lead to a greater understanding of mathematics of layout aesthetics.


Designer Work Style.

Nearly 20 years ago I was in a management paper and learned that workers exist on a continuum between the consistent 9-5er and the inconsistent burst worker. It is no surprise that creatives are burst workers. A person whose natural tendency is to work in bursts but who has learned to fit into the 9-5 paradigm will have significant swings in productivity and motivation during the workday. It's almost axiomatic that the more creative a person the less consistent they are.

Designers rise to the challenge of completing deadlines but can become easily exhausted. Much of our training of designers instils into them the primacy of the deadline above all else and this reinforces the burst personality. For the industry this is helpful in that it helps "get projects out the door" and the downtime is necessary for rest, recovery and reflection. The danger is that overwork is much more difficult to detect and burnout is a real risk.

Burst work is fine when project are of generally short duration (i.e. not months or years) and deadlines are not daily. But as our deadlines extend (larger projects particularly web and development) then burst working is less desirable. IT has the "deathmarch project" where the deadline is far away but everybody is pushed into overwork to make it and larger design projects carry the same risks.

My own experience is that there are very few designers who find the consistency of 9-5 easy who are also great visual creatives. The consistent 9-5ers are normally competent and reliable but lack that creative spark or flair. They may be great technically and/or quite good visually but they're likely never going to win a creative award.

Don't knock them because their consistent workers are an important part of a design team. Not only do they handle the routine jobs more accurately and with less frustration, they also provide a yardstick of "normalcy" to their peers. They remind people that families are waiting, the sun goes up and down and the tides go in and out. They are living examples that despite our obsessive tendencies towards our projects and deadlines that there are more important things.

Burst work could be why we place so much emphasis on professionalism - particularly punctuality and attendance. Just to try and counter-act the tendency towards relying on burst work instead of proper planning. Perhaps this is the Confucian balance to the natural tendency of designers. The Confucian education principle here is that education often involves strategies for handling imbalanced tendencies. "Be more aggressive" a passive person and "Be more passive" to an aggressive person. In this aspect design is pragmatic: we need to work together at overlapping times in a team and we should do that when our clients are active (i.e. the working day). It helps our socialisation to even loosely fit a working pattern common in our culture.

There is a danger: if we do successfully turn these normally naturally burst workers into consistent 9-5ers then we may kill what it is that gives them the creative spark. Mindless consistency is the enemy of creativity. Therefore a mixed burst-consistent approach might provide a compromise; the creative bursters are allowed an equivalent but more irregular schedule provided they meet deadlines.

This is just another of those things that makes design hard: the right amounts of consistency and burst, unbounded creativity and creative pragmatism, obssessiveness but with perspective maintained. And this provides important decisions for employers building a team: it's often not just about the skill set, but how their work-style fits the work you do.


My PhD: The Simple Version

I have been struggling to come up with a simple way to explain my PhD but I think I have it.

My research tries to reduce information overload when displaying data where the structure of that data is not known ahead of time.

This is a particular problem for the Semantic Web because of the Innumerable Corpus property. That is: there is an innumerable amount of data expressed using innumerable ontologies (structures). This research will help in the construction of a general purpose semantic web browser.

What is the scale of the problem? If an ontology is well known then a human can hand-craft a display for that ontology but that display is fragile and fixed. Fragile meaning that it will only work for that one ontology and will not display data that only partially uses the ontology (and what is data is used from multiple ontologies?). A fixed display will not necessarily suit the needs of all users.

Where ontological enrichment research expands the amount of data available about a subject, my research reduces data to the minimally most useful set compared to what is known about user goals. My research then attempts to select displays that reduce information overload by taking into account user needs.

I currently (Feb 2012) have a beta semantic web browser (Eme) suitable for continued experimentation. I am currently working on algorithms to make intelligent decisions for the display by discovering how data triplets are related.

Are triplets related somehow? completely independant? members of the same set/list? redundant equivalents? or a related alternative? Knowing this allows us to make intelligent decisions about the display; related triplets can be grouped together, members of a set can be displayed as a list, redundant triplets can be eliminated and alternative need only one of the alternatives displayed.


Best time to join cash tables

On PokerStars I've noticed a little bit of a trend on the lower limit tables. These limits are just full of regulars with 11/8 stats that are annoying to play against when there are too many on the table. Ideally you want tables with at least two fish that you can exploit. Here's my tip:

Join tables in the five minutes before the half hour or the whole hour.

Why does this work? Well it turns out the people with these stats are grinders. They play a fairly predictable game over a large number of tables. They also tend to play to for a set length of time which incidentally tends to end on the half or whole hour. These are the times when seats might open up on tables with the fish. With so many seats opening up it might even attract a few new fish to your tables.