The business of Web design has always included a high level of uncertainty: Multiple versions of multiple browsers run on computers configured in ways unknowable to the mere-mortal Web designer. About five years ago, pioneering members of the design community began to advocate standards to combat that uncertainty — to create some “rules to design by” and hence make their jobs somewhat more predictable, if not easier. Standards such as color palettes, image formats, page dimensions, and file size were loosely decided upon by a growing consensus of Web designers. Nothing official, nothing decreed; rather, there was simply a growing chorus of words in design-related books, magazines, and Web sites all tuning in to the same design standards and practices.
Typically, standards were based on the lowest common denominator of potential Web site visitor, or viewer. The viewer was the ultimate goal, so it made perfect sense for designers to go out of their way to support the widest audience possible. For the longest time that meant designing for a system only capable of 256 colors, with a version 2.0 or 3.0 Web browser viewed on a 13-inch monitor. It made sense for site designs to work within these constraints, given the state of technology at the time. But that was five years ago, and it’s hard to deny that times have changed.
Have we in the design community kept pace with the evolving design technology, as well as the technology employed by our viewers? And could the future offer better tools or design environments to eliminate these standards dilemmas that plague us?
Of course, the problem when succumbing to the lowest common denominator is that you end up sacrificing the progress of technology and its adoption. When is the right time to cast off the antiquities of past technology and embrace the new?
The Times They Are a-Changin’
I started noticing about a year ago a few major sites asking for a full 15-inch monitor space, forgoing the notion that the 13- to 14-inch monitor was standard. At first I was rather irritated at this, having grown fond of the ability to view and click to my desktop behind my Web browser. But I soon realized the inherent pluses of being able to see more at once with less scrolling. Besides, those pages designed to the old, smaller width look just plain silly on my new 21-inch monitor.
Color palettes and type on the Web have matured moderately through the years, but in no way gracefully, and not to the degree possible. Tools such as Macromedia Fireworks and Adobe ImageReady have provided us with the means to get remarkable results out of limited color palettes. Not only do we have the option of Adaptive, Selective, Perceptual, and Web Safe color palettes, but we can also lock down and shift colors to their closest Web Safe counterparts.
With desktop displays settled in at thousands of colors and above, the only two reasons left for a 256-color palette are the need for fast downloads (8-bit color graphics still yield small file sizes) and the need to support color-limited handheld devices. PocketPCs and color Palms have generated a sort of color palette renaissance: Just when you thought it was safe to concern yourself with only displays set to thousands of colors and above, mobile handhelds are flooding the marketplace, once again giving us a 256-color limitation to consider. Particularly given their minimal display sizes, however, I would argue that these devices demand optimized pages designed specifically for them, leaving us free to use the full box of Crayons when designing for desktop users.
Type control on the Web has become something of a reality over the past couple of years with the introduction of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). We can now assign styles to our text and even control attributes such as point size, line spacing, and positioning, all without using one single transparent GIF. As with many of these new technologies, it seems that neither Microsoft nor Netscape can decide to what end to support CSS. We are given the promise of something great while only being able to utilize a fraction of the potential of CSS, because of lack of full support within either major browser.
There Is Another
One format to come along for the Web that is evidently here to stay is Flash, or .SWF. Flash not only seems to answer our prayers for browser harmony but also affords us tremendous animation controls and interactivity. The format emerged on the scene a few years ago and has fast become a potential alternative to pure HTML sites. At first many people tended to mock Flash and not take it seriously, partly because it was introduced to many using over-the-top presentations that ended up exploiting the format for all it was worth rather than showing its utility in real-world situations. But lately Flash has permeated even the most practical of sites. Is it the fact that 93 percent of Web viewers out there have Flash installed in their browsers? Or could it be that designers are willing to trade in all the HTML and browser compatibility headaches for a much more workable, accommodating solution? Who’s to say? But Flash does provide a consistent presentation format over various browsers as well as robust interactivity and animation features — benefits that are getting harder and harder to pass up.
Embracing the New
It hasn’t been possible to buy a new desktop computer with less than 16-bit color support for about four years now. And just try finding a monitor smaller than 15 inches nowadays. So have we kept up with the times? Who drives the progress of Web design? Is it the designers, the viewers, the browser developers, or technology itself? My guess is that each plays a role. But perhaps it’s up to us, the designers, to demand more out of the technology we use while keeping our audience in mind. That browsers should be fully compliant with the latest Web languages and compatible with one another is something we’ve been demanding for years. Image formats such as GIF should evolve to support richer color palettes. Then maybe we can concentrate on how we could further the existing technology or start new with formats like Flash and SVG to pave the way for the future.