[thelist] front end design: liquid design

Ben Dyer radicalbender at gmail.com
Mon Oct 20 10:45:23 CDT 2008

On Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 12:57 AM, Felix Miata <mrmazda at ij.net> wrote:

> On 2008/10/19 14:01 (GMT-0500) Ben Dyer composed:
> > You know, I'm not a fan of liquid designs anymore. For two reasons
> > really:
> > 1. Generally, the wider the column of text, the more difficult it is
> > to read naturally.
> Wider than what? 5 words? 11 words? 16 words?
> Generally I find 10 words wide much easier to read than 3 words wide, and
> 15
> as well.

"Wider than what?" I wasn't defining a fixed amount, it's a hyperbolic
curve: as width of column text increases, the readability decreases,
approaching 0 readability.

Much like, as you get closer to the sun, the more likely you are to catch on
fire.  Closer than what? 93m miles? 57m miles? 5 feet?  There is a point
when you will catch on fire.  Just because you don't know what that point is
doesn't make it not true.

> > 2. I'm noticing that, statistically speaking, monitor resolutions are
> > trending higher and higher. 1024x768 is still the leader, but widths
> > of 1280, 1360 and higher seem to becoming a lot more prevalent of
> > late.
> How wide is 1024? How wide is 1280? How wide is 1920? Should it matter? The
> answer is it should not matter one iota. It's too bad most designers refuse
> to permit it to not matter, as it certainly need not.

Uh...1024 is 1024 pixels wide, 1280 is 1280 pixels wide and 1920 is 1920
pixels wide.  But I suppose the riddles you speak in refer to what
percentage of width does the browser viewing space take up within the
monitor space, except I raised this point elsewhere.

> > Probably the average user is upgrading their monitors when they
> > upgrade machines.
> Is more better? Is more really an upgrade? If so, how?

Are you really a human being?  Are you some sort of Turing test gone awry?
An Eliza program that was never turned off?  Is it just so easy to dismiss
arguments under the guise of relativistic claptrap and speaking in riddles?
Did you know that it's much easier to be dismissive of arguments while
feigning objectivity in this fashion?  Did you know Fox News does the same

> > Now, I know that many users won't maximize the browser window with a
> > large screen space like that,
> How "large" is that? How do you know whether 1680 is more than 1024 or 1440
> isn't less than 1280? Are you aware that some people buy larger screens in
> order to make things bigger, as opposed to providing more space for "same"
> size things?

Yes, but did you know that *most* people buy a new monitor and computer and
leave it at whatever default resolution the computer came at and never
change it or even know how to change it?  This is why Internet Explorer
keeps hanging on with 70-80% of the market share even though virtually
*everyone* who uses Firefox agrees almost immediately that it's a far
superior browsing experience?  Because most people lazily stick with the
defaults.  Only a small percentage of power users or special cases (people
like us) change away from the defaults.  The average user will not.

> > but as these numbers keep increasing,
> > the problem with point #1 will keep increasing as well.
> That's a fallacious assumption. You have no idea whether my 1920 wide
> screen
> is wider than my 1600 wide screen, because you have no idea how wide either
> of them are. Of course, if you size in em instead of px, you embrace
> inherent
> web characteristics, making any supposed physical width irrelevant, leaving
> only relative width relevant, which is a good thing for web users.

No, it's not a fallacious assumption.  It's a logical conclusion.  Alright,
look, here are the solid points from which the conclusion is drawn:

1. A large number of people have changed their viewing environment over
time.  Five to seven years ago, the most popular screen resolution was
1024x768, with most surveys pegging it at around 66-75% of the share.  Most
of the remaining percentages were lower resolution than that (e.g., 800x600)
with only a small sliver higher resolution. Now, 1024x768 is still the
majority share, but only around 33% in most reports, *and* most of the
remaining percentage is a *higher* resolution than 1024x768.

2. Because 50 million people didn't wake up one day and discover they had a
"Display" control panel, the rational explanation is that in the past five
to seven years, people have purchased new, better machines.

3. Because of the shift during that time from CRT displays to LCD displays,
as people have upgraded machines, many have likely upgraded their displays
as well.  And LCD displays tend to have greater screen viewing space *and* a
higher screen resolution.

4. The average user rarely changes away from the default options on a
computer.  And this is where I think *your* particular logical fallacy
lies.  Power users like us are always changing settings, trying to find the
optimal way to work on our computers.  We do this because we spend hours
upon hours on the computer and are familiar with how it functions and
operates and aren't afraid to change things up.

The average user, however, just wants to read their e-mail, check a few
sites, see that stupid YouTube video their friend sent them, open Office
documents, etc.  They won't venture to the Control Panel or System
Preferences unless they absolutely have to.  To some neophytes, even those
names sound scary.

5. Computer manufacturers will default to increasingly higher screen
resolutions because this looks better in the store (more visible space =
better appearance when trying to sell to a potential buyer).  If you set a
monitor resolution on a brand-new 19" LCD screen to 1024x768, that would
look odd to an average user.  It would feel cramped for a monitor of that

So, knowing that resolutions have increased, here's the case for

1. Wider text *is* harder to read.  This is why magazine and newspaper
layouts are multi-column.  If they were from one end of the paper to the
other, it'd be harder to read because your head has to move, you can't just
read with your eyes.

2. In the web, the same principle *generally* applies.  And this is the crux
of the argument here. Reading Wikipedia at 1280x960 full screen or 1600x1200
with a partial screen is more difficult to read than at 1024x768 full
screen.  Why?  Because at some point, you can't continue reading with your
eyes: the screen is too wide.

Ergo, the logical conclusion to these points (with regards to the initial
question about liquid layouts) is that screen resolutions are increasing and
if you're designing your site to have content regions of a large percentage
of the width of the browser, you are likely to have readability issues.

Honestly, I really can't figure out the crux of your argument.  It seems to
be the usage of ems instead of pixels in font size, but that makes no
difference to the argument at hand.  A larger screen resolution will have no
bearing on the actual size of 1em and the size of 1em will not change based
on the end user's screen resolution.

I suppose then that you are making the point about being able to use the
zoom or magnification within a browser, which goes along my previous point
that the average user rarely changes away from the default options on a
computer.  I'd be willing to bet decent money that the average user doesn't
even know that option exists.  Anecdotally, I have (seriously) seen users
read insanely small text for years, not understanding that somewhere along
the way, they bumped Ctrl/Cmd-minus.  They didn't even realize that it could
be fixed.


*Ben Dyer* is *Radical Bender*
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