ISSUE 28  News & opinion |  January 2002 | updated 1/15/02   

  Last month's Comment Comment Archive (all previous)    
  The tyranny of 1024 x 768

When I'm visiting your website I get really annoyed when you insist: "Our site requires Internet Explorer 5, high-speed connection, 1024 x 768 monitor resolution."

Why? I already use I.E. 5 so that's not a problem. But I don't have a high-speed connection, and I'm too busy to arrange for one to view your site (unless you're going to pay for my upgrade). I can easily set my monitor to 1024 x 768, but I prefer 800 by 600, thankyouverymuch.

And you know what? I think it's your job to make your site work for me, not the other way around.

What's going on?
The real issue here goes beyond whether I'm just being cranky about my monitor setting. The issue is how the designer sees his/her role in communicating via the Web. It's not the same as print.

One of the distinctive, almost revolutionary, features of the Web is that it's intended to be a universal medium, available to anyone, using any kind of computer, anywhere, anytime. Despite the fun we have with its extra bells and whistles, with downloading mp3s and watching videos, this is still one of its greatest strengths.

But many designers are control freaks (I know should know, I am one). They want everything to look "perfect." In the world of print this is relatively easy, since page sizes and colors are not subject to user control. You can't change the size or the font on a printed page. The designer gets to decide all those issues, and good ones spend a lot of time agonizing over the details. As a user/reader you may not be aware of those decisions, you just read the book. Some designer made lots and lots of choices in an attempt to make it readable, but you have no choices other than to read it or put it down.

But reading a book isn't the same as using the Internet. That may seem obvious, but we haven't really grasped how important the difference is. The simple fact that we refer to web "pages" indicates that we still don't quite get it. We haven't even figured out what to call the things we create.

The "designer decides everything" approach, so important in print media, doesn't belong on the web, yet breaking with that mindset isn't easy. Designers still like to control how things look, to the extent that some feel it necessary to instruct you on exactly which browser you should use, the plug-ins you should install, and the screen resolution you should set your monitor to.

What's next?
Annoying as this is, it may create more serious problems. With more people connecting to the Web via wireless devices - phones, PDAs, pocket computers - in a few years designing for a 1024 x 768 monitor will seem laughably shortsighted. With more people with disabilities connecting to the Web via text-to-speech readers and other assistive devices, basing a website design on specific sizes, colors, and graphics is becoming unwise, and may eventually become illegal.

But rather than fighting about the wisdom of designing for particular browsers and screen sizes, let me suggest a comparison for you to consider.

What if?
Say you went to the video store and rented "Apocalypse Now," a movie that truly deserves to be seen in a theater on a big screen with surround sound. But, not unreasonably, you wanted to watch it at home on your 21" TV. You put the tape in your VCR and saw: "To view Apocalypse Now you must have a 54" or larger screen equipped with Dolby® Digital SurroundSound."

Would you be impressed with Francis Ford Coppola's artistic vision? Or would you be angry at his arrogance?

Or maybe you bought the DVD to watch on a flight from New York to LA. If the director insisted that you see the movie only as he intended it to be seen, you'd have a long, dull flight. You'd probably be outraged that the director, producer, and distributor cavalierly assumed you'd use only their choice of equipment to view the movie. And you'd probably avoid any movie from the same director or distributor in the future. With good reason.

As web designers we can learn something from television, radio, and movies: we need to understand the medium and technology to make things work on as wide a range of devices as possible, from big screen TVs to a black & white Watchman, from a $5,000 home stereo to a $15 Walkman.

Our job is to make things work for people, not to force them to adapt to our wishes. The sooner we learn this lesson, the sooner web design will move in truly unique and exciting directions. It's time to leave the assumptions and practices of print world behind.

-Al Wasco, January 10, 2002

Before you email me to point this out, I realize that with this site I've only partly followed my own advice. Much of the design is flexible and will resize to fit different screen sizes, but font sizes are fixed in pixels, causing a problem for people who want/need larger type. This will change with my next major redesign. I never said it would be easy.


Try a Google search to see just how common this practice is:
as of January 2002, 117,000 sites carried the 1024 x 768 decree.







Return to TOP







Return to TOP







Return to TOP