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27 Feb 2016 : Losing My Religion #
For the last 18 years this site has stuck rigidly to a dynamic-width template. That's because I've always believed fixed-width templates to be the result of either lazy design or a misunderstanding of HTML's strengths. Unfortunately fashion seems to be against me, so in a bid to regain credibility, I'm now testing out a fixed-width template.

Look closely at the original design from 1998 and you'll see the structure of the site has hardly changed, while the graphics - which drew heavy inspiration from the surface of the LEGO moon - have changed drastically. At the time I was pretty pleased with the design, which just goes to show how much tastes, as well as web technologies, have changed in the space of two decades.

By moving to a fixed-width template I've actually managed to annoy myself. The entire principle of HTML is supposed to be that the user has control over the visual characteristics of a site. 'Separate design and content' my jedi-master used to tell me, just before mind-tricking me into doing the dishes. The rot set in when people started using tables to layout site content. The Web fought back with CSS, which was a pretty valiant attempt, even if we're now left with the legacy of a non XMl-based format (why W3C? Why?!).

But progress marches sideways and Javascript is the new Tables. Don't get me wrong, I think client-side programmability is a genuine case of progress, but it inevitably prevents proper distinction between content and design. It doesn't help that Javascript lives in the HTML rather than the CSS, which is where it should be if it's only purpose is to affect the visual design. Except good interactive sites often mix visuals and content in a complex way, forcing dependencies across the two that are hard to partition.

Happily computing has already found a solution to this in the form of MVC. In my opinion MVC will be the inevitable next stage of web enlightenment, as the W3C strives to pull it back to its roots separating content from design. Lots of sites implement their own MVC approach, but it should be baked into the standards. The consequence will be a new level of abstraction that increases the learning-curve gradient, locks out newcomers and spawns a new generation of toolkits attempting to simplify things (by pushing the content and design together again).

Ironically, the motivation for me to move to a fixed-width came from a comment by Kochise responding to a story about how websites are becoming hideous bandwidth-hogs. Kochise linked to a motherfucking website. So much sense I thought! Then he gave a second link. This was still a motherfucking website, but claimed to be better. Was it better? Not in my opinion it wasn't. And anyway, both websites use Google Analytics, which immediately negates anything worthwhile they might have had to say. The truly remarkable insight of Maciej Cegłowski in the original article did at least provoke me into reducing the size of my site by over 50%. Go me!

It highlighted something else also. The 'better' motherfucking website, in spite of all the mental anguish it caused me, did somehow look more modern. There are no doubt many reasons, but the most prominent is the fixed column width, which just fits in better with how we expect websites to look. It's just fashion, and this is the fashion right now, but it does make a difference to how seriously people take a site.

I actually think there's something else going on as well. When people justify fixed-width sites, they say it makes the text easier to read, but on a dynamic-width site surely I can just reduce the width of the window to get the same effect? This says something about the way we interact with computers: the current paradigm is for full-screen windows with in-application tabs. As a result, changing the width of the window is actually a bit of a pain in the ass, since it involves intricate manipulation of the window border (something which the window manager makes far more painful than it should be) while simultaneously messing up the widths of all the other open tabs.

It's a rich tapestry of fail, but we are where we are. My view hasn't changed: fixed width sites are at best sacrificing user-control for fashion and at worst nothing more than bad design. But I now find myself at peace with this.

If you think the same, but unlike me your're not willing to give up just yet, there's a button on the front page to switch back to the dynamic width design.


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