It’s a question that comes at some point in nearly every design project we do: “Should we stick with 800 pixels as our maximum width when designing the site, or push it up to 1024 pixels?” Unfortunately, there really isn’t a cut-and-dried answer that fits all situations. As a result, the question will generate debate and discussion as if it were the first time it was asked.
It would be great if it were really so simple as to just pick a width and go with it. That’s often what is done, but there are issues that make the question worth taking a deeper look at. Issues that can vary from client to client.
Simply having more space to work with is often a designer’s purpose for suggesting a wider layout, while clients are often motivated by a desire to fit more on each page. Not surprisingly, these two goals can often end up colliding into each other after the design goes into a production environment.
Unfortunately, regardless of your reasons for wanting more space to work with, it’s not simply a design question. There are accessibility and usability questions as well.
Although the percentage of users browsing the web with a screen resolution of 800×600 is decreasing (between 10% and 30% depending on whose stats you’re looking at), those that do so may be using the lower resolution (and even increasing the font size further from there) because they have trouble reading the smaller text-sizes at today’s higher screen resolutions. To not take this group into consideration violates accessibility standards. That’s not to say that we have to stay with 800×600 layouts, it just means that we have to make sure we consider the impact of any layout.
Why choose? Why not use a liquid, or expandable, layout? Liquid layouts have been around forever but continue to make up the minority of sites that we build. Why? There are a few reasons, but with the increased importance of accessibility as well as the growing number of alternative devices (Cell phones, PDAs, smaller laptops, tablet PCs and other devices) used in the U.S. and, even more so, in the developing world, our need for more flexible layouts is increasing.
Liquid layouts are a bit trickier to code, but the issue that usually trips us up is one of control. By this, I mean the perception of control that we often feel we have, or need to have, over the layout of a page.
In the design phase of a project we work with static images depicting how the page should look. Sometimes we pass these static images (or ‘comps’) back and forth for weeks, tweaking and adjusting spacing, color, layout and imagery. Since we are unable to make “fluid” design mock-ups we start to develop a sort of tunnel vision with regard to the design at hand. We start to internalize the structure of the designed page as well as the design elements, and when confronted with the prospect of how the page may stretch and resize when coded with a fluid HTML template, we back quickly away from the lack of control over the design that, to date, we’ve had pixel-perfect control over.
Perhaps the problem stems from the static representations we work with during the design phase. Are there any options? Do we need to start presenting design comps that show the same layout as it will appear at several different resoltions (including handhelds)?
We need to let go a little bit of our need for absolute control over our page layouts. It’s been said before and should be said often: The web is not print. While this is overstated quite often, it is certainly true. If people could easily modify layout, font sizes, column counts, etc. in print, then they probably would. Browsing applications and devices give average users exactly that level of control over what they view; And they use it.
Whatever the solution, we will continue to be confronted with the question every time we design a site. And to reduce the question to one of design alone may be causing more problems in the long run than we foresee.