11 April 2012

Where web design and print design intersect

I programmed my first website way back in 1995 or so. (Somewhere I even still have a copy. No, I won't show it. Must save myself the embarrassment. ;)) Since then, the Web has grown immensely, and the technology has changed dramatically as well – the way we use HTML today has little in common with the methods used back in 1995. Cascading style sheets, or CSS, were not even on the radar screen, and separating design from content was laughably impossible: the design and content were so intricately and hopelessly mixed up together that any changes had to be done on each page, and the content couldn't be easily reused anywhere else. Maintaining a site of more than a few dozen pages quickly turned into a major headache, because it generally involved editing pages by hand or using roll-your-own template systems of limited use and often requiring substantial computing power (by the standards of the day).

I'm not going to make any predictions – as Yogi Berra said, never make predictions, especially about the future. But I can see some trends that I find very exciting, both as a designer and as a programmer (which I tend to be in roughly equal parts).

First and foremost, it is increasingly the case that Web pages can be (and increasingly are) designed with the same level of precision and consistency you would expect from a DTP program like InDesign. That might not sound all that amazing to someone not familiar with the underlying technology, but believe me, this is huge. It used to be that any sort of layout had to be cumbersomely chopped up into manageable bits and then painstakingly put back together again using HTML code elements that were never intended to be used that way. The result was one big messy kludge that somehow worked, and often didn't work the way the designer wanted.

Typographical control was almost nil – you were stuck with whatever fonts the user happened to have, but worse, the way CSS was interpreted and displayed by the various browsers was often wildly different. This meant spending a lot of time testing on all the various browsers and being forced into a sort of lowest common denominator, limited by whatever the crappiest browser on the market was capable of doing, while also having to use non-standard tricks and kludges just to get it to work. Even the most trivial of layouts often involved ridiculous amounts of effort to achieve, frustrating designers and clients alike.

Today, though, the current browsers are all more or less standards compliant, for the first time in like ever, though this was promised back in the mid-90s when Microsoft was still worried about Netscape, only to ignore the issue once Netscape was suitably crushed. With true standards emerging, this means web designers can spend lots more time concentrating on creative design and less worrying about whether this or that design idea is even possible, or would take too much time to implement, or be forced into that lowest common denominator because so many users still use Internet Exploder 6 or Lotus Notes.

On top of all the possibilities in layout, with HTML5 and CSS3, combined with some useful tools like WebINK, Cufón, FontSquirrel, jQuery and others, there is far more freedom in using elements like fonts – there are dozens, if not hundreds, of free web fonts available (such as Google’s excellent collection), and it is also readily possible to use existing fonts as Web fonts, provided of course you've got the right license or at least figure out a way of protecting the font from being downloaded.

Because of the way CSS supports print-oriented units like inches, centimeters, and points, it is at quite possible to readily design "normal" page layouts using HTML and CSS for printing on any current platform. That would have been unthinkable as recently as five years ago. The reason this matters is because until now, if designers or clients wanted to present content to users and ensure the complete and total consistency in the way the content is displayed, there were only proprietary options available – namely PDF and Flash. And to use PDF or Flash content, the user had to have the right additional software, which on more obscure platforms may not even exist or only in a very patchy way (like PDF was for ages on Linux) and more often than not just increased the instability of the whole thing.

Now, though, it is increasingly becoming possible to present such content with nothing more than a simple browser – no more being tied to one company's software ecosystem, be it Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or anyone else.

Long ago on Slashdot in the late 1990s, one of the more notorious trolls, called Meept, gloriously said he would like to take all the many divided factions of Linux and combine them into one big divided faction. Replace "Linux" with "web development", and he was oddly prescient. Yes, the platforms are still fragmented and divided, and there is still bickering amongst Mozilla, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and your Aunt Reba (who really should get around to fixing those bugs I sent to her). But now we web designers are no longer forced to effectively build multiple versions of websites in the name of consistent presentation, speeding up development times and unleashing a lot of creative potential – while also increasing the overall pool of design talent working in that one big divided web development faction.

Where it gets interesting is where this will start to encroach on PDF and with it InDesign. Given the cross-platform possibilities, it will start to make more and more sense to use HTML and CSS as the platform of choice for presenting designed content, rather than additionally creating PDFs and DOCs and whatever else comes to mind. While InDesign will be with us for some time yet – just as Dreamweaver continues to be in use today, in spite of it really being totally unnecessary. (OK, so I'm a hand-coding fascist. BBEdit is good enough for me, should be good enough for anyone. *grin*) But by wiping out being dependent on one software provider, more and more potential will be unleashed, and change in both the Web and common printing will continue to accelerate.

Where will be be in 2013? I dunno, maybe we'll be looking back on the world's destruction thanks to those pesky Mayans and their calendar, but it will certainly be the beginning of Armageddon for proprietary platforms for print and the Web. Flash is on its way out (helped by iPhone and iPad), PDF's end is readily imaginable, and looking a bit further, even operating systems could be opened up by this. What's more, it is becoming ever easier for the non-technical to create stunning products without gobs of obscure knowledge, and with online collaboration ever easier, the possibilities for a creative explosion look ever greater.

I could now lean forward, peer out of my good eye, stroke my long white beard and wave my walking stick at all the young whippersnapper web designers who never had to work in such unspeakable conditions like we old-timers, but in fact it's truly exciting to see where we are now in such a short span of time. This is a Gutenberg moment we're experiencing, where media are becoming radically personalized and democratized in ways unimaginable as recently as the 1980s.

Die, PDF. Die, InDesign. So that more wonderful things may be born...