You Say You Want a Resolution
The topic of screen resolution in web design has once again reared its ugly and multifaceted head. Jeremy Keith and Roger Johansson still say “nay.” Well, I’m saying “yay,” with some conditions. I know many people take a hard-lined approach to this, saying that fixed-width 1024px sites are wrong most, if not all, of the time. This post is not meant to once again pose the tired questions of “What base resolution should we aim for?” or “Can we all start designing for 1024px?,” instead I want to throw an opinion for wider sites into the mix. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a 1024px web from now on, just that 1024px can be right under certain conditions. (For the sake of brevity and clarity, I’ll refer to these sites respectively as 800px and 1024px though I realize that the “live” area is less.)
The Problem With Images
After Jeremy wrote the post above, I got into it a bit with him over IM—because I like to play devil’s advocate, and I know we don’t see entirely eye-to-eye on this one. I told him the biggest, and potentially only, reason I consider 1024px sites a viable option comes down to images. Some sites need to display larger images in a field of content, which when ganged up with a side column of content or navigation, can create the potential need for more than 800px of horizontal real estate. You may point out that there are ways to drop that side column further down the page for smaller screens. You are right, but just as 800px wide sites aren’t always the right solution, neither is moving content and navigation below the scroll. Clients hate that one. Just because something is still present on a page, the fact that it’s dropped towards the bottom does little to cushion the blow.
Resizing and cropping images are options, but in my opinion, these are rarely usable solutions for most sites, especially sites where you have little or no control over content creation (as is the case with much client work) or where you inherit a wealth of legacy content. Sometimes cropped images lose context, as when they are editorial in nature or contain text that’s meant to serve as content. Resizing or cropping images that are dependent on being at their full size could prove to be unacceptable.
Design as a Compromise
I must be one of the rarer breeds that doesn’t gang up multiple applications on-screen, instead favoring the use of the majority of my screen for my current task. I browse almost full-screen and just switch between apps (which are also usually full-screen) as needed. I mention this not to suggest that I design for myself, but to illustrate that screen resolution does not equate to window width. Just because someone has their monitor set to a 1024px resolution does not mean that we can guarantee they have a browser window open that wide. Of course, the same goes for a monitor resolution of 800px wide. Merely setting out to design a site with any width boundaries opens us up to consolations.
At this time, I am working on designs for at least five websites. Of them, two are 1024px fixed-width designs, and in both of those cases the decision came down to image display. Kongregate, a recent alpha-release site I worked on, came in under the condition that it be a 1024px wide site due to the game pages needing to take advantage of more real estate to display a large variety of game widths. In the last redesign for A List Apart, we ended up going with a 1024px wide site to deal with the mountains of legacy articles that contained imagery of all shapes and sizes (tailored for whatever version of ALA they were published during).
In cases of a brand new site, or where I can help dictate styles and plan how content gets created, I will almost always push for 800px wide friendly sites. Recent sites I’ve worked on like Amigo and the Dictionary.com redesign both work nicely for 800px resolutions; Amigo because it was a new site and we could set the tone from the start, and Dictionary.com because the site’s content is almost solely text. It’s becoming easier for many people to think of sites from a blog-skewed angle; that being mostly text-heavy and thoroughly layout independent. Unfortunately, I don’t work on many blog designs. I tend to work on sites that are more promotional or editorial in nature. These are also two ends of web design I find lean towards traditional (print) design and its particular presentational problems. Meaning, public and client expectations are sometimes placed on display first and function second. With that said, I try to come at a design problem with both issues firmly in mind, and at the very least, come to a comfortable middle-ground, or preferably, find an execution that satisfies both. I don’t even want to get in to the fact that banner ad sizes keep getting bigger and intruding on more of our content. Ugh.
The “Right” and “Wrong” of It
I don’t think any of us are wrong, we all just make the particular compromises that make the most sense to us. Sometimes, it comes down to budget. Dealing with these resolution foibles can most certainly add time and money to a job. Because of this, it can often be one of the first compromises to make on a job that pays less. But, is content on the web even ready for 1024px wide browsing? Do many people browse at less than 1024px wide because the majority of web content doesn’t ask that they browse any wider? Could be. 1024px is certainly not too wide for sensible and legible design. I can remember the struggle of designing an 800px wide site when there were still people out there with 640px wide desktop resolution. And here we are now with 800px being the de-facto base width. I imagine we are just in the growing pains of 1024px coming into its own. All I’m saying is that it’s simply just not always possible. While I strive for working at 800px, and potentially making a site flow to wider resolutions, I must hold fast that 1024px fixed-width sites are a realistic option for me when designing.