The canal is bordered by poplar trees

In the world of web design, we tend to become preoccupied with the here and now. In “Resilient Web Design”, Jeremy Keith emphasizes the importance of learning from the past in order to better prepare ourselves for the future. So, perhaps we should stop and think more beyond our present moment? The following is an excerpt from Jeremy’s web book.

I’ve been really liking the idea of wrapped scarf tops recently, but sadly haven’t been able to find one long enough to wrap around enough times. I thought it was time to get a little crafty and make one myself. Crazy simple and you’ll wonder why you haven’t done this before!

Design works within constraints. The Columban monks who crafted the Book of Kells worked with four inks on vellum, a material made of calfskin. The materials were simple but clearly defined. The cenobitic designers knew the hues of the inks, the weight of the vellum, and crucially, they knew the dimensions of each page.

Prints And The Revolution Link

Materials and processes have changed and evolved over the past millennium or so. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type was a revolution in production. Whereas it would have taken just as long to create a second copy of the Book of Kells as it took to create the first, multiple copies of the Gutenberg bible could be produced with much less labour. Even so, many of the design patterns such as drop caps and columns were carried over from illuminated manuscripts. The fundamental design process remained the same: knowing the width and height of the page, designers created a pleasing arrangement of elements.

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The techniques of the print designer reached their zenith in the 20th century with the rise of the Swiss Style. Its structured layout and clear typography is exemplified in the work of designers like Josef Muller Brockmann and Jan Tschichold. They formulated grid systems and typographic scales based on the preceding centuries of design.

If It Ain’t Fixed, Don’t Break It Link

There’s nothing quite as frightening as the unknown. These words of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should be truly terrifying (although the general consensus at the time was that they sounded like nonsense):

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The ratio of the browser window is just one example of a known unknown on the web. The simplest way to deal with this situation is to use flexible units for layout: percentages rather than pixels. Instead, designers chose to pretend that the browser dimensions were a known known. They created fixed width layouts for one specific window size.

The Adjacent Possible Link

Writer Steven Johnson has documented the history of invention and innovation. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, he explores an idea called “the adjacent possible”:

At every moment in the timeline of an expanding biosphere, there are doors that cannot be unlocked yet. In human culture, we like to think of breakthrough ideas as sudden accelerations on the timeline, where a genius jumps ahead fifty years and invents something that normal minds, trapped in the present moment, couldn’t possibly have come up with. But the truth is that technological (and scientific) advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible; the history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.

This is why the microwave oven could not have been invented in medieval France; there are too many preceding steps required  — manufacturing, energy, theory — to make that kind of leap. Facebook could not exist without the World Wide Web, which could not exist without the internet, which could not exist without computers, and so on. Each step depends upon the accumulated layers below.

  1. The option to use percentages instead of pixels has been with us since the days of TABLE layouts.
  2. Flexible images. Research carried out by Richard Rutter showed that browsers were becoming increasingly adept at resizing images. The intrinsic dimensions of an image need not be a limiting factor.
  3. Media queries. Thanks to the error-handling model of CSS, browsers had been adding feature upon feature over time. One of those features was CSS media queries – the ability to define styles according to certain parameters, such as the dimensions of the browser window.

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