Embracing the Medium

by Richard Rutter

Designing web sites is a strange and wonderful thing. The web is often described as a medium, but it is no more a medium than ink. To be a medium, ink must be combined with paper and a means of forming letters; otherwise ink is merely a means of transporting pigment. Similarly, the web is merely means of transporting data and structuring ideas. It is only when these meet a combination of software and hardware that we have a medium for design. But unlike all written material before it, that medium is under the control of the reader.

Since the invention of the printing press, designers and printers have decided upon the stock, the dimensions and layout of the page, the choice of typeface and the size of font. As the scale of print runs increased, these decisions may have been based upon commercial as well as aesthetic concerns, but aside from very wealthy and particular individuals, the ultimate reader will have had no direct influence on the medium or the typographic design.

With the web, the opposite is true. The designer has no direct influence on the reader’s medium. Not only can the designer not change the reader’s hardware or software, the reader can override completely any directions the designer may be sending along with the content. This is as it should be. It’s what makes the web special.

Where a print designer is all powerful, dictating every aspect of the reading experience, the web designer must know to relinquish control into the hands of the reader. In one of the most important writings on web design, John Allsop in A Dao of Web Design makes this point beautifully, using an extract from Tao Te Ching:

“The sage… accepts the ebb and flow of things, Nurtures them, but does not own them”

The wonderful thing about the web is that it takes many forms and those forms can be shaped by the reader to his or her benefit. That is a strength not a weakness; a feature not a bug. The control which print designers have – and so often desire when they transition to the web – is a limitation of the printed medium. The output dictated by print designers, often with great skill and the reader’s best interests at heart, is necessarily a one size fits all solution. It may not fit the short-sighted reader resorting to a magnifying glass or the commuter struggling on a busy train with a broadsheet. The web designer then, must be flexible. His or her designs must be able to adapt to the environment of the reader, and the reader must be allowed to adapt the design to best fit their needs.

About the Author

Richard runs, organizes Ampersand, speaks at conferences from An Event Apart to UX London, and will soon publish a book on typography (via Five Simple Steps). In collaboration with OmniTI, he also created the Fontdeck web service for Clearleft—the Brighton, UK-based digital agency he co-founded. Follow him on Twitter @clagnut.

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