A less precise art

There have been a number of natural ebbs and flows in the history of online UI design, times when designers may have felt that full control was coming back to us only to see it move away again.

Shock of the new

Moving to the web from print in the late nineties was like a slap in the face. “You mean… I can’t control what’s going on here? There are different browsers that do what???” etc. Designing for the web was imperfect, approximate and maddeningly unpredictable. Or, from a print designer’s perspective, “hell”.


But we moved on and gradually clawed back some degree of control. Tables became the designer’s saviour; by chopping graphics and wringing every last drop of functionality from tables, we were able to lay out content how we wanted it. Bloated markup, unorthodox layouts and clunky designs were the result, but they were a means to an end: control over the design.


Emerging W3C standards and increasingly ubiquitous CSS put the spotlight on the folly of reliance on tables, and the boundaries were moving once again. As a designer in these circumstances you either accept or go mad, stuck with the misguided delusion that YOUR vision is more important than any constraints.

Comfort zones

Graphic designers prior to this generation had been used to constancy. If a new printing technique emerged, or new paper stock came out it would likely be integrated into the process with little or no impact on working practices or design approach for that matter.

Change = good

But this is exactly why UI design for the web can be so exhilarating. Rarely do such new possibilities and challenges to learn and re-learn emerge with such regularity in other mediums. Online, regular developments in markup or software enable us to conquer new challenges in completely new ways.

No going back

Responsive design ensures that websites will appear elegantly on web-enabled devices, regardless of the viewport size; progressive enhancement means that the more advanced the browser environment, the better rendered the design will be. Neither of these principles however results in (or attempts to achieve) full, pixel-perfect control on-screen. And that is where the game has changed irrevocably for designers in the space of a decade.


Ours is an imperfect art, with countless variables and as-yet unknown methods of consumption; one in which we need to surrender to the medium, not master it. For many, many designers I believe that would be too uncomfortable to live with. For those now entering the industry now however it has another name: normality.

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