Machines of unknown intent

Around six years’ ago we worked with a client who, as part of the project brief, asked for a website that would “still look great in 5 years”. No doubt there was an element of thriftiness in the request (and perhaps a degree of mischief), but fair play to them. It was a hell of a challenge to set a design team.

Aiming low

So how did we do? Well for one the website is still there (and no, I won’t supply the URL…). While it doesn’t look terrible, it certainly displays all of the traits of having been designed six years ago. The giveaway is the 760 pixel width, catering for the large percentage of users then still with monitor resolutions of 800 x 600 pixels. We interpreted the request as having an influence only on the style of the site, while blindly fixing its dimensions to the standard of the time. Using the same flawed logic, we would now be designing sites with a 320 pixel width to suit the lowest resolutions accessing the site.


The fact is there are very few ways of future-proofing a design, particularly when basing it on a style-only agenda. But our chances of success in this challenge were much better at the time our client made their forward-looking request when web access was almost exclusively PC-based. Steve Jobs has recently repeatedly proclaimed that we are living in a ‘post-PC era’. It’s not the fact that Jobs says this that makes it significant. It’s significant because it’s true.

Knowing the unknown

Although we’ve known they were coming for a long time, web-enabled devices are changing the landscape irrevocably. In the past week for instance, it was discovered that Barnes & Nobles’ Nook eBook reader has a browser embedded in it, waiting to be switched on. How could we possibly have designed or tested for this or any of the myriad of new web-enabled devices hitting the market each day, each with their own particular optimal settings for viewing websites? Quite simply through a more forward-looking approach.

Hard sell

The deluge of blog posts heralding the advent of responsive design was something I’ll admit to greeting with cynicism. If someone tells me I “need” to do something, my initial reaction will be to ask what is in it for them. What are they trying to sell me – a conference? a book? In some cases the answer is both, but that doesn’t change the central truth. The argument in favour of an adaptive approach to web-based design is now overwhelming. It’s early days yet, but this is a shift, not a trend.


This doesn’t require signing up to some new dogma, it simply means assessing each project individually on its requirement to adapt to multiple devices. Put like that, doesn’t it sound like pure common sense, if not an essential part of any professional design process? The approach doesn’t guarantee that a website’s visual design won’t look dated in a number of years time, but it will ensure its credible appearance on browsers of all types for a significant period of time, even those yet to be released.

Future machines

With an adaptive design, we can design for the future. Literally. We can prepare designs and layouts for still-to-be-invented machines and devices whose purpose we simply cannot even begin to guess. But they will access the web. And we can design for them.

Isn’t that fantastic?

One reply on “Machines of unknown intent”

Great post. Great minds and all that Rick – I blogged about ‘Post-PC’ yesterday, at 🙂

A while ago, I got a brief to design some website ‘flats’ for a client, that was to passed on to a developer.

My thinking on the site goes totally again the grain – in that it’s not landscape, it doesn’t fill a screen up, and it focusses on a grid layout with strong typographic structure. I’ve designed something that I think will look great irrespective of the device, and something that is as timeless as possible.

It may have challenged the developer – but what I was saying all along during the job is that ‘we’re not designing a 2010 website – we’re designing an experience that represents a business for the next ‘X’ years’. In fact, I’d go as far as saying the that site is as close as ‘device agnostic’ as I can possibly make it.

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