The WWWonderful Unstable Medium

Print is a wonderful stable medium, and turns out the web is a wonderful unstable medium

David Berlow

Plenty has been written about the web as a flexible (or 'unstable') platform, but I thought I'd collect my thoughts anyway.

Despite being written over 10 years ago, John Allsopp's A Dao of Web Design couldn't be more relevant today, and is a great starting point. It's well worth a read, but I'll summarise.

It basically encourages web designers to:

  • Recognise the strengths of print design, but treat the web as its own platform
  • Abandon control of 'the page' - embrace the lack of physical constraints and see it as an advantage
  • Create adaptable, accessible experiences that best make use of the web's characteristics
  • Consider function over form

Inspiring stuff.

Of course, many of these ideas are can also be applied to software design, and I'm reminded of Apple and their latest software interfaces, notably iCal for OS X Lion and iPad apps such as Notes (pictured below) or iBooks. Feelings begin with, "oOo, nice details!"; then move on to, "it's quite 'noisy' and a bit distracting"; to "why am I pressing a button embedded in leather?".

iPad Notes screenshot

In his OS X Lion review, John Siracusa picks up on this, pointing out the disparity between the look of interface and the way it behaves i.e. although it may look like you can tear off pages, and scribble in the margins...you can't. It's just interface noise.

Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

However, that's not to say that we should be creating totally flat interfaces. I think it's a balance between minimalism and rich UI - go too far in the minimal direction, and you may end up creating a bland user experience; too far in the other direction, and you could end up with noise that doesn't make much sense.

Software allows us to do crazy things (like plonking buttons in leather), but simply replicating physical objects in a software interface, I feel, isn't particularly imaginative. Think of how far the boundaries could be pushed if the time spent perfecting iCal's faux-leather stitching, was instead spent on rethinking the calendar or how we could better organise our time[1].

Despite Apple taking the direction they have, there's definitely been a move in the web community to explore the capabilities of this unfixed platform. Just check out some of the examples of parallax scrolling.

I'd love to see more examples of web design that gets this concept spot on. If you have any in mind, tweet at me.

Some resources/more thoughts:

[1] maybe the calendar doesn't need a total rethink, but you get what I mean.