On the web, big is beautiful — but not in extremes

Most design follows trends. Web design is particularly susceptible, because so much of it is driven by technological change. It is also extraordinarily hype driven. Five years ago it had to be web 2.0. Today, if your website is not responsive, you are not in the cool club.

It’s easy to look at an old screenshot of a website and guess when it’s from. Ten years ago, websites tended to be rigidly laid out, with small text. Verdana 10px would always do the trick.

Then came the web 2.0 bandwagon. On the plus side, this paradigm favoured larger text. But it was a sickly, sugar-coated world. Websites were covered in garish gradients and glassy effects. They were also invaded by cutesy copy.

Today, there is a different movement. It is supposedly driven by the increasing use of mobile devices to surf the web. On the plus side, this means that some of the extremes of web 2.0 design have been reined in. In its place, flat design, which does away with drop shadows and tortured real-world analogies.

It is generally far more tasteful. The new focus on designing for what can be achieved on today’s electronic devices, rather than trying to mimic old-fashioned real-world physical objects, has to be welcomed.

That’s not to say that today’s designs are all perfect. Far from it. I am beginning to notice some current trends that disturb me.

Bloated behind the scenes

I am noticing more and more websites that simply take an age to load. Two of the worst offenders just now are ReadWrite and the Verge. Get your stopwatch out and see how long it takes for these pages to download. It is truly appalling. It’s as though they missed the ‘less is more’ memo.

They are rammed with JavaScript that takes ages to load in return for minor improvements. They feel as though they were designed to use every CSS3 feature in the book, whether or not it was actually desirable to do so. They are filled with oversized images that the browser then squashes down, all in the name of responsiveness.

Responsive images are a hugely tricky area. But is this really the right way to go? The trend for webpages to become larger and larger is particularly perverse when you consider the increasing importance of mobile devices.

Supersize content

There is another type of big that gets on my goat as well. The content itself has become huge.

Text is now large, and images are humongous. In a way, this is a continuation of the long-term trend that saw text become bigger in the web 2.0 era. Then it was a good thing, because larger text is easier to read than smaller text. But there has to come a point where the text becomes too big to read.

Take the recent redesign of A List Apart. It’s difficult to criticise A List Apart for its design, because its contributors are the world’s best thinkers in web design. It is the place to go to learn about the present and future of the web.

Its previous design was very dry and bookish, but successfully conveyed a very authoritative image. It felt unfriendly and old-fashioned at first, but it was easy to respect it.

Clipped edgy

A List Apart screenshot

A List Apart screenshot (Chrome, window size 1024×768).

The new design is a lot more modern, edgy and in your face. Clearly they’ve decided on having a bold look. There’s nothing wrong with that. But is it too bold?

The difficulty I have with it is that everything is just too big. This is a screenshot of the website on my PC in Google Chrome with the window size set to 1024×768. I know everyone’s device size is different, and that scrolling isn’t really a problem. But is it possible that A List Apart has taken this too far?

Part of the problem is not just how big everything is, but the way some elements of the design are clipped off the edge of the page. The website’s title is only partially revealed on the homepage. Worse still, when you view an article what little of the title was there anyway is then obscured by a navigation menu!

A List Apart mobile screenshot

A List Apart mobile screenshot (Chrome, Samsung Galaxy S II).

This effect of clipping the title is even more extreme when viewed on my mobile phone. At least the beginning of the article appears above the fold on my phone, which is more than can be said for how it displays on the desktop.

But with everything so big and with important elements clipping off the edge, it feels like a book being pushed up against your nose. It’s so close to you that you can’t possibly read it comfortably.

I know everyone is different, but I have found that zooming out within the browser to 75% makes the website much easier for me to read. Fine. But should I really have to do this?

There is a lot about the A List Apart design that I absolutely love, but I do feel that it is spoiled by the sheer size of everything on the page. The attempt to be edgy comes across like dad dancing.

Today’s clanger

I don’t mean to single out just A List Apart for this trend towards oversized content. I am seeing more and more websites deciding that giant text is the way to go.

Today’s designs are much more tasteful than most designs of the web 2.0 hype bubble. But no matter how great something feels at the time, there are always bound to be some things that we look back on and say, “what were we thinking?” (Come on, we all thought bevelled edges were cool a few years ago.)

I have a feeling that this era’s big clanger will turn out to be oversized everything.

This article was partly inspired by a Twitter conversation with Steffan Harries.

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