This article was written in 2013. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.
Is the web the first truly flexible medium? I tried to come up with other fields that need to design things for a flexible canvas, in the hope of finding inspiration there. The only media types I could come up with was the art of balloon printing and the art of tattooing. But even though they both work with a highly flexible canvas, I don’t think we will learn very much there. Maybe we have to look elsewhere, or maybe, probably, we are really pioneering.
Today, two people told me that classic style guides are in fact descriptions of a flexible system — these two people had definitely been talking to each other. And yes, they’re right. In such a style guide you’ll find descriptions of how the brand should behave on different kinds of canvasses: on paper, on an envelope, on a bus, on an airplane. And yes, while a guide like this definitely describes a flexible system, where the style is adapted to all possible outings, it is also completely different from the web. You have complete control over all the things described in a classic style guide. You know the exact dimensions of a bus or an airplane and you can make every detail fit just right. Everything has a fixed size. Except for balloons and bellies. And the web.
There is no control on the web
There is no other medium I know of that is as flexible as the web. It’s not just a flexible canvas with an unlimited range of sizes. There’s also an unlimited range of ways to interact with this canvas: mouse, voice, keyboard, fingers, etc. You know that the exterior of an airplane will almost certainly be viewed when it’s outside, in the open. The interior of that same airplane will hopefully only be viewed when you’re inside of that plane, often with artificial lights on. You can’t make these assumptions about your websites. People will look at them in broad daylight, but they’ll also read this post in bed, in the dark, before they go to sleep. And then there’s the material. If you design an envelope, you can carefully choose the paper, and everybody who receives your letters will see that same paper. Your website, on the other hand, is shown to chain smoking nerds with crappy old, yellowish screens. It’s shown to people with a Samsung Galaxy S4 in a nicely lit house, and to people with a new, but cheap phone in full sunlight. Have I mentioned browsers yet? This is not a flexible system. This is chaos.
Unfortunately, bellies, balloons and classic style guides are not flexible enough to really help us designing for this mess. We need to figure it out ourselves. Many people have been saying this before, and I’ll just repeat it here: we have to embrace the fluid nature of the web. A few weeks ago I talked to some students and I gave them this advice: if you want complete control over how people see your stuff, and if you don’t like uncertainty, don’t work for the web. There are other fantastic things you can do.