This comes as a surprise. Aux of Cogent Metal is vehemently against webpages that have narrow layout widths. And I thought web designers are now more worried about the opposite: the wide layouts that whip out the horizontal scrollbars in resolutions narrower than 1024×768.
This is another proof that you can’t guess every possible reaction to a design pattern. In this case Aux would rather have wide layouts because it would mean a larger area to present content. But what can you do about someone just like Aux, but who believes the complete opposite?
Elasticity is tricky
The ideal solution to please both lovers and haters of the narrow look would be to construct an elastic layout. But images are the number one obstacle. They have fixed dimensions and look horrible when resized using HTML or CSS attributes—please, don’t go there, it’s just atrocious. Other solutions are just for decorative purposes, not for every image on the page.
Ads, widgets, and plug-ins all tend to have fixed dimensions as well. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: designers resort to fixed layouts because they can’t resize all those fixed objects, and all those objects are fixed because their creators assume they’ll be placed in fixed layouts anyway. That, and there hasn’t been a move towards flexible anything. Is it because we fear the unpredictability of flexibility? If it were possible to have webpage elements with flexible dimensions, would we use them, or still go for the fixed-dimension ones?
A completely flexible layout width isn’t that appealing, either. In larger screens the lines of text will be so long that it becomes difficult to read. Every layout option has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to pick one and accept that you’ll piss someone off one way or the other.
Custom-tailored user experience
However, you should try to please as many people as possible especially if your website is any of the following:
- Very popular (e.g., CNN)
- Text-heavy (e.g., Wikipedia)
- Requires registration (e.g., My Yahoo!)
Don’t stop with the layout width. The general ability to customize is important. See what MSNBC and BBC have done. Users can control the type of news that appears, the order in which the news sections appear, the complexity of the page layout, the text styles (from color to letter spacing), and so on. It’s the empowerment you bring to the audiences that tells them they are highly valued individuals.
Design is about presenting information in the best possible way. Unfortunately there is no single way that is considered the best as long as someone other than the designer is experiencing that design. Although more difficult to implement, websites can let users choose that experience. If you can help it, let them.