Just in the last few days I’ve been struggling with a design which just wouldn’t quite work the way I wanted. A somewhat unusual layout – four columns, fluid. The problem has been in finding proportions which are successful across the whole spectrum of widths – from 800 pixels to my own 1600 pixel monster. Imagine my good cheer when Cameron Moll writes up two successive posts which directly relate to my problem! Thanks, Cameron!

In fact, believe it or not, this wasn’t a personal favor – just a coincidence. Funny, but I guess the fact that I don’t know Cameron actually reduces the likelihood he was reading my mind.

The first post was on a fairly straightforward question about optimizing design width for 1024px resolution. Now, this doesn’t directly bear on my struggle, since I’m not creating a fixed width design. However, it does raise one important question: do we need to use the entire width of the screen?

That was one of the biggest problems I had: at extremes, the layout just looked crummy. It worked; you couldn’t say that it fell apart, but it didn’t look right. But why use those extremes? Oh, yes…because IE6 doesn’t support min-width and max-width. (IE7 may not be perfect, but it sure is an improvement.)

So I picked a max-width: it may not be relevant in every browser right now, but it should age well.

The second article was also quite interesting: Should all sites be fluid?. Ah…tough one. "Should" is a difficult question. How to address it? The original article and comments attached to it are largely considering the question from a designer or publisher’s perspective: but I want to think about the user’s experience. Are there actually sites which can benefit the user by using a fixed layout?

So…that’s a question I can’t answer.

I’m trying to think of a concrete reason that a fixed width would be advantageous for a site. I can see how a poorly-designed fluid site would be a problem; but I’m going to operate on the assumption that we’re only talking about fluid designs which don’t have obnoxious problems such as text being covered at very small widths, etc.

Neither Cameron’s original post nor any of the comments name a specific reason that a fixed layout is better. There are plenty of reasons why one might choose to develop a fixed layout inside of fluid – and I’m certainly not disputing that there are perfectly good reasons to develop fixed layouts. Faster development and testing is pretty clearly advantageous where budgets are concerned. But these are advantages to the development team and to the company paying for the work: not for the user.

John Dilworth makes an interesting comment:

Do I want and need the user to control that part of the experience? Or, does the designer need to control that part of the experience?

Are there situations where designer control trumps the user’s choice? John’s point is that there are content-oriented sites which may benefit from designer control of the text. But I don’t see how this plays to the advantage of the user. The designer can’t determine that he will automatically provide short line lengths to users who prefer it and long lines to others. Only the user can actually make this decision.

Mark Boulton talks about how proportion is a key element of a design, and one of the big problems designers have in creating flexible designs is the loss of control on proportion. Your design ceases to be a unit and becomes a spectrum. What he would like to see (and I don’t argue) is the ability to expand the proportions along with the canvas. This is a problem with em based designs – although the view expands effectively when the text size is increased, the size of the viewport is ignored. Finding an effective way to combine text-based sizing with viewport would be highly valuable, and perhaps would encourage designers to pursue fluid designs.

Regardless, there’s nothing conclusive which indicates that a fixed design has user benefits. It appears to have significant advantages from the perspective of designers, but less certain from the user perspective.

If anybody can suggest a good reason – for users – that a website design should be fixed, I’m very curious to hear it.

And no neutering jokes, please. 😉