Outside the grid

In Outside The Grid, Molly Holzschlag compares the grid of Tuscon, AZ to the radial/random streets of London, and from there moves to a nice argument for opening up web design beyond the grid. I like the illustrations, and this point is particularly good:

The CSS visual model is all lines and boxes. That’s the stuff of grids, right? Well sure, if we want it to be. This is where the fundamental difference is. CSS allows us to take a box—any box—and do with it what we want, independent of its surrounding boxes (Figure 7).

Two larger points are related: (1) “grid” doesn’t necessarily mean “all orthagonal”—consider Harry Beck’s Tube diagram, which includes 45° angles as well. Tables and CSS, however, are solely orthagonal. (2) the reverse is also true: just because a design uses all right angles, doesn’t mean it’s an effective grid (cf my last post on the ESPN redesign).

Besides whining about reduced usability (sigh), many of the comments claim that grids are the way to go—more “natural” or “intuitive” than other designs. For me, that’s not only wrong, but not the point; the point is that contemporary webdesign, and technologies which facilitate it, both forbid the “breaking the grid” experiments Holzschlag, Timothy Samara and others represent here, and enforce one kind of grid: the regular, orthagonal grid evangelized by designers like Josef Müler-Brockmann, and made “natural” by modern newspaper and magazine design.

Update 1/24: An email exchange with Karl Stolley has made me think a lot more about the designer/design functional/art divide represented in the A List Apart comments here. I need to look more closely at that…

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4 Responses to Outside the grid

  1. Thanks for the pointer and the insights about it. What struck me was the honest admission that lots of innovation gets shut down out of habit or complacency. And, yes, the techrhet discussion of forms based Web sites seems relevant. What matters online now is currency and popularity–or so the cynical assessment might go. I think this might connect to your concern about ways in which claims to usability are made but not often substantiated. The habits are hard to break and extra work would go into un-gridlike sites, but it is more a problem of canonicity, almost. All the blogs are gridish. The commercial sites are gridish. Could something not be gridish without being lumped in a second class, graphical, feel good, artsy, and unserious category?

  2. cbd says:

    Yes. I wouldn’t be surprised if canonicity works with Karl’s very clever notion of “corporate-traditional” design. I’d say there are corporate-traditional rhetorics, too—both the kind of “marketese” Nielsen critiques and the stripped-down prose which takes its place. Heck, here are the components I see in a corporate-traditional visual rhetoric:

    * use a three-column grid with navigation across the top
    * your logo (preferably with a swoosh) goes in the upper left
    * include a dominant visual of a smiling user above the fold
    * secondary navigation (privacy, etc) along the bottom
    * child pages should follow front page with very little differentiation

    What else? 🙂

    And I don’t think standards, as in privacy or content standards and guidelines, are the problem; most of them are written to be flexibly interpreted. Designers, writers, and/or coders can figure out ways to do what they want visually, rhetorically, and technically while meeting the various standards which weigh on a site. If that’s not the case, the standards-producing group, whether the W3C or a group of portfolio software developers, isn’t doing it right.

  3. Let’s see, what else. Search box in upper right hand corner with redundantly labeled button–search. Hip URL with spatial, tool, or group metaphor–ispace, espace, linkspa–a metaphor that never plays out in the structure or design of the site. Folder tabs across the top, one of which will say shopping. Clever widgets to give you instant knowledge about things you already know–sunny and warm, high of 65. Quick poll to collect instant insights into things that really matter–Brad and Angelina: boy or girl?

    The sad part is, for me at least, it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of these devices, well at least some of them. Or maybe its the allure of wanting to appeal to all or more people than is necessary or good for one. Or maybe these come across as necessary building codes in a world like academia or teaching that is so bound up in the corporate, traditional what have you. Getting to the point where one can write/code/build for the self or for some reason that might motivate spaces not shaped by the surrounding landscape is the challenge. Well said, that the standards and technology aren’t the limiting factors.

  4. cbd says:


    Part of the problem is that the conventional wisdom of site design contains gems like this from Jakob Nielsen:

    If 80% or more of the big sites do things in a single way, then this is the de-facto standard and you have to comply. Only deviate from a design standard if your alternative design has at least 100% higher measured usability.

    And this “80%” was once “90%”, so Nielsen has lowered the threshhold for conformity. Boggle. Anyway, he’s also offered us a summary of the “standards” we should follow. There’s another stab at the rhetoric…

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