Does the web really provide you with unlimited reach?

Now reaching consumers is easier than ever before and your message can be at their finger tips 24/7. Best of all you can track the effectiveness of that message in ways never before possible. All at a fraction of the cost of offline marketing.

At least that is the theory. In reality making your message available ubiquitously online is far from cheap.

In theory a consumer can access your message on the bus, at home or on the toilet, but only if they do so on a device you have built for.

Desktop computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets, games consoles, smart watches, and even fridges have access to the web these days.

Online marketing budgets groan under the weight of building websites, Facebook pages, Android apps, iOS apps and more in an attempt to provide universal access. Where once designers charged for each different piece of marketing collateral (business cards, billboards, brochures), now they charge for different devices and screen sizes. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

The web has ubiquitous access baked in

When Tim Berners Lee created the web he intentionally created something that is universally accessible and device agnostic.

Web pages are fluid by default. This means that they automatically resize to accommodate the dimensions of whatever screen they are being viewed upon. Therefore there no reason we cannot make our messages universally available to people by building a single site, rather than struggling with individual platforms and devices.

Why then do we find ourselves in the current situation? The truth is its just a matter of perspective.

We are stuck in the past

Have you ever watched very early television programmes? It was not unusual to just see a man sitting behind a desk speaking into a microphone while reading from notes. Even more bizarrely, some early TV drama had a narrator describing what was happening on screen.

The reason for these rather strange practices was that television was new and people didn’t know what the medium was capable of. Because of this they looked to the past for inspiration, most notably radio.

Radio had narrators and people sitting at desks reading, so TV adopted those models too. Of course as time went by we began to understand TV better and so programmes changed. Eventually the baggage of the past was cast aside.

The same is true with the web. To this day, many of those involved in the creation of websites, don’t really understand what the web is capable of and so they fall back on what they do know; print.

We see marketing executives thrust into the world of digital when they have spent most of their career in print. We see large ad agencies having to offer web design, when their core competency lies in printed material. Therefore it is hardly surprising they fall back on their knowledge of print when tackling the web.

Not that this is entirely bad. After all the web can benefit from many of the lessons we learnt in print about good design. Grids, typography, colour theory and much more besides work well both in print and the web. However, there are also differences and one in particular is holding us back.

What is the canvas size?

What is the first decision any designer has to make when beginning work on a piece of print material? The answer is simple; he has to define a canvas size.

This is obvious as soon as you launch any piece of graphics software from Photoshop to In Design. The first thing you have to do before anything else is set the page size.

Photoshop forces you to choose a canvas size despite the fact that the canvas size is unknown online.

Photoshop forces you to choose a canvas size despite the fact that the canvas size is unknown online.

This makes perfect sense when dealing with print. You need to decide up front whether you are designing a business card or a billboard. However, what do you set as the canvas size when designing a web page?

Unfortunately instead of rejecting the question of canvas size, we started making up arbitrary values. First we decided web pages should be 640px wide, then 800px and finally many web designers settled on 960px as a good width to work with.

Of course, as Jeremy Keith puts it, this was just a consensual hallucination. We never had a clue what the canvas size was because users could have a browser open to any width. Unfortunately the combination of software designed for print and our own mentality, meant we couldn’t break free from this way of thinking.

I use the past tense, but for many this is still the case. Letting go of fixing a canvas size just throws up too many issues.

If you don’t know the canvas size it means letting go of pixel perfect control. It means accepting that you cannot control every aspect of the viewers experience. But, that was always an illusion anyway.

The choice of browser, monitor size, operating system and countless other factors means we have never been able to control the user experience. This has just been brought into a starker relief with the arrival of devices beyond desktop and laptop computers.

Embracing a fluid web

Once you have accepted the fact that the canvas size is flexible it opens up a world of possibilities. Yes it changes the way you have to design, but it doesn’t make those designs any less effective, attractive or engaging.

What it does mean is that you can now build one site and know that the message on that site is available across all devices irrespective of screen size.

Better still, that is not just devices available today, but also those being release this year, next year and into the future. By designing websites to be fluid, you are ensuring that your message will be available ubiquitously and ultimately that is what we all want to see.

Still confused?

I am keenly aware this is a big mental shift. It raises a lot of questions, but this is the nature of the web and ultimately we will all have to adjust to it.

If you have questions, please post them in the comments. I would love to help you think through the ramifications of letting go of pixel control and moving to a more flexible and universally available approach.