Responsive web design: more regarding the web bearing relicts of print philosophy. Or, the web as a palimpsest of media past.

As I did yesterday, I quote extensively from John Allsopp’s A Dao of Web Design, (2000).

If you’ve never watched early television programs, it’s instructive viewing. Television was at that time often referred to as “radio with pictures”, and that’s a pretty accurate description. Much of television followed the format of popular radio at that time. Indeed programs like the Tonight Show, with its variants found on virtually every channel in the world (featuring a band, the talk to the camera host, and seated guests), or the news, with the suited sober news reader, remain as traces of the medium television grew out of. A palimpsest of media past [emphasis not in original].

Think too of the first music videos (a few of us might be at least that old). Essentially the band miming themselves playing a song. Riveting.

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, “ritual”, and often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

If you ever get the chance to watch early television drama you’ll find a strong example of this. Because radio required a voice – over to describe what listeners couldn’t see, early television drama often featured a voice over, describing what viewers could. It’s a simple but striking example of what happens when a new medium develops out of an existing one.

The web is a new medium, although it has emerged from the medium of printing, whose skills, design language and conventions strongly influence it. Yet it is often too shaped by that from which it sprang. “Killer Web Sites” are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper – Desktop Publishing for the Web. This conservatism is natural, “closely held beliefs are not easily released”, but it is time to move on, to embrace the web as its own medium. It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature.

This is not for a moment to say we should abandon the wisdom of hundreds of years of printing and thousands of years of writing. But we need to understand which of these lessons are appropriate for the web, and which mere rituals.

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