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10 Years Ago in ALA: Pocket Sized Design

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The web doesn’t do “age” especially well. Any blog post or design article more than a few years old gets a raised eyebrow—heck, most people I meet haven’t read John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design” or Jeffrey Zeldman’s “To Hell With Bad Browsers,” both as relevant to the web today as when they were first written. Meanwhile, I’ve got books on my shelves older than I am; most of my favorite films came out before I was born; and my iTunes library is riddled with music that’s decades, if not centuries, old.

(No, I don’t get invited to many parties. Why do you ask oh I get it)

So! It’s probably easy to look at “Pocket-Sized Design,” a lovely article by Jorunn Newth and Elika Etemad that just turned 10 years old, and immediately notice where it’s beginning to show its age. Written at a time when few sites were standards-compliant, and even fewer still were mobile-friendly, Newth and Etemad were urging us to think about life beyond the desktop. And when I first re-read it, it’s easy to chuckle at the points that feel like they’re from another age: there’s plenty of talk of screens that are “only 120-pixels wide”; of inputs driven by stylus, rather than touch; and of using the now-basically-defunct handheld media type for your CSS. Seems a bit quaint, right?

And yet.

Looking past a few of the details, it’s remarkable how well the article’s aged. Modern users may (or may not) manually “turn off in-line image loading,” but they may choose to use a mobile browser that dramatically compresses your images. We may scoff at the idea of someone browsing with a stylus, but handheld video game consoles are impossibly popular when it comes to browsing the web. And while there’s plenty of excitement in our industry for the latest versions of iOS and Android, running on the latest hardware, most of the web’s growth is happening on cheaper hardware, over slower networks (PDF), and via slim data plans—so yes, 10 years on, it’s still true that “downloading to the device is likely to be [expensive], the processors are slow, and the memory is limited.”

In the face of all of that, what I love about Newth and Etemad’s article is just how sensible their solutions are. Rather than suggesting slimmed-down mobile sites, or investing in some device detection library, they take a decidedly standards-focused approach:

Linearizing the page into one column works best when the underlying document structure has been designed for it. Structuring the document according to this logic ensures that the page organization makes sense not only in Opera for handhelds, but also in non-CSS browsers on both small devices and the desktop, in voice browsers, and in terminal-window browsers like Lynx.

In other words, by thinking about the needs of the small screen first, you can layer on more complexity from there. And if you’re hearing shades of mobile first and progressive enhancement here, you’d be right: they’re treating their markup—their content—as a foundation, and gently layering styles atop it to make it accessible to more devices, more places than ever before.

So, no: we aren’t using @media handheld or display: none for our small screen-friendly styles—but I don’t think that’s really the point of Newth and Etemad’s essay. Instead, they’re putting forward a process, a framework for designing beyond the desktop. What they’re arguing is for a truly device-agnostic approach to designing for the web, one that’s as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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