The last 15 years have taught me that dynamism is in the eye of the beholder. My sensible publishing pipelines might look like digital chaos to a traditional print publishing person; their well-organized process looks fragile and balky to me. What I’ve come to understand is that all of us who work as craftspeople in digital media, whatever media or technology legacy informs our work, are seeking the same thing: order. Our audiences may want novelty, argument, gossip, and frolic, but we need order in order to deliver these. Standards bodies, licensing organizations, CMSes, character encodings, commercial software, venture-backed startups, shared spreadsheets—those are the tools we are using, as a culture, to prototype new cultural patterns along more orderly lines.
I don’t know if the issues raised in “A Dao of Web Design” can ever be resolved, which is why the article seems so prescient. After all, the Tao Te Ching is 2500 years old and we’re still working out what it all means. What I do believe is that the web will remain the fastest path to experimenting with culture for people of any stripe. It will still be here, alive and kicking and deployed across billions of computing machines, in 2030, and people will still be using it to do weird, wholly unexpected things.
—Paul Ford, Writer
I first read John’s “Dao” essay when I chanced upon ALA while researching web development to set up the long-gone “glasshaus” book publisher. I’d read lots of boring stuff about ASP, PHP, ColdFusion, and lots of stuff about “creating killer websites,” but nothing that helped me understand what the main defining aspect of web development was. And this was it. John’s ideas of flexibility being a feature led me to become interested in accessibility—our inaugural flagship book was the first book on web accessibility, and it launched my career.
I read “Dao” again regularly and love pointing the new generation of web designers to it—the siren song of pixel-perfect designs that only look great on an iThing still seduces and deludes today.
Hence, the essay is still important now; it hasn’t aged at all. Just like its author.
As American philosopher Dominic Toretto once famously said, “The thing about street fights…the street always wins.” For years we waged a fight for control over the web. We tried imposing our will upon it. We tried taming it. We complained that it wasn’t bending to our will. We were idiots. John Allsopp understood this before many of us. The street always wins.
Markup is music. A Beethoven piece or a Metallica song will be the same—and not be the same—when played by an electric foursome or a full orchestra. Amazingly, “Dao” is more relevant 15 years later with the rise of mobile and true multiplatform content consumption.
As designers, we often focus on the rituals of designing for what is.
Devices that have been introduced since this article, like smartphones, tablets, and the Apple Watch, arise and we immediately seek to force our existing realm into it. To design “for” it with precision and refinement. Make the web work here!
While this approach is a necessary step, these devices are a bridge between what is and a future not yet realized. Devices like these gently nudge us into new behaviors, new ways of thinking and doing. John is exactly correct when he writes about letting go of control to become flexible.
I often revisit John’s article when I need a reality check about what the heck we’re all creating here. Or after I’ve been sobbing, gently, because of browser inconsistencies. The more people read it—and really understand it—the better the web will be.
I wonder if I ever would have read John’s brilliant article had he titled it, “Click here to find out 10 things you thought you knew about the web that will still be completely true in 15 years! You’ll never guess what happens next!” I’m not sure. However, I am sure the “Dao” was a great read then and it’s a great read now, even if it isn’t top clickbait in 2015.
—Jenn Lukas, Front-end consultant
Standing the test of time in a world defined by a dichotomous amalgam of ephemerality and persistence, a platform driven by an unrelenting pace for evolution, John gave us the intellectual building blocks for a generation to grow up with access to the web as a given, and a framework by which to do right by the web itself, no matter what imaginative new idea we create for it. “A Dao of Web Design” continues to inspire and be relevant.
I had never read this. I had never seen this. I think this must have been published just before I started to look at the web seriously. (From 1996 I had been looking at it quite playfully, with reverence, but never with seriousness.)
But, like I said: I had never read this. And I opened it now expecting just to peek. You know, glance and then close the tab. I read it all. It’s a wonderful article. It’s incredible to think about how myopic our universe was back then (as always is the case), how disjointed all the rendering technologies were, and how the biggest device discrepancy was a Windows display at 96 dpi or a Mac at 72 dpi. And yet everything holds true—even more so in an age where there is no way to anticipate screen size, dpi, or context. The magic of the web today is that it’s accessed by every kind of device—now ranging in the tens of thousands of variants at the least, scaled up from a mere two. The only way to build for such a thing is to be adaptable. And here is Godfather John, 15 years ago, telling us precisely how to build and think for the chaos and grandeur of the web for which we build today. Thanks, John, for putting this clear and critical stake in the ground so very long ago.
—Craig Mod, Writer and designer
The future was already all there, written down in front of us—we just couldn’t see it yet. John knew, though. Accessibility, relational font sizing, “adaptive” design—and this was 15 years ago!
For me there’s more to “Dao” than flexibility. This passage sticks out:
Over the 15 years since John’s article, we’ve seen the call for function over form, content over creativity, taken to an extreme, where much of today’s web design lacks the spark of an idea that makes what we do memorable. Ideas still matter, and the look of websites matters, too, to communicate ideas about a product or a service or a brand.
Making a website “pretty,” understanding layout, seeing typography—really seeing it—and creating color palettes that evoke emotions are skills that designers should be proud of.
If John were writing “A Dao of Web Design” today, I’d ask my friend to remind his readers that the web is a medium for communication outside of “function.” That it’s a place for creative experimentation as well as for “services.” That it’s all these things and more.
I went to school to learn how to control everything about design: typography, color, layout, distribution, medium, and context. Design concepts are difficult to understand without building a mastery of the tools and medium. John Allsopp’s article suggests that web design is a paradox: in order to have control of the web, you need to let go of trying to control it.
What makes this piece enduring is that it is not just about practically designing for the web, but also about being a web designer. Flexibility, adaptability, and accessibility are not just the attributes of good websites; they’re also what makes a good designer and teammate.
—Samantha Warren, Independent designer
Like everyone else, I started my HTML markup days trying to wrestle with how to make it do my bidding. Reading over John’s essay now, I shudder to remember the pixels versus points versus font sizes debate, or the thicket of issues related to color cross-platform and early stylesheet implementations, and the whole
<i> question, but the core message still shines. Flexibility is key, and not just with respect to one design, but the possibility that a well-structured markup document can have potentially infinite actual expressions, each the result of an interaction between user preferences, browser capabilities, and gentle suggestions on the part of a designer willing to embrace a myriad of possibilities while appreciating that constraints drive creativity. Web designers don’t do one design, they do thousands, even within the same page or template. That “Dao” predates CSS Zen Garden or progressive enhancement or responsive design by several years is a testament to Allsopp’s deep understanding of what for me is the core characteristic of web design. That he wrote it so soon after the browser wars and before widespread and reliable CSS implementations is a marvel.
We once took the tropes of print design and tried to apply them to the web. I fear that today we run the risk of treating web development no differently than other kinds of software development, ignoring the strengths of the web that John highlighted for us. Flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty: don’t fight them as bugs; embrace them as features.
When “A Dao of Web Design” was published, I was a computer science student and I didn’t build websites. But this article must have settled in the back of my mind, because when I started creating websites, I did my best to make them fluid and accessible.
Afterward, every time I had to use fixed widths for some reason, I felt like I was cheating on the web—like I was doing something wrong.
Every time I teach web design to a new class, I cite this article to my students (who are graphic designers) to highlight the differences between designing for the web and for print.
John’s piece came three years before Steve Champeon coined the term “progressive enhancement,” but it clearly and succinctly outlined its philosophy: “Make pages which are accessible, regardless of the browser, platform or screen that your reader chooses or must use to access your pages.” His insights—published a mere decade after the invention of the medium—still influence the work I do to this day.
When “Dao” was first published, I wasn’t interested. I had no patience for it. I was too busy trying to make the web conform to my perfect and immutable designs. While it’s no surprise that 15 years ago I was dead wrong, it is pretty amazing to see how right John turned out to be.
John Allsopp’s essay rings true even today. I think to take it a step further would be to include printed pages in the scope of flexibility that web designers aspire to. My most challenging projects in recent years are the ones that run the gamut from screen to print—enabling people to create sophisticated print counterparts to their web creations from the same source file.
—Rebecca Malamud, Founder of Point B Studio
If you’d told me 15 years ago that my pocket would contain a supercomputer powered by the web, I’d have thought you were crazy. Yet here we are: the flexibility of the web is enabling another wave of technological growth. And just as we fretted over content moving from the inflexibility of paper to our unbounded browser, some are concerned with apps becoming predominant. None of us knows how the next decade and a half will play out, but I feel certain the web will continue to find new and exciting ways to deliver content.
I just hope that I’ll still be able to enjoy my printed paper with a cup of coffee on Sunday morning.
—Craig Hockenberry, Partner at Iconfactory
Designing for the web has always felt a bit like a double-edged sword. You don’t have complete control over every pixel, which felt like a limitation to me for a long time. But over the years I learned to embrace its flexibility, and to turn this limitation into a creative challenge. The web has never been as flexible as it is now.
The most elusive and often most desirable aim of any creative work is to remain relevant far beyond the period for which it was created. “A Dao of Web Design” is one of the very few documents in the volatile trade of technology that bears relevance not just a couple of years after its creation, but 15. 15! That’s an astounding testament of wisdom attributable not just to the document, but to its creator, too.
John’s insights are as sharp and relevant as ever, especially when we realize the web’s inherent flexibility isn’t just about layout—that, in fact, layout flexibility is one of the web’s least important features. I try to reread “A Dao of Web Design” at least once a year. You should, too.
15 years ago, I was struck by the poetry and simple truth of “A Dao of Web Design.” Little did I know that not only would the article still be relevant a decade and a half later, but it would essentially become our primary job. If there is one underlying theme to what we do for our clients, it is helping them let go of their perceived control and building a web that embodies the principles John espoused.
The web has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and in that time we’ve learned that embracing the web’s flexibility really is a requirement to do our jobs well.
The tension between wanting control and at the same time realizing we don’t have it drives us to come up with creative design solutions. It’s a big part of what makes working on the web interesting to me. The journey, as John so aptly calls it, is ongoing.
—Val Head, Designer and author
15 years ago, the “Dao” encouraged web designers to find harmony around the inherent characteristics of the web, which posed distinctly different problems than print design. There is a great deal of energy currently being spent on redefining those characteristics in response to today’s shiny new problems—juggling complex data, enabling real-time communication, supporting multi-device interactions. Opinions about where the web is going next, and the frameworks and tools to get us there, arrive at a fast pace. But in a world that contains so much that is new and shiny, we must be careful not to misidentify our projects as different than what has come before—when more often than not we are still building for the web described by the “Dao.” A web of living documents, not living data.
—Chris Casciano, Director of interface development at The Line
It’s very rare that a post withstands the test of time and becomes even more clairvoyant as it gets older. At the time, the “Dao” challenged all of our tools, assumptions, and addictions to pixel-perfection. But here we are, 15 years later, clinging to its advice like a prodigal child. I’m sure that web design has many more twists and turns in its future, but to me the “Dao” also lends testimony to thoughtful blogging: our ideas can find life and inspire over and over again in ways we could never imagine.
I think we have moved on to a new tension that consists of the web as we know it and the web as it should be. I know I am being naive and incredibly optimistic to consider the possibility that the web can reflect more of what is highest and most noble about humanity as opposed to what is depraved or vulgar or just plain mean. Let’s envision a day where we can see the world through this taoist precept: “From wonder into wonder existence opens.”
Because of foundational advocacy and application (through practices like progressive enhancement and responsive design), the web is more adaptable today than it was 15 years ago. With easy-to-use templating frameworks, it’s easier than ever to provide flexible layouts.
Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the open system that is our internet fenced in—made less adaptable through design. The protocols are still open—HTTP, SMTP, etc. However, the designers of systems like Facebook and mobile apps decide how we can share (or not) with others. So, in many ways it feels like we’re going backward to the days of AOL and CompuServe.
I <3 the internet because it connects people and changes our perspectives and, thus, our minds. Through embracing adaptability (and openness), we unleash the power of the internet and ourselves.
—Heather Hesketh, Founder of hesketh.com
John’s brilliant piece asks us to stand back and look at our work in a fresh way each day: questioning, yielding, breaking down walls, and always learning. Rereading it always inspires me to be better at what I do. He helped show us a critically important path: we can always be more of a community than an industry—even when commerce is what allows us to stay. The web is information, but the web is also communication. This “Dao of Web Design” is part of what makes us truly love what we do. As the web becomes a rant machine, a fire hose, a tool of oppression, an industrial outlet, beneath it runs the quiet river of the “Dao”—urging us to preserve what is beautiful and radical about creating the web and nudging us toward humility, empathy, and inclusivity. It’s about more than code: it’s a call to make an open web for every person on earth, to empower us all and allow every voice to be heard.
—Carolyn Wood, Copywriter, brand/content strategist
“Dao” challenged me to look at accessibility and limits in a completely new way. No longer could I focus on just removing barriers for people with disabilities. I became an advocate for deeply satisfying design for all users, refusing to let the limits of accessibility restrict the experience for users without disabilities.
Accessible design is design for everyone. And if there’s anything that embodies the true essence of the web, regardless of metaphor (the page or whatever), it’s this guardianship each of us inherits when we design things for people. In spite of the caprices of technology and taste, we can still control how broad our understanding is. And that’s what I strive for, anyway—honoring my guardianship. If I can do that with sincerity, then I think I’ve done the web right. This is the lesson I learned from the “Dao,” and one I hope it continues to teach, gray-haired as it is now.
We no longer worry about browsers with insufficient support for stylesheets, or the difference in dpi between Mac and Windows. Making a site appear identical everywhere finally bit the dust with the advent of the iPhone.
We’re still working on making sites more accessible and adaptable—which is what really matters.
While the minutiae of web design have evolved over the last decade and a half, the goal—the road—the way—the “Dao” itself—has not changed. We’re further down that right path, and “A Dao of Web Design” helped illuminate the map.
—Dori Smith, Author and programmer
“A Dao of Web Design” outlined a philosophy that today holds more true than ever.
Just as art imitates life, accessibility—the very foundation of the web—is direly needed beyond the web. It’s not only the guiding principle for interactive experiences on both smartphones and big-screen TVs, but for our societal development.
In a world where 1.3 billion people still lack access to energy, social networks are blocked at the whims of leaders with dictatorial ambitions, net neutrality is at serious risk, and a gazillion frameworks and conflicting standards are in use for web development—a relentless focus on accessibility (to energy, information, entertainment, different devices) will make sure that everyone is included.
We build the world we live in. Let’s make it accessible to everyone!
I remember reading John’s article when it was first published and emphatically exclaiming “YES!!” to the idea of embracing that the web is not a fixed medium, unlike any of the dead-tree formats we have. Designing and building with flexibility in mind from the get-go helps ensure, and may even be critical to, transformability. That transformability may be represented by a simple change in browser viewport width, or containers that respect text resizing, or something more complex like text-to-speech from a screen reader, or completely overriding the author’s style suggestions with a user stylesheet. To me, when we design with flexibility and transformability in mind, we’re making a statement: that we believe the web is for everyone. John’s article and thinking helped set that fundamental belief for all of us in this profession.
Although there’s only one web, it appears in many guises. Every browser/OS-combination is one such guise, and it frequently gets more complicated than that, especially on Android. Our job is to accommodate all of them.
Too many people new to web development (and that not only means new programmers, but also people coming from server-side programming) think they create an application for the web platform, singular, while in fact they create it for web platforms, plural.
Most other types of applications run in only one single environment, or at most a few. Not so the web: it runs in more environments than you can imagine. This is the next lesson we must learn. We work in many browsers, not in the browser. We run our apps on many web platforms, not on the web platform.
Let go of the singular. Embrace the plural. That’s what the “Dao” teaches me.
It used to be that only forward-thinking web designers—the kind of people who read A List Apart in 2000—cared about designing sites that took advantage of the medium. Now, responsive design is taught to beginning web designers, and clients and users expect it.
A fundamental next step is making our content responsive, not just the design. We’re starting to see this with things like Google Maps, which assembles a map on the fly based on your zoom level and viewport orientation. Personally, I’m trying to do it with music notation. And I want to see somebody do it for text—trim unneeded words and sentences depending on the reader’s knowledge or allotted reading time.
Responsive content is a harder problem than responsive design. It’s about algorithms, domain-specific knowledge, and something approaching artificial intelligence. But when we get there, it’s gonna be great.
Despite the passage of 15 years, the vision John articulated is more relevant than ever. We have more success on the web when we remember that the web’s strength comes from its inherent interoperability. The web was built to work on a wide range of computers and screens, across an extremely wide range of input and output options—across time itself. A website is a dynamic creature. Your content will morph in all sorts of unpredictable ways. John’s prescient article inspired us to lean into these qualities of the web. Not to fight them.
(Note: Eric Meyer and I interviewed John Allsopp for The Web Behind, where we talked about “A Dao of Web Design.”)