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A List Apart: Elastic Design

Friday 9 January, 2004 ( 5:28PM GMT)

A List Apart screenshot and a whole loada rubber bands'Elastic Design', my second article for A List Apart (the first being 'Suckerfish Dropdowns' with Dan Webb), explains the concept of using relative values in CSS to achieve 'elastic' elements (such as text or even layout) that will expand or contract depending on the users text size settings.

It goes hand in hand with the 'Elastic Lawn' CSS Zen Garden design I did recently, which demonstrates the elastic approach.

Personally, I like Elastic Design. It's something I've been using for years - not only with text, but also with layout because I think it has real usability and accessibility benefits that if done the right way should not compromise graphic design.

Not everyone's going to like it - there's plenty of debate surrounding fixed vs. liquid layouts already and I'm sure there is plenty to argue over on the topic of their elastic cousin.


Comment 1

Thanks, i'm coming from ALA, your article is verry good. really thanks.

So said Cafe Fort on Sunday 11 January, 2004 at 4:08PM GMT.

Comment 2

I posted a partial rebuttal - just an exception to one sentence at

So said Dennis Hays on Monday 12 January, 2004 at 9:35PM GMT.

Comment 3

Hmm, Ive read your rebuttable thing making parallels with print design but Im not quite sure it holds.

The relationship of design to printed media is very different to the relationship of design to digital media. The difference is this: In printed media the users can't choose how to view their content. The design is enforced. Therefore design was about how to fashion content to appeal to its target audience (or as many of them as possible). For instance, I might not want a huge A3 newspaper with 3 columns of text and large pictures. I might be reading in a confined space and want my news on a toilet roll (stupid example but you get my drift). Would it be nice if I could get my news on a roll of toilet paper if I wanted....?

In digital media we have the ability to give users control over how they get their content. That's why its good. To a certain extent design in digital media can give identity to a site or application but that on the whole is mostly useful to the creator of the site rather than the reader (although not in all cases).

So, in short, I think Pat's statement, in theory, is correct. It is better to be able to provide users with content how they want it. In practice, however, we can't give users ultimate control yet so we can do our best.

I can see what you are getting at with your rebuttal but I think to many web designers still compare what they are doing with print design when, in fact, in the early days of the web, and still alot nowadays, this has been one of its greatest problems. We can't with current technology, give users content exactly how they want it but I think to dispute the that ideal just is wrong.

It's great that people are starting to think about these issues now though. Maybe one day I wont get a picture of a website drawn into an 800x600 browser window and get asked to code it....I wish.

So said Dan Webb on Wednesday 14 January, 2004 at 5:47PM GMT.

Comment 4

I noticed that your Elastic Lawn ( has an fun little quirk: Opera 7.23 on Win 2000 lets the "download the files" box overlap other parts (sometimes on the lawn, sometimes not) when I resize the browser window. Email me if you would like the screen shot.

As for useability: it's an interesting tension and evolution as both the designers and the clients age (or get yougner, depending on your perspective). Their "native language" for interacting with the web is changing--more rapidly than the technology itself? This I don't know yet.

So said metasilk on Wednesday 14 January, 2004 at 11:10PM GMT.

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