liquid images in liquid layouts

Tuesday August 10, 2004

Although on this particular site I use a fixed-width layout, I’m a huge fan of liquid layouts, as you can see at A1 ProCoat and The common arrangement of a 640- or 800-pixel-wide fixed-pixel presentation floating in the middle (or worse, slapped against the left side of the window) of an 1200- or 1600- pixel-wide screen works for many situations (as for this site), but they have disadvantages as well. Web pages flow. W3C specifications speak of the flow of the page on the screen, but too many designers IMHO, don’t understand that the Web really isn’t print, and use pixel-perfect designs to try to translate a print message to the screen. Some problems I’ve noticed with these designs are:

  • An absurd amount of wasted screen space; This will only get worse as monitor resolutions get bigger and bigger. I recently tested my personal site (all liquid) on a 2560-pixel-wide Mac monitor, maximized (or as close to maximized as Mac allows). It looked just as good as at 800px.
  • Frequently, inaccessible text which can not be resized, which is amazing when you consider how many of these sites are in micro text! I propose every site should be tested by its designers for readability after 24 hrs. without sleep. (That would give some incentive to make the text scalable!)
  • Frequently, an inability to think in semantic (X)HTML. (Great, you optimized it for a soon-to-be-obsolete monitor resolution, but what about the Palm? Or the cellphone? The Braille reader or text reader?)

Liquid layouts avoid these problems. They adapt to any size screen, they’re more conducive to thinking in terms of document flow rather than print positioning, and they simply “let the Web be the Web.” I can only speak for myself, but I think other designers who are comfortable using liquid layouts are probably also more comfortable thinking in semantic (X)HTML, and basic accessibility. Furthermore, they encourage users to resize, which is a great habit for users to get into, as they are the ones who ultimately know what’s “too big,” “too small,” or “too long” for themselves.

But there are disadvantages with liquid vis-a-vis fixed:

  • Line lengths can become too long for extensive reading. (Easily remedied by resizing the browser window.)
  • The huge screen resolutions available today, a layout stretched too wide can reveal “holes” or gaps where background images end. However, this can be worked around by using background colors in conjunction with background images, and making sure that the images used blend into the background colors.<”/li>
  • A more serious difficulty is that images can break the layout when the window is made smaller.

Richard Rutter of » has done some fascinating work that solves the latter problem. I like his solution » of using percentage widths (with max-width set to actual width) for small and medium images, and overflow:hidden for wide images.

I’ve extensively used this technique on my personal website, The Wild Things of God.

NN4 will choke on a page where there is inline style on images, but this problem is rapidly becoming irrelevant as that browser fades from use.

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