Fifteen Years of “A Dao of Web Design”

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Fifteen years ago, John Allsopp published “A Dao of Web Design” on A List Apart. In his seminal work, John calls for designers to embrace the Web’s inherent flexibility and “accept the ebb and flow of things.”

John specifically addresses the tension of this early era of Web design: traditional print designers sought to exert the same kind of absolute control over the display of webpages that they could over printed documents. John argues that this autocratic approach to design highlights a limitation of the medium:

The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility.

The Web is flexible by default; it always has been. In fact, the oldest known extant webpage is perfectly flexible. Or, as we’d call it today: responsive. We—designers, all of us—attempted to force the Web to play by the centuries-old rules and constraints of print media.

John, in his wisdom, saw the Web for what it was:

The web’s greatest strength, I believe, is often seen as a limitation, as a defect. It is the nature of the web to be flexible, and it should be our role as designers and developers to embrace this flexibility, and produce pages which, by being flexible, are accessible to all.

And on the topic of accessibility’s relationship to design:

Designing adaptable pages is designing accessible pages. And perhaps the great promise of the web, far from fulfilled as yet, is accessibility, regardless of difficulties, to information.

Words as true today as they were fifteen years ago.

“A Dao of Web Design” in 2015

To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of “Dao,” A List Apart spoke with a bunch of great designers and got their thoughts on its impact and relevance.

Friend and Style Tiles proponent Samantha Warren, writes:

[“A Dao of Web Design”] 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.

Jeremy Keith writes:

Flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty: don’t fight them as bugs; embrace them as features.

In his post, Jeremy expresses concern that we’re forgetting the tenants of “Dao.” Instead, we’re treating the Web like a singular software platform. He’s not alone in his concern.

Peter-Paul Koch:

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.

Let go of the singular. Embrace the plural. That’s what the “Dao” teaches me.

Jen Simmons, host of The Web Ahead podcast:

And yet we don’t fully understand this thing, even two decades in. We still attempt to design sites like they are print publications, using software from print design, drawing on paper of a fixed size with hard edges. In a new trend, teams manhandle the web with JavaScript, attempting to make it behave like a single-platform application environment.

In fifteen years, our design tools haven’t changed. The pixel dimensions of our PSDs have most certainly changed: We happily share 800 pixel-wide 1024 pixel-wide 1200 pixel-wide 1440 pixel-wide—and wider—Photoshop documents with our clients, gleefully proclaiming, “This is what your website will look like!” Except that it won’t. At least not for most people.

More concerning still is this attempt to reconceptualize the Web as a software delivery platform. If “Dao” teaches us anything, it’s that the Web is the antithesis a singular, defined platform. The tension today exists between those who seek to force the Web into a tidy platform-centric box—ostensibly running on Google Chrome—and those who truly understand and embrace the “flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty” of the Web.

Embracing flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty. This is what “A Dao of Web Design” is all about.

A notion as true today as it was fifteen years ago.

The Worried Web Designer

At the risk of sounding gloomy, I worry about the Web a lot. The Web’s been a huge part of my life for nearly twenty years. The Web and I have a good thing going. And still I worry.

I worry about the quality of my own work and the nature of others’. But I believe worry is a fine quality for a Web designer. Designing for the Web in 2015 is fraught with peril, but it’s also full of promise.

The proliferation and diversity of Web-connected devices is both terrifying and terrific. More people than ever will be engaging online in conditions and on devices unimaginable in 2000. These are exciting times, indeed. Our best work plans for the peril and typifies the promise.

On this fifteenth anniversary of “A Dao of Web Design,” I salute John for his prescience and for his article’s timelessness. I similarly salute every other Web designer who, throughout the years, has beaten the drum of embracing the Web’s true nature and “accepting the ebb and flow of things.”