On the liberty to criticise

John Stuart Mill - I get to him further down

The fundamental principles of good web design are so obvious they don't need repeating. You agree, of course. Over the last 10 years or so the profession has been slowly moving towards the light, the sunlit uplands of the truly open web envisaged all along by Tim Berners Lee.

To recap briefly. The 1990s and early 2000s were fairly dark days for standards-driven design: the Internet Explorer/Netscape browser wars, poor support for CSS and the siren call of Flash made it almost impossible both to embrace standards and meet client expectations. Sites were hacked together with tables and SWF files just to patch up something that looked half decent.

Greatly improved browser support for standards technology from around 2001/2002 led to the slow death of tables-based layouts and 'skip intro' Flash-only sites, allowing good designers to turn out accessible, semantic, visually appealing sites that observed a clear distinction between content and presentation.

Then a few years later when the mobile web arrived we finally got serious about embracing the inherently fluid nature of web design, moving away from fixed width designs suitable for a narrow range of desktop displays to properly responsive designs that adapt to their browsing environments.

The craft of responsive web design continues to develop rapidly as the community refines and draws out the implications of principles such as mobile first and content-out, and discovers ever more ingenious solutions to outstanding issues such as responsive images and the conditional loading of content tailored to different platforms.

It's all too beautiful

We are all in agreement then. We all share the simple, elegant ideal of an open web that can be accessed by any web-enabled device built in accord with a set of universally accepted technological standards.

Well I certainly do, and so do most designers I know. But when you meet like-minded people on the same circuit of networking events, follow the same crowd on Twitter and Google+, read the same websites, magazines and books, it's easy to overlook those outside your immediate circle who aren't on board yet: the sceptical and the downright hostile.

The stubborn presence of 'the Other' has become apparent a few times over the past two or three months. Just the other day I read a post in the Tech section of Slate Magazine - Forget the Desktop - that reads as if written in some parallel world where responsive web design never happened. It's well worth a look. The tone is: 'You know, phones and tablets are so common these days that web designers really should think about prioritising design for those first, then think about desktops.' Hmm, you've got a point - maybe it really is time we started thinking about that…

That's somewhat unfair on the writer - it was a well written piece. I'm just interested that it makes no reference to what web designers have been obsessing over for some time now, and I think it is not untypical of the thoughts of many in the tech industry working in fields adjacent to web design. A great many haven't been following our debates, don't know about the things we're taking for granted, and would need convincing that we're actually right.


And there are of course some commentators who do know about current web design thinking but who quite simply don't agree with it. Among them Jakob Nielsen who wrote a series of Alertbox columns earlier this year politely but firmly opposed to responsive design's underlying principle: that the same content should be served to mobile as to desktop. Let's just say the RWD crowd responded in robust terms, the response ably exemplified Josh Clark's post on .net. And as if that wasn't enough a dizzy world then looked on spellbound as I wrote my own post on the subject.

A little later VentureBeat published an opinion piece with the not unprovocative title What’s next for mobile now that adaptive design has failed? We were duly provoked: see the comments below the original piece, and Elliot Jay Stocks' eloquent counterblast.

I don't have a problem with that

I'm not at this point going to criticise web designers for sharply responding to - at times rather exasperating and ill-informed - scepticism. The community has worked incredibly hard over the past few years to establish standards-based responsive web design as the right way forward for web design. We have reacted with the zealous protectiveness of any group of people that care about their craft and have worked hard to develop it.

But I just want to say that it's important that we acknowledge the importance of criticism in helping us refine and toughen up our reasoning for our best practices. Contrary views force us to think through why we believe what we do, to expose any weaknesses in our case, to shine a light on residual problems, complacencies and prejudices. The responses to the critics I discussed above by Josh and Elliot are among the most articulate arguments for the principles of standards-based adaptive design the community has produced, and were written in response to challenges by 'unbelievers' (I don't think it's inappropriate to dip into religious terminology here given the strength of the opinions held).

On Liberty

A very beautiful quote applicable to this discussion came to mind earlier this week when I was reading commentary on the rights and wrongs of the Pussy Riot and Julian Assange cases, which are both concerned with issues of free speech and the boundaries of open expression.

It's from On Liberty by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, arguably the most influential work of political philosophy (yet) written. I wrote an essay on Mill when I was a politics student, some years ago, when the world was young, and have retained a memory of this passage ever since: it so clearly and concisely expresses why we should always allow and, when necessary, respond firmly to criticism of our strongly held beliefs, even if that criticism is on occasion downright offensive and just plain wrong. Mill, from Chapter 2 of On Liberty:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth: and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being applied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal reply.

A set of principles essential to the health of any open society, and to the continued development and refinement of the craft or service practised by any profession. In my opinion!