9 Oct 2012 7 am eastern

Will the last digital canvas please turn out the lights?

DESIGNERS. WE LOVE CANVASES. It’s what we know. Even the cave wall had predictable, fixed dimensions. On the web, in the past few years, we’ve finally had to acknowledge that the canvas is not fixed, that each user’s canvas is different, and that fixed-width design—while safe and comfortable because it’s what we know—really doesn’t make sense in the world of HTML, and probably never did. We’ve spent the past two or three years rapidly learning (and sharing) new ways of designing.

But while we were unwrapping ourselves from the notion of a fixed canvas on the web, many of us were gleefully tucking into a fixed canvas in Apple’s world of the iPhone and iPad. True, the iPad had more pixels than the original iPhone—an advantage also enjoyed by later iPhone models with their Retina displays. But they shared easily interchanged aspect ratios (4:3 for the iPad and 3:2 for the iphone), enabling designers to design right to the canvas.

Apple’s fixed canvas wasn’t just a designer’s security blanket. It enabled us to craft a certain kind of polished experience right to the device. We laughed (or cried) at the Android with its 500 “standard” breakpoints and counting. Apple had given us a fixed-width sandbox and we built castles in it.

Well, goodbye to all that.

The end of fixed aspect ratios

With the iPhone 5′s switch to a 16:9 aspect ratio, and given the unknown aspect ratio of the upcoming iPad mini, “we’re going to see a big change in a certain type of iOS app—the one designed for the device,” Craig Grannell predicts in today’s reverttosaved.com:

[Veteran developer John] Pickford summed it up by stating his approach would no longer depend heavily on screen shape, and I’ve heard similar from other developers, both of apps and games although especially the latter. In a sense, this could be a good thing—freeing up iOS from the constraints of specific screen shapes opens up developers to whatever Apple throws at them next and should also make apps simpler to port to competing platforms. But it also impacts heavily on those tightly crafted experiences that were designed just for your iPad or just for your iPhone. Having all the action take place only in the very centre of a screen, because a developer cannot guarantee what device you’re using, or, worse, carving out a viewport and surrounding it with a border, could cheapen iOS games and apps in a big way.

Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but pre-iPhone 5, indies were already feeling the pinch. With that device and perhaps a new, smaller iPad to contend with, the shift towards more fluid and less device-specific apps seems inevitable.—Craig Grannell, iOS screen fragmentation points to a shift in app development

I share Craig’s assessment of what the change in aspect ratios portends for application design. But I believe that designers will rise to the challenge, as we have on the web; and that bright app designers will find ways to design experiences which, even if they are actually flexible behind the scenes, still feel like they were custom crafted for the device in your hand.

Filed under: Apple, Design, development, Responsive Web Design, Retina Images

5 Responses to “Will the last digital canvas please turn out the lights?”

  1. Lydia Mann said on

    I’m still stumbling over media queries, yet to catch up to three years’ ago techniques… oy

  2. Patrick Brown said on

    It’s almost funny, thinking back to the 90′s and how hard we worked to make constraints and structure. Today my team tries not to talk about a “design”. Instead we talk about how to display page elements.
    Once we stop looking for the forest we can appreciate the trees and how nicely they fit together.

  3. Greg said on

    [Ctrl - - -] I have a headache.

  4. Morten Rand-Hendriksen said on

    Well said as always Mr. Zeldman. We, the people who build the stuff of the web, need to focus our attention on providing great experiences and clear communication for all readers, regardless of the means they choose to use to access our content. The idea that we can somehow know in advance what size a screen is or even if a screen is being used at all is an antiquated one. I’m always flabbergasted when I see websites with media queries that have break points to match the iPad and iPhone with no contingencies for any screen sizes in between.

  5. Bobby Burdette said on

    great post and totally agree. This could be an advantage for designers and developers who have been struggling with creating apps on both platforms (those of us who somehow avoided the ifanboy phenomenon). I for one welcome the iOS fragmentation and hope it continues as it will push us as designers to think more about content as part of the design and not the other way around.

    A question that arises for me though: Does more fragmentation actually hurt the “APP” side of the mobile web vs. app argument?

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