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  • Responsive Web Design

    Prateek Rungta

    We often like to look back at points which caused paradigm shifts in our practise. The introduction of responsive design by Ethan Marcotte was one of the big ones.

    We’d long known that the web was about embracing flexibility and about a dynamic, infinite canvas rather than fixed paper sizes. There were a fair share of designers practising this too by designing fluid, scalable websites. To the mainstream however, embracing flexibility meant little beyond supporting a few different browsers and two different screen resolutions.

    That was then. It’d been three years since the iPhone’s release. Tablets had made their debut, but smartphones were about to reach critical mass. Diversity in the shape, size and form factor of devices accessing the web was now a ripe reality. And Ethan struck on hot metal with the idea to design for an optimal viewing experience” by querying for and adapting to the user’s environment.

    While responsive design might’ve initially arrived as a primer on using media queries, it feels more like a philosophy than a specific technique. The philosophy being, to recognise and build for web design’s known unknowns, to secede certain control to the user, meet them in their environment of choice rather than dictate one particular context on to them via your design choices.

    The responsive web design philosophy fits so well with the principles of the web that it is now as ingrained in our processes as using CSS instead of <table>s for layout.

  • Collateral Damage

    Prateek Rungta

    With the release of iOS 9 and its support for content blocking APIs, there has been an explosion of ad blockers that are proving only too popular with users. This has kicked off the long overdue debate about the malpractices of contemporary online advertisers, and the ethics of blocking said advertising. There have been numerous interesting perspectives on this issue, and rather than recounting them here, I urge you to read them for yourself:

    Instead, I wish to draw your attention to web fonts. A lot (if not most) of the ad blocker apps also support blocking of web fonts. Some restrict themselves to blocking font hosting services such as Typekit and Google Fonts, while others block all web fonts, self-hosted or otherwise. Designers, as some might have expected, have something to say about that.

    So designers are not happy. But if you’re a user, chances are, you’re quite relieved (or even ecstatic) at the ability to block web fonts and experience a faster web. And web designers and front-end engineers have no one but themselves to blame for this.

    How did we get here?

    The web is primarily textual. Typography, thus, becomes an essential component of web design. CSS features such as @font-face allow us web designers to enhance the typographic quality of our designs by giving us the freedom to use any font at our disposal. This is a good thing. No two ways about that (and more of the same, please).

    But somewhere along the way, we forgot (or chose to ignore) that a user’s experience of the web is made up of a wide range of factors, of which fonts are an important but not all encompassing part. Smooth performance and fast access to content are just as (if not more) important factors.


    Far too many websites, far too often started resulting in situations such as this:

    quartz home page with the base design rendered but no fonts and no readable text or headlines

    The page has been rendered. The content is available, but it isn’t accessible to be read until the web fonts finish downloading. This behaviour is called Flash of Invisible Text, or FOIT.

    FOIT is bad if you’re on a low-speed connection, because the text might be the last thing that becomes accessible on the page. FOIT is worse if you experience bad latency or lose network connection altogether and the fonts fail to download, leaving you with blank spaces where the text might’ve been.


    There is an alternate method, which starts off with making the text available on first render using local fallback fonts from the user’s system and applying the web fonts after — and if — they finish downloading. This behaviour is called Flash of Unstyled Text, or FOUT.

    Default browser handling of @font-face embeds has changed over the last few years, but web designers have more or less had control over going the FOIT or FOUT route right since web fonts gained popularity 1. Sadly, most websites chose invisible (FOIT) over accessible. They chose to hide the text until their preferred typefaces would finish downloading, resulting in longer wait times for the user. They treated web fonts not as an enhancement but as a requirement, seceding the functional high ground for higher quality typography.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people want to be able to read the news report in Georgia or Roboto, or carry on with their shopping in Arial rather than stare at a blank screen for the rest of their train ride. Hence their joy and support for web font blockers.

    The sense of dismay amongst designers hints at a deeper negligence. Why are designers disappointed on hearing that a certain feature might not be available to a certain subset of the people visiting their site? Is that not true for pretty much everything but the vanilla HTML we write? Or do we only concern ourselves for users with the latest software releases running on the most powerful hardware devices connected via the fastest networks?

    Web designers should know better. Websites should not come with minimum software requirements. Websites should not feel doomed if one, or two (or three, or more) of the enhancements are unavailable in a certain browser. Granted, typography is a vital component of web design given the percentage of text on our pages, but it should not come at the cost of the ability to read. The dependence on web fonts for delivering great reading experiences further highlights our mis-treatment of those web users that fall outside our local map.

    Users are pushing back against the abusive practises of the online advertising industry. Some might feel that in between this fight, web font blocking is the unfortunate collateral damage, but I disagree. I feel the culprits are the websites that chose FOIT over progressive enhacement. In the process of users reclaiming faster access to content, even the FOUT style web fonts have been blocked. That is the real collateral damage.

    1. Bram Stein has a great slide deck on the current state of web font loading and performance. Bram is also the author of the FontFaceObserver script, which is our weapon of choice to implement a progressive font loading strategy, based on the excellent work done by Filament Group. Recommended reading for web designers and front-end engineers. ↩︎

  • Web is Flux

    Souvik Das Gupta
    Meta Refresh 2014
    Location & Date
    ·Bangalore, India

    There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

    — Donald Rumsfeld

    Earlier this year, in the month of February, I attended Meta Refresh in Bangalore where I emphasised the importance of progressive enhancement through a workshop and a talk at the conference. It is quite unfortunate that many web designers and developers continue to carry forth the old approach of designing websites for a known system configuration. Only later do they test their websites on alternate browsers / devices and patch issues that are detected. This practise is known as graceful degradation.

    This site is best viewed in IE6, 800×600.

    About a decade back there was very little variation in hardware and software and one could have got away with making assumptions about client systems – though that doesn’t really justify this practice even at that time. Over the years, the devices (and software) connected to the web have come a long way. New waves have swept across the ecosystem – frequently and unpredictably – bringing in newer hardware, device capabilities, screens, browsers and other software. Today it is hard to keep up with the speed at which things are changing. We don’t know what will storm the ecosystem next but something surely will. Assumptions about a system configuration, today, are far from safe.

    At a time when technology is changing faster than what we can keep up with, it’s worth noting that the fundamental principles of the web have remained unchanged since its inception about 25 years ago. These principles have stood the test of time and can perhaps be described as strictly liberal. In many ways they have been responsible for letting the web evolve and improve over time without any major impediments. Even today the very first website on the internet works flawlessly across all standards compliant web browsers on every device.

    The onus of embracing these principles lies on us. If we look closely, there are only a handful of knowns in a traditional web communication — the presence of a client and a server that talk over HTTP, and the fact that client is running a web browser that will understand a hypertext document. Everything else is either a known unknown or an unknown unknown.

    Progressive enhancement is a fundamentally opposite approach to the widely adopted method of graceful degradation. It was introduced in the year 2003, by Steve Champeon and Nick Finck in a talk titled Inclusive Web Design for the Future. In short, start with healthy markup, add the styles around it, and finally layer the interactivity around it. How does that help? The outer layers do not interfere with the inner ones, and therefore basic systems can access the content in the markup layer and deliver a base experience to the user. More powerful systems can further take advantage of the outer layers to enhance the user experience. No one’s excluded.

    The idea of starting with the most basic system was expectedly rebutted by many in the audience. After all, hardly anyone uses a vanilla HTML browser today. Pretty much everyone has the bells and whistles of CSS and JavaScript. But as the Principle of Least Power suggests, the less powerful a language the more widely it can be adopted. And further, if I may add, less powerful languages have low chances of failure. The fact that a system can continue working even if one of the technology fails is a huge benefit derived from adopting progressive enhancement. Christian Heilmann’s elevator vs escalator analogy perhaps best exposes the elephant in the room.

    Last year, all of a sudden, there was a revival of the progressive enhancement debate on the internet. Since then, it’s been regularly discussed at many reputed conferences around the world. Having to defend the values of the web (such as inclusiveness) 25 years after we began this journey by letting go of control, and becoming flexible is a tad disheartening. I wish the community rests this debate and upholds the spirit of the web. This talk is an effort to urge everyone to do just that.

  • Preview: Embracing Progressive Enhancement

    Prateek Rungta

    We had a great time attending and speaking at Meta Refresh last year. Souvik has been given another opportunity and will be presenting once again at HasGeek’s annual web design conference. This year he is conducting a workshop that will revisit the spirit of the web to demonstrate what makes the web special, and show how to embrace the principle of progressive enhancement to build robust websites.

    Here’s a short introduction:

    If you design or build for the web, you should definitely try and attend. Come to the workshop and learn why and how to adopt this foundational philosophy of developing for the web, or participate in some of the other great workshops and talks on the roster. The most compelling reason to attend though is the chance to meet fellow peers in person — a rare privilege for us digital workers.

    Meta Refresh 2014 takes place from the 11th to 15th of February. Souvik’s workshop is on the 13th (Thursday) at The Energy And Research Institute (TERI) in Bangalore, and tickets are still on sale.