Responsive design, economic imperatives, the tyranny of typology and the slippery question of how to break out of the mold

In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself. (A. Einstein)

This post is intended as a constructive provocation. It is a series of loose reflections on my experience of using and modifying WordPress themes over the past couple of years. This post is still a work in progress! I will update the logic when time permits.

Did someone say “responsive”?

When we talk about WordPress themes what are we actually talking about?

Rectangles…no? We’re talking about rectangles.

It’s highly likely that the monitor you are viewing this post on is rectangular. It may be a large rectangle. Or it may be a small rectangle. Whatever the size, we might say that our view of the Web is largely rectangular – or at least framed by one.

Because that’s what rectangles do isn’t it? They frame things. And not only that, but they instil a sense of order in the object they frame. They turn the thing into a reserve. Something to be looked at. Something that when framed reveals something of itself that was absent in its not being framed.

And thus that boy down there below, Colin Wood, when he was caught in a camera frame in Central Park in 1962, he became part of a chain of images, part of a reservoir of forms that belong to the medium we know as photography. All fluidity on that day in the park; the bird songs, the passers by, the boy’s awkward gait, all that was forgotten. Or more precisely, it was left outside the frame.

The frame excludes as much as it includes.

Have we not witnessed, in recent times, something of the tyranny of WordPress theme typologies? The Portfolio theme. The Business theme. The CMS theme etc. etc. Each type is a frame that encompasses a specific vocabulary, a set of features that designers use in the production of their themes and that customers endorse and deploy in their sites across the Web leading to an ever insular view of what this Internet medium is capable of.

And yet…

And yet frames also command intensity. We can distill something, reveal its essence, force ourselves to move towards the limits of a thing, once it has been framed.

Diane Arbus, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962. (Courtesy Wikimedia)
And so if we’re talking about WordPress. If we’re talking about design. If we’re talking about WordPress theme design. Then we’re talking about at attempt at revealing something inside the frame. But how often, we might ask, is that achieved? Is it not the case that most themes are happy go about their business of sticking to the frame, not to venture outside it, not to seek the intensity it offers within?

And here we might as well go ahead and replace the word frame with the word grid. Grids are a core part of today’s WorPress theme design. A fluid grid is at work in this theme right here.

Essentially it is a means of organising space, a compositional design tool which can be used to plot the coordinates of everything likely to appear inside the frame. If the frame reduces infinity to a finite set of data, then the grid reduces that set to controllable parameters. The parameters of code.

As an organising principle the fluid design grid is a fundamental proponent of the responsive design boom that exploded nearly two years ago (if you accept the common view that the term was coined – at least in the context of web design – by Ethan Marcotte in his article for A List Apart).

On a practical level, responsive design may mean little more than coding for cross-platform compatibility. On a more idealistic level, and as Marcotte points out with reference to “responsive architecture”, it is much more than that, it is the ability for a design and its user to mutually influence each other.

But Marcotte all too quickly shuts off that line of thought when he writes:

Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them.

In just a couple of paragraphs, we go from the plurality of responsive design as a new frontier for interactivity (not to say intersubjectivity) to responsive web design as a singular means of extending the same data across all platforms. The former demands experimentation and free thinking. The latter demands a strategy. The latter is tied to the same economic imperative (less is more) that underpins the tyranny of WordPress theme typologies that I alluded to just a moment ago.

Another responsive evangelist, John Yuda, writing in .NET Magazine recently, echoed Marcotte’s aspirations by saying:

To be truly responsive, we must meet our users where they are. Truly responsive sites adapt themselves not only to the screen size of a device, but also to its broader capabilities and settings.

Again we see the same split between ideal and imperative at work.

A powerful idea costs nothing. But a strategy to implement it is suddenly subject to a time/resource ratio.

So the question becomes how do you reconcile the tension between the openness of an idea and the inevitable restriction that a strategy imposes on it?

Oh the drama!

Of course, there is no one answer to this. Far from it. But a video that caught my attention recently contains at least a hint.

Here is that video.

What’s the point of this video? That a single person through his or her interaction accesses an entirely different world than he/she expected. Signal and response. What’s really happening though? He or she believes (at least momentarily) that he/she is witness to something unique and authentic that was triggered by his/her doing.

What’s crucial about it? That in spite of the fact that he/she already knows that a simulation is at work, he or she derives a sense of exhilaration. That comes less from the spectacle itself, and more from the sense of participation with others – be they other bystanders or online YouTube viewers.

When the banner is unveiled at the end and the onlookers realise they have been part of a marketing campaign, and any belief in the reality of the simulation is revoked. There’s a sense of relief. A sense of returning to ‘normality’. The marketing campaign constitutes that reality. One driven by the economic imperative to sell products – in this case a TV Network hoping to gain more subscribers.

Yeah this is all very nice, but what the hellfire does it have to do with WordPress?

Well, when a design pertains to an individual and not a group. When it is true to the specificity of the original idea and not to the generality that marketing strategy tends to impose. Where there is “engagement” (read dialogue) at a personal level. Then the affect of the one can become the affect of the many. How? Through the very same system that gave that video its power, through social networks (online and offline).

How cam you design a theme for a single user and then expect a wide range of users to buy into it? Because in a market so locked into trends, so dominated by singular frames, by typologies, any reasonable attempt to break out of the mold will elicit a response. But be careful. It’s not as simple as saying “be original” or “be authentic”. Everyone strives for authenticity, even in the tightest of markets.

Rather, it is to push the design frame to its limits. To take it somewhere in which its structure, its function and its effects must be completely rethought.

What do you think?

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