Break the Page Thu, 23 May 2013 00:01:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Once, there was a page… Mon, 13 May 2013 11:04:46 +0000 Dan Donald There’s a lot of really great stuff out there for design and development, looking at practical knowledge sharing through to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We kind of wanted to go somewhere else and become a playground for ideas.

In short, it’s aiming to become an online periodical about the future and philosophy of the web. Much of that can be diving into the past as much as it is imagining how we want to move things forward. It’s about that step beyond the tools and techniques we use here and now and let ourselves consider the steps that are still beyond us.

We hope it’ll be a place to think about the bigger, maybe more abstract questions or ideas about the web and how we use it. While it’s scratching our own itch, we want to be open to anyone that wants to share their ideas on a similar level. If there’s some kind of abstract thought you had you didn’t have a place for, drop us a line, maybe it’s just what we’re looking for.


Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)


The way it’s presented will evolve too. We’re starting as something really simple and conventional but through incremental updates and acting where we can on the ideas expressed within our content, who knows how the project might shape up? We always hope to be open to new ways of doing things and unafraid to try out new things, so we’re hoping the site will evolve rather than wait for big reveal releases.

Not everyone is big on writing so we want to encourage people to create images or video as much as short or essay-length written pieces. It’s all about finding the best way to communicate your ideas. All we need it a title and brief summary from you and we’ll be in touch.

Fundamentally, the content and how it’s best accessed or consumed will shape what Break the Page is. It’s quite exciting to not know where it’ll go.

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Language & Metaphors Mon, 13 May 2013 11:03:27 +0000 Dan Donald I never felt I was that great at English at school but there’s something about language and the use of it that I’ve always found captivating; The way we use words in such diverse and powerful ways, often even without consciously meaning to. We use analogies, similes and metaphors as part of natural conversation all the time and this became really clear to me watching how we adapted to the web.

Remember (or imagine if you were too young) the time before the web. Not everyone had a computer at home. Mobiles were just phones: for calls and text messages. The idea about what the web represented was, and is, immense. So is the ability to create for it and what that represents. As part of adapting to change, we use language from other familiar concepts to help build a vocabulary to articulate something new, which is what happened with the web. We create web ‘sites’, ‘home’ and ‘pages’ (has anyone used the term ‘surfing the web’ this side of the Millennium?). It’s the term ‘page’ in particular that I’ve had an issue with.


Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

As a device to help us all to adapt to the web, this term worked well. The first websites were basic and were most often HTML pages ‘hyper-linked’ together. Can we say that’s what we’re creating now? You could argue that the results or our work may not deviate massively despite the increased complexity and capability of the sites we create. I’d argue that the word ‘page’ still serves the visitors to websites well but for us as creators, should we still be using it?

With every linguistic construct comes along with it the baggage of its origin. We see this with skeuomorphic designs such as the calendar or address book in Apple’s products. The reproduction of a physical entity limits the scope of what the interface can do. Often these derived terms are not very elastic. If you break too far away from the original perception of the word or imagery, the use of it becomes meaningless. Modelling a calendar application after an old fashioned desk-top paper calendar, complete with paper that tears from it when changing months, immediately constrains its potential.

The concepts used carry connotations, which if ignored or ventured away from negate the benefit. As a part of this baggage, the notion of a page brings with it the traditional idea of paper. It suggests a physical entity we’re producing in an electronic form. Something that has fixed dimensions and two dimensional properties. You could say that many sites we create are very much that. Increasingly through the years, we’re producing all kinds of varied web experiences. By freeing ourselves of what a page signifies and the constraints that come with it, we’re opening ourselves up conceptually.

What do we do when we design a website? I’d guess more often than not, whether in Photoshop or a sketch, we’d start with a rectangle. A representation of the screen or viewport; not too different in shape from a piece of paper. To me this is immediately an awkward constraint and the compulsion is to design within it. The viewport is not your canvas, though we can choose for it to be so – it’s a window onto your design.

I have to admit, I don’t have a better term for it. Anything else seems contrived. Are these parts of a website ‘experiences’, ‘views’, ‘spaces’, ‘frames’ or ‘screens’? I’ve most often fallen into using ‘views’ but as this term is used for a coding design pattern, it’s still not quite what we mean. Calling them ‘screens’ would be clumsy and inaccurate. Ultimately, a ‘web page’ is an addressable resource. This fluid idea could be represented as something analogous of a printed page or as an entire app, full of behaviours and actions.

This contrasts to how terms like ‘site’ or ‘domain’ resonate with me. These seem broad enough to both represent what they are on the web but without attaching baggage from their other uses. A site for a building is little more that a plot to be built upon; that kind of works for what we do. A ‘web site’ is a place within which we construct our part of the web. A ‘domain’ could be said to be a territory, which again kind of works in the web without implying much from any related usage. Considering these terms serves to make  the ‘page’ stand out all the more to me.

It may of course be that I’m hung up on something that’s quite inconsequential! This notion of a page is causing no harm to anyone and has been in use for 20 years. To me it illustrates something else; that we’re grasping at what the web is and attempting to find ways to communicate through some shared vocabulary. Some terms fall away: we no longer talk of ‘hypertext’ and have lost the ‘hyper’ part of ‘links’. We’re unlikely to come across the phrasing ‘surfing the web’ anymore.

Ultimately though, this thought of the power of the word ‘page’ and all it implies informed the title of this site. The idea seemed so powerful to me. Something as simple as how we use language can have a fantastic effect. If we break the ‘page’, even between us as creators, hopefully we can allow ourselves to keep pushing the web forward in ways we hadn’t previously imagined and the tools we use may follow.

When we create something new, we have choices of language and mental model for what we’re creating. This frames our creation and along with expectations based on conventions we see on similar types of sites. By having awareness of this, maybe we can be more open to exploring ideas before they’re constrained?

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A Pin Prick on the Timeline of Humanity Mon, 13 May 2013 11:02:30 +0000 Anthony Casey

The internet, as most people know it – the World Wide Web – was announced to humanity on 6 August 1991 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

That makes the web just Twenty-One years old. 21.

Buildings have taken longer to complete. Wars have been fought over more lengthy periods of time. There are TV soap operas with more history and backstory.

If you were to plot those 21 years on the entire timeline of modern human existence – something like 200,000 years – it would barely be a pinprick on the diagram.

Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

The Spark

From its initial purpose as a tool for sharing academic and scientific documents, the web rapidly became a truly global technology. This was in no small part due to the openness and relative accessibility that underpins its architecture.

At first, however, the only way to access and write for the web was via the browser that Sir Tim had developed himself, and it all lived on a single server – his NExT cube. However, by the end of 1992 there were servers springing up at academic locations all over the world and development had started on the first ‘proper’ web browser – Mosaic.

On 30 April 1993 the web went truly public as Sir Tim and CERN rely released all the software and code needed to run the web to the world. By mid-1993 there were 150 websites, at the end of the year that number had jumped to 623.

In 1994 the technology saw a major step away from academia and into the mainstream. Netscape released the first commercial web browser (named Mozilla). Also in that year students David Filo and Jerry Yang started a guide to the web. They called it Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle, you probably know it as Yahoo!

The web’s popularity exploded from that point. At the turn of 1995 there were 10,022 web sites, by January 1996 the figure was 100,000. It was at the million mark by the time 1997 had finished.

The rest is, as we know, history.

This is for everyone

Twenty One years.

So in that small 21 year timeframe the web has gone from sitting on Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s desk in Switzerland to becoming a revolutionary tool that has changed the social and political landscape of entire nations. It has been an agent for change on a truly global scale, and caused a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the realm information distribution.

You only have to look at the Arab Spring to see the very real effects this power can have. The web has become a lifeline to millions of people through its ability to provide an uncensored platform for peoples thoughts. It is also a power that scares the life out of every government on the planet.

It has become such a natural part of our lives that it’s so very easy to take it for granted. Even for someone like me, who didn’t experience the web until I was 17, finds it incredibly difficult to remember life without it.

All in just 21 years. Never before has a technology so fundamentally shifted the entire planet’s thinking so quickly.

We have only just begun.

Back down the timeline

Technology powering change, however, is by no means a unique phenomena. In around 1440 a similar thing happened.

A man in Germany by the name of Johannes Gutenberg invented a machine that could recreate exact copies of set passages of text on multiple sheets of ‘paper’ – the printing press. A million hand copyists would eventually celebrate the new found longevity of their eyesight as the print industry was born.

Printing had a similar effect on the world that the web has had today. It shifted the balance of power that written knowledge controls. People from a much wider variety of social and economic backgrounds could now benefit from the power that the printed word provides. Books were no longer the preserve of the super rich or the church – it became The Democratization of Knowledge (which the web has only accelerated even further and taken in new directions).

The timelines for two technologies of web and print, however, are vastly different in length. For instance it took half a century – 50 years – for the printing press to spread to just 270 cities in Europe.

It took another century to pass until, in 1605, the first regular weekly newspaper arrived.

It was nearly another century after that before the first daily paper became a reality.

The Times didn’t get the first automatic printing press until 1812.

Even the medium of paper, the mass manufactured pulped wood we know today, didn’t exist until 1870.

The timeline of print is comparatively lengthy – around 600 years of relentless progression, development and knowledge gathering.

Obviously the world was a different place back then. Distance and geography was a much bigger barrier to rapid progress than it is today. Even taking that into the equation, 600 years is a long time for an industry to thrash out the best ways of doing things.

You have to start somewhere

The early days of the web were controlled by the academics and geeks of this world. This gave the technology a really solid, expandable and open foundation. It is why the technology flourished.

As it became popular, the initial aims of the system were expanded to new audiences. This led to new types of users discovering the power of the technology and pushing it in new ways.

Forward thinking members of the print industry were among the first people to take an interest. They saw a lot of similarities with what they were doing, and how the web could be an exciting new age for their industry. With them came the 600 years of history, knowledge, folklore, experience, terminology, techniques, workflows, practices and Lord knows what else.

The web obviously has common bonds with print. They both work with words and content. They both harness the powers of typography and images. They both are in the business of distributing information and knowledge. So it was an easy and logical step to incorporate that into the web’s early thinking.

To ignore all that information would have been daft.

It is also important to remember that print is merely the most obvious influence. Retail, TV, radio, banking, telecoms, architecture, art and many more industries, disciplines and crafts have all left their fingerprints on the timeline of the web.

These influences have served the web extremely well. Their existing knowledge has helped the web continually move forward far beyond it’s initial purpose. With stunning results.


There are, however, limits.

The first books that came off Gutenberg’s (and his contemporaries) presses tried to closely reproduce the old style works that had been meticulously hand crafted by monks for centuries. They borrowed ideas and processes about how books should look and be produced. It took many years before the ideas of modern printing to develop and stand alone.

New technology needs something to borrow from, to allow it to gain foundation in society, something to make it more palatable and accessible. Acquired knowledge from similar, existing technologies and practices allows early pioneers to solve problems and guide early development.

At some point, however, the new technology will break entirely new ground. New, never before seen problems will need to be solved. There will be cultural leaps and changes as expectations around the technology grow. The technology itself will become capable of much more, with new opportunities presenting themselves.

That borrowed knowledge is a finite source. There comes a point where it can no longer provide all the answers.

We are here

We are at that stage now with the web. In fact we have been here for quite a while now. Probably longer than we’d like to admit. It is only now that the inefficiencies of our borrowed knowledge have been so sharply exposed. Chiefly by the increasing ubiquity and dizzying variety of stable, usable, always on, web connected devices.

For a good decade or so building websites was relatively straightforward. Screen sizes evolved slowly and linearly. Browsers were an issue, but the bugs were largely known and workable. We could be fairly sure people would be sitting at a desk, and we could be almost certain they were using a mouse and keyboard to interact.

In the last few years all of that has changed. Screen sizes are going crazy, devices and browsers are multiplying daily, people are accessing the web on buses, walking down the street, in their cars, on the train, while watching TV, on their TV. It has become become chaotic.

So chaotic that the foundations of print and other industries that the web is built are now struggling to cope with these new problems. Which in turn causes more chaos, more questions and even more design and technological conundrums.

Barely a day goes past without a designer or developer commenting about a lack of tools, or workflows, or good practices, proper web education, poor infrastructure, or whatever else. Our tank of borrowed knowledge is starting to get very close to empty. We are at a point where there are no longer ready made answers to the problems we face day-to-day.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment and think everything is going to hell.

You know what? That is understandable. It’s healthy to rant and rave a bit. As many, many people in the web industry have done.

But let’s keep things in perspective.

Dao it

None of this is new.

Clever people have known it for a long time.

“What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.”
John Allsopp – The Dao of Web Design – April 7, 2000

That paragraph was written over THIRTEEN years ago. You’ve probably read the “Dao of Web Design” before, but I bet you had forgotten just how relevant it still is today. The technical and code parts are a little old fashioned (IE for Mac *shudder*), but the overriding message is just as useful today as it was back in 2000.

If not more so.

But it goes back even further than Mr Allsop

“Well established hierarchies are not easily uprooted;
Closely held beliefs are not easily released;
So ritual enthralls generation after generation.”
Tao Te Ching; 38 Ritual

That is one of the ancient Chinese rituals that John quotes in the piece. It is still frighteningly accurate. It’s a very sharply observed comment on the human condition.

Don’t Panic!

These sort of collective feelings of not knowing all the answers that the industry is having right now are perfectly normal human reactions to change.

Especially at just 21. It’s a very young age in the grand scheme of humanity. A bit of bewilderment and confusion is to be expected as the industry starts to grow away from its relatives and strikes out alone.

It should also come with feelings of hope and excitement.

It’s OK to not know all the answers. It’s OK to make things up as we go along. This is all new territory now, we can make our own industry. It is something to embraced not feared.

Maybe we should try to enjoy the unique opportunity of carving out our place on the timeline.

How do we do that then?

The simple answer is that it is down to us.

The print industry took 600 years of evolution to master working with finished, static, one-way communicating, pieces of paper. We have to stop relying on the past. We have to embrace the true, flexible, intangible nature of our medium.

As cheesy as it sounds, that means getting a bit lost before we can find ourselves.

It’s very easy to get mired in the pragmatic Now of everyday life. Sometimes there is a real need for us to be able to pause and project forward. There’s a lot to be gained from a bit of daydreaming and wondering how things could be.

We have to ask ourselves if we are trying to solve the right problems, or are we falling back on the crutches of old practices, trying to force old methods into areas they just won’t fit.

One of the most important things we have to remember is that we are still largely generation zero as far as the web is concerned. We remember a time before global connectivity. There is a whole generation just coming through now that knows nothing else. Web Natives.

Web Natives with minds capable of greater things, minds that aren’t so sullied with thoughts of the past. Minds, however, that need moulding the right way. We need to pass on our knowledge and experience in the right way. To acknowledge the past and our roots, but preach the future and press home the possibilities.

The fact that nothing has ever been set in stone. Or paper.

Above all we have to remember that the web is just 21.

At 21 the web has already changed the world.

At 21 we are barely getting started.

Twenty one. It’s an exciting age to be.



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Archaeology of the web Mon, 13 May 2013 11:01:27 +0000 Dan Donald In years to come there will be a generation of us that will have worked in creating for the web our whole adult lives. That thought really grabbed my imagination. To think back over perhaps a 40 year career beginning in the mid 90′s, seeing all the changes and progression since those first furtive web sites is an exciting prospect indeed.

We can’t begin to think of what the Web will be at that point but we maybe we can imagine ourselves in that position reflecting back on these times. The sites we make will have been long since replaced. The footprint left by our work, long since learned from and improved upon by others and then largely discarded or archived. Don’t despair – it’s unfair to say that this is all doom and gloom!


Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

I’ve enjoyed trawling through the Wayback Machine at more recently and started to encourage others to do the same, especially if they’re new to the industry. It’s a cache of sites from times gone by, which serves as a great reminder of the journey some companies have taken, like the BBC, Apple or Yahoo!

Every so often you might stumble on some work you did years ago and have a chuckle at the way things were done back then or remember how far you’ve come with your skills. Imagine that over a whole career. Imagine that over our whole industry.

The forward looking nature of working with the web is what keeps it exciting. We should just consider our legacy a little more.

With the transient nature of the work we do, it’s not bricks and cement; it’s sometimes as short as an advertising campaign and if we’re lucky, perhaps sometimes we’ll make something that’ll be useful and last for longer. There may be times this could be lamented but I think the forward-looking nature of working with the web is what keeps it exciting. We should just consider our legacy a little more.

Looking through some sites on the Wayback Machine you can already find those that require a long-since-outdated plug-in in order to view it, or perhaps don’t render well because they were specifically made for a certain model of browser. What if there’s a point we’ll reach where few sites of old could be experienced and learned from?

Learning not just from the sites themselves but contextualising them through the times they were created in, really helps us to learn about the path our medium has taken. Perhaps increasingly we’ll see the history of the web taught at schools or as part of degrees (as I hope it is already). Those of us that lived through the first browser wars know what it was like but in years from now will it matter or should we give a thought to preserving this heritage as we go? The way we create for the web will no doubt change and we’ve already gone so far with how we consider and approach projects, it would be a shame to have little left behind.

Certainly keeping our own personal archives is important; showing not only our personal progression but to mark how web sites were at a point in time. Sometimes we need to wipe the slate clean on the public web.  Between these perspectives, we could use something…perhaps an enhanced Wayback Machine we could add to ourselves?

Think about plug-ins we may have used in years gone by, frameworks, mark-up or techniques we wouldn’t or couldn’t use now. Preserving a sense of this gives the creators of the web in future some means to contextualise what they do. A path that can be traced for those learning their craft. Without some awareness of archiving what we do, there may well be a gap from Tim Berners-Lee to the sites of tomorrow.

Unlike buildings, our past work on the web can’t so easily unearthed.

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