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Design Notes: Five-Column Flex-Width Layout

Unlike our standard fixed-width layout, our new flex-width layout has five columns: two for content and navigation, three for ads and extras. Minimum width is determined by the first two columns, and is typically at 800px to fit snugly in the smallest screen resolution still being used by a significant number of people. The content column may be set at 640px while navigation can be 160px wide. We usually place the navigation column to the right of content in order to minimize cursor distance from the scrollbar. Both content and navigation columns are grouped into a single fixed-width division positioned over and covering another division containing the ad columns.

The ad columns have the following widths, in order from left to right: 224px, 256px, and 320px. The page is structured in such a way that the 800px-wide main division containing content and navigation covers the 800px-wide ad division containing the three ad columns. In an 800x600 screen or smaller, the main division completely covers the ad division, and only the content and navigation are visible. As the screen gets larger, the main division moves over to the right, keeping to the edge of the screen. This exposes the ad division, one column at a time, as the screen width increases to 1024, 1280, and finally 1600 pixels.

We find that this layout maximizes screen utilization for resolutions of 800x600 up to 1600x1200. It also preserves usability for all sizes by prioritizing the display of content and navigation, and by keeping the navigation links as close as possible to the vertical scrollbar.

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Design Notes: Our Standard Layout

We use our own standard four-column layout when designing templates for clients. This consists of a main content column, a navigation/sidebar column, and two extra columns for advertisements, boxes and widgets. There is a flex-width variant, and a more frequently utilized fixed-width version.

In the fixed-width variant, the layout is 1280 pixels in width, as more than half of internet users nowadays have screens larger than 1024x768. To limit display width would waste valuable screen real estate.

While we strive to maximize the utilization of available space, we also try to preserve usability for users with smaller screen sizes, down to and including the 800x600 screen resolution. As only 4% of users still use this display setting, it would not make sense to design for screens that are any smaller.

Our design principle is to make sure that the most important parts of the page are seen, even when available screen space is limited. To this end, we position both content and navigation towards the left side, leaving most advertisements and extras on the right. This way, even with a smaller screen requiring horizontal scrolling, there is no significant loss of usability.

In the basic configuration, we place the content column in the leftmost position, and give it a width of 600 to 640 pixels. In the unlikely event that someone is using a 640x480 monitor to view the page, they would still be able to see the content without using the horizontal scrollbar.

Next comes the navigation sidebar, which adds to the content's width for a total of 800px. Anyone using an 800x600 monitor should thus be able to see both content and navigation at once. After this comes the first ad column, which is 224 pixels wide. With content and navigation, total width adds up to 1024 pixels: just right for the next larger screen size. Finally comes the second ad column, at 256 pixels wide. As you may have observed, the total now adds up to 1280 pixels.

An alternate configuration would have the content and navigation columns switched, since aesthetic considerations as well as usability concerns may favor this more conventional layout. Of course, this would make it a bit more difficult for those with 640x480 screens, but hardly any are left. As most users are less likely to be confused by this layout, this is our favored configuration for our standard 4-column fixed-width templates.

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Function Over Form

In modern design, form is always seen to follow function. So goes for web design, especially for Web 2.0. The functional elements form the core of modern websites, the styling merely being applied after the foundation has been laid. But often, it isn't quite as simple. Moreso with the continuing usage of browsers that do not conform to web standards. Still, we don't choose our circumstances, and we have to design to this varied assortment of browsers and hope they display our pages consistently.

Of course, this makes it difficult for all but the simplest of styles to be applied consistently to our functional elements. If we go beyond the deliberately simple aesthetic of Web 2.0, we find that we need to rely on crutches like JavaScript to correct for cross-browser variances. Not only is this a bit hackish, but with more people using script blockers we run the risk of our pages looking like an amateurish mess.

So we rely on good old HTML. Wrap everything in divs, apply backgrounds to the wrappers, and lay the unstyled functional elements on top. The funny thing is, it is still, in a way, function over form.

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