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Off the Page

Dan Rubin

Consider for a moment the beautiful physical artifact you are holding. Caress its cover, marvel at its binding, its spine, the gutter, how the ink flirts with the texture of its paper. These attributes we use to describe and define a printed book or periodical owe their existence to the physical form of the artifact itself—the constraints of the medium gave life to the solutions employed by the craftsmen responsible for turning desire into reality. The book as we know it […] [has] evolved to serve the needs of its physical form. Similarly, mapping the concept of a page to the Web has affected the way we design, create, and curate content. The term carries history and meaning in an unassuming manner, quietly imposing its will on our entire thought process. By simply existing in our lexicon, the page has influenced our approach to design, layout, navigation, interaction, client communication, widths, heights, folds, advertising, and typography. As with the book, the Web as we know it has evolved due to our perception of its form.

The Web was never intended to be a replacement for print—an evolutionary step, perhaps, but certainly not a digitally-distributed clone with a few extra bells and whistles. Yet Web design in its current state is often a strangely beautiful hybrid, inheriting its principles, typography, and language from decades of print, graphic, and information design, enhanced through layers of interaction, audio, and video yet clearly capable of so much more. In his famous essay on data design, [Envisioning Information,] Edward R. Tufte recognized the dissonance between our physical world and the way we attempt to represent it […]:

Even though we navigate daily through a perceptual world of three spatial dimensions and reason occasionally about higher dimensional arenas with mathematical ease, the world portrayed on our information displays is caught up in the two-dimensionality of the endless flatlands of paper and video screen.11 Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information, (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 1990).

The year this was published, [computer scientist] Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.22 Timothy John Berners-Lee (1955-) is a computer scientist considered the main inventor of the World Wide Web following his work at CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research), near Geneva, in the early 1990s. In 1994, he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose purpose is to develop a global sharing space. [Editor’s Note] […] When [he] proposed building a network atop the burgeoning Internet to facilitate sharing of information, the format of that information was primarily text—more specifically, hypertext documents following the structure of research papers and scientific documentation. Berners-Lee’s first web browser— a window-based [GUI, graphical user interface] application for the NeXTSTEP platform; initially named “WorldWideWeb,” and later “Nexus”—even determined the size of its windows based on the page layout settings for prin…