Rethinking The 1024 Paradigm

Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies, 1890, Vincent van Gogh

Here’s an interesting topic many of us working in the digital field can relate to—a topic which seems to come up more and more lately. I’m talking about the 1024 paradigm. That is, the tendency to design anything destined for the Web browser environment to be visually optimized for screens 1024 pixels wide by 768 pixels tall.
Everyone has likely heard those numbers at one time or another—but how do they influence our digital experiences?

Note: I’m not going to bore you to death with another one of those long posts examining the history of computer screens, GUI layout implementations or technical aspects of designing for the various screen resolutions over the years. While this could be a wider topic for discussion encompassing CSS strategies and Web standards, I’ll try and keep this post brief.

I call it [1024] a paradigm because for many years the prevailing consensus among digital designers and developers has been this display size (1024 by 768 pixels)—more than any other dimension—represents the most common screen size for people viewing the sites we produce.

However, like all paradigms there’s a beginning, middle, and end—and just like 800 by 600 and 640 by 480 before it, I think the end is near.

Yesterday I was having a discussion with one of my colleagues on this very topic. We were noticing the emergence of more horizontally-oriented user interface designs on the Web—and we think it’s great from a creative and UX perspective. In our talk it occurred to us, the old 1024 pixel design paradigm still drives (or constrains, depending on how you look at it) most—if not all—the digital designs we produce for our clients. This isn’t anything negative or bad, just something we’ve observed.
In fact, acknowledging a sizable portion of the Web audience, albeit dwindling (like IE6 usage), still view many of the sites we create on screens running 1024 by 768 pixel displays, shows we are very much cognizant of accommodating the widest possible viewing audience. Call it due diligence or forced sentimentality, it’s something I imagine many of our clients unconsciously appreciate.

On the other hand, if you consider the growing pervasiveness of wide screens (…walked into any Best Buy lately?)—and by wide I mean 16:9 aspect ratios up and beyond a width of 1600 pixels—I genuinely wonder why we’re still taking such great lengths to ensure our clients digital designs are optimized for this particular screen dimension.

So what if (designers and creatives love to say “what if…”—sometimes to the grief of developers who must implement the “what if” scenarios and concepts into viable solutions) 1920 x 1200 pixels and larger became the new standard on the Web?

What could we do with all that extra screen real-estate from a creative and design perspective? Would we start to see 4, 5, or 6 column layouts?

Could we put greater emphasis on larger typographic treatments and better leverage negative space?—these are visual communication techniques graphic designers exploit well in print.

In any case I’m intrigued by the possibilities of designing for larger screens just as I was excited about exploring full screen Flash-driven UIs a few years back with runtime stage resize listeners (via Actionscript) to achieve more flexible interfaces.

Still, vertically-oriented (1, 2, and 3-column) layouts have their place and have been the norm for years on the Web, serving us quite well. But perhaps it’s time to rethink the 1024 x 768 pixel paradigm, retire the old scroll bars and page fold rhetoric and move on to embracing a wider view of the things we experience on our screens.

For the record: my desktop (home and work) is 1680 by 1050 pixels while my laptop is 1280 by 800 pixels and my wife’s laptop (now 6-years old still running XP) is 1440 by 900 pixels.
My high definition television (now 5-years old) which I occasionally use to browse the Internet through my PS3, has a native display of 1024 by 768 pixels.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking The 1024 Paradigm

  1. Thanks for the comment Michael. Good point, the netbook variety of computers do tend to come in smaller than 1024 pixel widths (e.g. 900 by 500) —and the wide range of mobile screens makes digital design for the various screen sizes (and devices) a challenging endeavor to say the least.

  2. and let not forget the beloved netbook. I deal in quite a few (or used to) full screen jobbies and these pernicious beasties have been making my life hell. Unfortunately returning to the client with comments like “your screen screen is HOW big?” and “have you thought about a serious computer?” were not going down too well. As a result mostly for my current employer I am having to develop in 900×500 (lets not forget those lovely browser toolbars!)

    At the end of the day, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, so I tend to concentrate on the ones with the cheque book.

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