Off the Page

The concept of the page has lasting influence on our understanding of the web. An awareness of the history and meaning of the term makes room for new possibilities in the evolution of the web.

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 is the sum of its parts; it 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.

Writing about information design, Edward R. Tufte recognized the dissonance between our physical world and the way we attempt to represent it, explaining one of the conceptual problems we face when designing for the web:

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. All communication between the readers of an image and the makers of an image must now take place on a two-dimensional surface.1

The year this was published, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

The web has been document-centric from the beginning. When Berners-Lee 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 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 printing viewed documents.

So the web was conceived as a variation on the word processor—a distributed network of linear documents connected by a layer of hyperlinks. It stands to reason, then, that everything we have at our disposal today is somehow a result of this initial vision, that every site we design, every experience we create is an extension of the document-centric approach.

This is why text elements are the foundation of HTML and why everything else—tables, CSS for layout, video, plugins—are merely extensions in response to demand.

If we consider the web as it was initially envisioned, it’s not surprising that we’ve found it so easy to use page to unwittingly define our own boundaries.

“sheet of paper,” 1580s (earlier pagne, 12c., directly from O.Fr.), from M.Fr. page, from O.Fr. pagine, from L. pagina “page, strip of papyrus fastened to others,” related to pagella “small page,” from pangere “to fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix” (see pact).2

Exploring the origin of the word page, as applied to the web, leads us to an interesting discovery. Of all the carefully selected terminology Berners-Lee used when creating and defining the web, page appears to be used incidentally, appearing just once in the Hypertext Terms glossary as of 1992 (the earliest existing version) and even then only to assist in defining another term:

An alternative term for a node in a system (e.g. HyperCard, Notecards) in which the node size is limited to a single page of a limited size.3

The use of page to help constrain the definition of a card to something of a limited or fixed size demonstrates that even for the inventor of the web, the word held all the restrictions of its physical form.

The lack of a specific definition for page is also an example of familiarity informing preference, though this time subconsciously. We all know what a page is—especially regarding documents in the scientific sense as used by Berners-Lee—and that’s where the problem lies. For on the web, the traditional definition falls woefully short.

In that same glossary, we find two other interesting terms, node and document, which seem to have been Berners-Lee’s preferred choices for defining individual units of information on the web. He even had users in mind when suggesting the use of document as the better of the two terms, as it was “the nearest term outside the hypertext world” and thus “the prefered[sic] term in W3 documentation.”

The frequency with which these synonyms appear within the original glossary is intriguing: node appears thirty-one times, document and card six each, all with clear purpose and intent.

Page, however, is only mentioned in passing, its definition secured four centuries earlier.

Trying to imagine a web without pages is like asking, “What if books had never been books?” While not strictly practical, this exercise in imagination leads us down an interesting path.

Let’s use books as our example: what if books never had pages? What if we were to separate the intellectual artifact (the document) from its physical format (the book)? We can follow this line of questioning to an age before pages and leaves, before individual sheets of paper were bound together to form a codex (precursor to the modern book). We find ourselves reading a scroll—still a document: linear, orderly, and structured, yet formed as one continuous physical unit. How did the change in physical format from scroll to book affect the medium? Covers, binding, pagination, indices, even the printing press, all owe their existence not to the document, but to the constraints and requirements of the physical format of the object we know as a book.

Now let’s apply this same line of questioning to the web. What if the web never had pages? What if documents on the web were simply abstract points on the network at specific addresses?

It’s likely the types of content (the intellectual artifact) would be similar; after all, the desire to share information led to the creation of the internet and the web. But much like the differences between a scroll and a book, the physical format—or in this case, the virtual—would lead us to a different set of solutions, perhaps avoiding some of our existing problems along the way.

If we never defined the web as a series of pages, would we have needed pagination? Would the debate over the fold have made the transition from the world of printed newspapers? Might the infinite canvas—Scott McCloud’s concept of the visible area of content on the screen as a window instead of a page—have been embraced as the natural approach to designing for our content?

McCloud also suggests that pages are optional, that “without such restrictions…every one of those choices can be made exclusively on behalf of the needs of the story.”4 This approach to designing without boundaries has led us to more responsive design practices, but we’re still just skimming the surface of what is actually possible.

We talk at length about experience, emotional design, content strategy, visual grammar, psychology, usability, and standards, but none of them really challenge the way we work, the way we think about the larger concept of what we’re actually capable of doing with this incredible network of wires, satellites, servers, ideas, and people. The conceptual dissonance between what we know we are capable of achieving and the perceived structure of the web has limited our ability to surpass the medium’s current constraints.

The resulting uncertainty has given rise to time-consuming arguments and discussions surrounding the validity of solutions to problems which, had we better understood our own medium, may not have needed solving in the first place.

Perhaps we would have been spared the oft-heated debates over fixed vs. liquid or fluid layouts, a topic directly related to the constant misinterpretation of how, exactly, we define the boundaries of a page on the web.

We might also have avoided clashes with clients born from simple misunderstandings over print industry terms such as bleed and fold and instead spent more time discussing interaction, content, and usability.

If the days, weeks, and years devoted to these and other discussions were reallocated, imagine the larger, more significant problems we might have addressed in that same amount of time.

Let’s revisit the idea of a web without pages. In this alternate history, print-related disciplines—traditional publishing, advertising, branding—would recognize the web as an entirely new medium, unrelated to their existing notions of plane or dimension. Perhaps, under such circumstances, repurposing language and concepts from those media would not result in the confusion we face when communicating with clients and interdisciplinary colleagues.

Much frustration has resulted from the misunderstanding of what, exactly, the web is supposed to be. Our ongoing identity crisis—epitomized by constant discussions of job titles, roles, labels, and lexicon—stems from our medium’s document-centric origin and our inability to limit ourselves to headings, paragraphs, and lists.

Yet this seemingly arbitrary constraint has led us to what we consider the modern web to be: images, video, JavaScript, animation, Ajax, apps—and, yes, even Flash. Without the inherent limitations of a system designed to share simple documents, we may never have realized its enormous potential.

Our approach to designing for the web can restrict us as easily as the misconceptions we, and others, have about how to define the medium. Discussing the advancement of abstract painting in the mid-1980s, artist Frank Stella recognized a similar dilemma:

It is not the problem of perspective, either linear or atmospheric; nor is it the problem of flatness that makes this space so different, although this often seems the best way to describe it. Rather, it appears to be something in the intention, in the acceptance of commissioned configurations, in the attitude toward covering a given surface that held painting back, that actually kept it from creating a surface that was capable of making figuration look real and free.5

Perhaps the approach we take, our intention, our attitude toward the medium and how we perceive and define it is what really prevents us from true advancement.

Our canvas is not the viewport, nor is it Photoshop®, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, video, mobile, native apps, or a screen or device of any dimension or capability. It is no longer simply the web; it is at the very least the internet, the people and devices connected to it, and the context of those connections.

Yet while we struggle to define our canvas within this virtual construct, we remain unable to manipulate aspects of layout and typography that the printed page has enjoyed—mechanically or otherwise—for centuries. How is it that we’ve inherited preconceptions but not application?

For years, web designers have been playing catch-up with traditional print designers; yes, webfonts are fantastic, but print designers have had their choice of typeface for decades, and besides, the web is not print. With so much of our energy focused on becoming more like an existing, static medium, how can we expect to evolve our discipline beyond the confines of the document-centric format?

The answer, for some, involves other media. Are video and audio—Flash, HTML5 or otherwise—the non-document-centric future of the web? This seems unlikely. Television and radio are already acceptable delivery mechanisms, and the web has little to do with the viability of those media on the internet. We already interact with remote content via our TV sets and mobile devices, and although certain APIs and protocols build on top of web technologies, it is naive to assume they would not have evolved of their own accord.

If a few layers of interaction and multimedia on top of previously static documents and content were all the web had to offer, we could have stopped at forms and plugins, and been perfectly content.

Thankfully, we are not content with the current shape of the web, though to evolve beyond the page—our flatland—we must try harder, imagine greater, invent more, and break rules. Tufte once again exhibits clairvoyance by explaining two decades ago the task which now lies before us:

Escaping this flatland is the essential task of envisioning information—for all the interesting worlds (physical, biological, imaginary, human) that we seek to understand are inevitably and happily multivariate in nature. Not flatlands.1

Our responsibility is not to replace page in our unique vocabulary of web design but to acknowledge that our current understanding of what it means to design for the web is just a single blip in a universe of possibilities. The web is quickly evolving, and as its creators we must explore the myriad forms our medium offers without allowing our perceived constraints to limit its potential.

  1. Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information, (Graphics Press, 1990). 2

  2. “Page,” Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. “Card,” Hypertext Terms, (W3C, 1992).

  4. Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics, (Harper Paperback, 2000).

  5. Frank Stella, Working Space, (Harvard University Press, 1986).

Dan rubin

Dan Rubin is a designer, photographer, and barbershop harmony aficionado based in London. Founder and creative director of webgraph, Dan speaks at conferences around the world, writes about myriad topics, and works with good-looking clients including The Guardian, Red Bull, MailChimp, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Geffen/Universal, IDEO, and Nokia.

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Illustration by Owen Gatley · Portrait by Ping Zhu