Two messages from friends within 12 hours of each other have me thinking. Both people, a communications professional and web designer, were wrestling with the width taken up by content on a website.
I’ve been working on a website and I have noticed that their blog is very wide. I find it hard to read.
One of the reasons that I hold on to the “traditional” sidebar is because on desktop it’s about the only way to keep line widths 66-110 characters…
A Fundamental Limit?
Once a large number of computer monitors exceeded 1200px or so in the early 2010’s, web site widths more or less quit expanding so they wouldn’t exceed that limit. Things haven’t changed much for years since.
Sure, plenty of sites fill the full width of a screen with an image or background color, but the primary content area rarely exceeds 800px or so.
My blog is just around 70-characters-per-line at its max. When I view that in a browser at a size I normally use, it looks pretty good!
But in a browser that fills my ultra-wide monitor, you’ll see there’s quite a bit of unused space:
It’s not just my site. Almost any site you go to will significantly limit the maximum width of the content area:
To be clear: websites do this because if the content were wider, it would become extremely hard to read.
I generally keep my browser windows far below the full width of my screen for this reason. But from years of conversations and design feedback, I know many people on wide screens do view websites at or near their maximum screen width.
No Obvious Solutions
As I mentioned earlier, some websites obscure the “empty space” on each side of content with background colors and images. Interestingly, this “fixes” the “problem” for some people but not others.
I’ve noticed over the years that people perceive the space surrounding website content quite differently, even when looking at the same design. Some see it as “empty”, others refer to the left and right sides as “bars”, and some don’t perceive the space so much as they focus on the content not expanding to fill the browser window.
One potential alternative is to write in multiple columns and lay pages out so they scroll from left-to-right rather than top-to-bottom. However, usability studies recommend against horizontal scrolling. The only way this would ever happen is if a significant number of prominent websites made this change in quick succession in order to “train” users how to use a page like that. I don’t even know if that would work.
Even disregarding the problematic mechanics (great band name!) of horizontal scrolling, I wonder if the information density of such a page layout would simply be too great.
Is this a fundamental limit of web design? It feels like it. White space be damned, this is what I’d rather read:
What do you think?
Thanks to Scott Marlow for partially inspiring and reviewing this post.