Designers Are Burnt, Not Made

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Tricky Curves – 4X Magnification

Obsessive attention to detail – that’s the thing that makes me not too bad at design. Also, the thing that makes design… maybe not so good for me. Several kinds of work will keep me up late into the night. But there are few that I will return to the moment I wake, brimming with new things to try. Web design, particularly in the final stages, is a constant stream of interesting problems.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), the design language of the modern Web, is a simple yet powerful tool. A style sheet is just a list of instructions about how things should look, really more like description than programming. I’d encourage anyone to try it out, no matter how non-technical you consider yourself. Sadly though, even today there are discrepancies in the way different Web browsers interpret these instructions. It’s not as bad as it was; there was a time they weren’t even trying. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator (ancestor of Firefox) both had features actually designed not to work in the other. Today they at least seem to be aiming at the ambitious standards set out for HTML5 and CSS3. Browsers once competed with each other, now they compete with apps – nothing like a mutual threat to enhance cooperation.

Minor as they are, these discrepancies can still make the design that works beautifully on one platform look like something flung from a catapult on another. There really is no alternative except to test and test and re-test – on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, Linux and so on, in all their different browser versions, at screen sizes from HD to phone. The permutations are slightly mind-blowing.

You find a bug, you think up or look up or remember a solution, you see if it works. If it works in Firefox on a PC you see if it still works in Chrome on a tablet, so on and so forth. When you’re sure you’ve solved that, you immediately go looking for another problem. For the best part of last week I did little but eat, sleep, and hunt bugs. And I was cutting corners on the sleep.

Don’t mention corners… See the one in the picture? Most of a day, that cost me. A lot more is going on than meets the eye. For a start, round corners can be a challenge. They look good, and they’re a part of the CSS3 standard, but people using Internet Explorer 8 and (God forbid) lower don’t see them. Well, you face a choice there: recreate the effect using images of round corners, or let the design gracefully fail in IE8. And really the latter is the sensible approach these days. Which is a little rough on users of XP – still my own favourite version of Windows – but frankly if you’re on XP and not using Firefox or Chrome then you (or your IT department) need a strong light shining up your nose.

Round corners at the foot of a page though are harder still. Look closely and you’ll see that the corkboard background pattern overlaps below the corner. (The random nature of the pattern helps to disguise this.) What’s happening is that this is an extra piece of the background overlying the rest of the design – with a bottom end for the page, complete with rounded corners, overlying that again. This whole unit then sticks to the foot of the page’s contents. Carefully-chosen margins meanwhile make sure that it always has precisely the same width as the rest, no matter what size the screen. Oh and those margins have a length described as a negative percentage, which is a little mindbending in itself.

Next problem is that 3D shadow, to make the page look like it’s inset into the background. CSS3 now has a very attractive way to do soft 3D borders, called “box-shadow”. Unfortunately, as the name suggests it only works for things with four sides. My footer wants a shadow on just two of its sides, and for that my only reasonable option is an ordinary border.

The tricky bit then is where they meet. While a border looks much the same in every browser, the shadow has properties of ‘blur’ and ‘spread’; these make it more realistic, but also more open to interpretation. Therefore it comes out looking wider in some browsers than others. What do you do then when the inconsistent shadow meets the consistent border?

The solution I found is a mad hack: I made the border 2.5 pixels wide. This of course is nonsense. The pixel is the base physical unit of the display screen, you can’t have half of one. What happens in practice is that different browsers interpret this nonsense instruction differently – crudely speaking, some round up and some round down – but they do so in a way that broadly matches how they interpret the box-shadow. The upshot, as the images above show, is that the borders join pretty smoothly in the four most popular browsers. It takes magnification in fact to show that there’s a join at all.

I’d like to say this was unusual, but really this is the essence of the Web design job – a strange blend of technical precision and lateral thinking. Part tweezers and microscope, part bent paperclip and sharpened spoon. It’s a voyage deep into an unusual problem-space, one that takes over both my waking and my sleeping mind.

Coincidence?

Yes!

But a weird one. As WordPress users may recognise, the graph is of blog traffic, and shows a sudden, mysterious peak starting on September 11.

Despite the date, the resemblance to a now-lost New York skyline is due not to readers eager for my opinions of 9/11 ‘Truthers’, but my piece on a whole other conspiracy theory.

Vatican City Limits

From Roma with love
Ideally, it should be in a hollowed-put volcano

What I hate about the Vatican is their holier-than-thou attitude. It may not pretend that it’s above error, but it continuously insists, to us and to itself, that even if it does on occasion do harm it ultimately achieves a greater good.

Look closely at the logic of that. The more harm the Vatican does therefore – whether it be protecting paedophiles from the law or impeding the prevention of AIDS – the more good it must be doing. The benefit of its existence must outweigh these ephemeral evils. To think otherwise would be to confront a truly appalling vista.

And if the good the church does must inevitably outweigh the bad, then preserving it and its power in the world must surely be worth more than the safety of a child. Or any number of children.

This kind of ruthless logic is what makes religious organisations last for thousands of years while kingdoms and empires rise and fall.

But when an Irish politician unequivocally condemns the actions and the attitude of the Vatican, you know that times are changing. Addressing the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said:

The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’.

Couldn’t have put it better myself really. Well maybe stylistically, but the content is spot on. He continued:

. . . a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic . . . as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so . . . excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism . . . the narcissism . . . that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

Broadly speaking, he tore them a new one.

Hight time, and popular support is overwhelming. Irish new media publication TheJournal.ie did decide to give space to a priestly apologist for the Catholic church, but I think that was mainly to give the rest of us a target. His point though, if the metaphor is not unfortunate, was that we should not throw the baby of the church’s teachings out with the bathwater of its failings. Society needs a spiritual dimension, and the church has contributed much of practical value too.

I’m not going to argue against the social utility of religion – not today at least. For the moment I’ll accept the assertion that people, some people at least, require or benefit from religion in their lives. The question that still remains however, which I would like to ask this apologist, the Vatican, and every cleric who put the instructions of the Vatican before the safety of children: Why does that religion have to be Catholicism?

There are many other faiths. Heck, there are even many other forms of Christianity. Perhaps people in Ireland who wish to practice a religion should choose one that has sinned less.