Last month at the 2018 An Event Apart convention in Seattle, Jen Simmons introduced a new way to look at web design. Jen, Designer Advocate at Mozilla, suggested that we were at yet another influx point in the evolution of design and that this time growth will bend towards creativity. She calls this new approach intrinsic design, and it’s causing quite a stir in the web design community.

As it happens, it was at the An Event Apart conference eight years ago that web design experienced its last major shift in thinking. It was then that responsive design was introduced by Ethan Marcotte, and it has been the dominant focus and buzzword in designing websites ever since. But while responsive layout is based on standards for how your content interacts with different viewports or screen sizes, intrinsic design takes it a step further.

Intrinsic design is more about a shift in thinking rather than access to new technologies. As Jen puts it, “Some of these things are old, and they’ve been around for a long time, but it’s about thinking about the whole system of layout, and how all these pieces fit together in a brand new way.”

Intrinsic Web Design

The beauty of intrinsic design is that it frees designers to have content interact and respond in new ways, with fewer hacks and media queries. It allows content to inform layout, rather than the other way around. Using powerful new tools like CSS Grid and Flexbox designers can create layouts based on the intrinsic size or value of the content, instead of forcing it into rigidly proportioned columns.

For example, images can now be resized vertically and horizontally without disturbing the aspect ratio. Grids are also more flexible than ever with the addition of flexible rows in addition to columns, creating content layouts that are squishy and fluid. Intrinsic design is all about letting the elements of the page better communicate and interact with one another, and does so through a sort of tiered system of responsiveness.

This blog post and video from Peter Anglea at Helix Education gives a good break down of the fundamental thinking and execution of intrinsic web design.

“Larger content areas can take up more space due to their intrinsic (see that?) size; smaller content areas take up less space; fixed content areas can always take up a specified amount of space; and still other content can be set to take up any remaining space available.”

Let’s See Some Digital Art

We talked earlier about how there is an inflection point in web design. There have been several of these moments over the relatively short history of web design, with industry philosophies ebbing and flowing with the tools available and priorities of clients and users. At times creativity has flourished and pushed the visual and experiential possibilities of layout, while other times the need for industry standards and compatibility have dominated. According to Jen, we’re swinging back towards a focus on the art of user experience.

“I realized that there’s actually been this pendulum swinging back and forth where on the one hand… there’s one group of people saying, “Hey, we really need to respect the medium of the web...” and you don’t get all of that, “Eye candy. Who needs eye candy?” This is about having solid technology supporting the web and letting the technology tell us what the medium is.”

“On the other side of the pendulum is, “We really want to create something graphic or artistic or pulling in from the tradition of film or sculpture or art or whatever, and using visual language and communication languages to really convey to our users what’s going on,” whether you’re talking about branding or you’re talking about user experience, or you’re talking about just art.”

Thanks to tools like CSS Grid and Flexbox, these kinds of artistic and innovative approaches to design are possible. Asymmetry, magazine-style layouts, overlapping elements, controlled and proportioned white space, and horizontal responsiveness are all possible with fewer hacks. It’s a balance between complex design and clean code that had previously caused a riff between designers and developers, but no longer.

All that’s needed now is a shift in the web design zeitgeist to adopt this approach as the norm, and it won’t take long. Good designers and developers are innovative by nature, and as more and more content makers begin to play with intrinsic the design, the more stunning and jaw dropping their creations will become. My guess is that it won’t take long before clients and users will be throwing convention to the side for a chance to stand out with eye-catching design and user experience.

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