A Simple Introduction to Intrinsic Web Design

Every industry has its jargon, and almost its own language, in some cases. God knows web design has a lot of jargon, even if half of our made up phrases are fancy and nonsensical job titles. But for all of the silliness that comes with having to invent our own words and acronyms for things, jargon plays an important role: it allows us to communicate more efficiently with other designers and devs.

Sometimes, the person who (more or less) comes up with a concept gets to name it, as it was with Responsive Web Design. [Here I shake my fist at Ethan Marcotte out of long-standing habit. RWD is a good thing, but it gave me headaches for a while.] And sometimes someone comes along and makes up a word or phrase for something we’ve already been doing for a while, which is what (I’m reasonably sure) happened with Web 2.0.

Intrinsic Web Design (you can thank Jen Simmons for this bit of jargon) belongs to the latter category. We’ve already started doing it, but now we have a name for it. We thought it would be a good idea to write up a quick introduction to the concept, because it’s going to become a major part of the web design conversation going forward.

What is Intrinsic Web Design?

It starts with the Flexbox and CSS Grid modules. Ever since we decided that using tables for layout was impractical, we’ve been using the float property, along with a healthy dose of absolute and fixed positioning, to put things wherever we wanted on a page. This has worked well for us, but it was, essentially, a hack.

Nearly all of the web is built on hacky front-end code

Actually, it was a series of hacks. Then we started putting together CSS frameworks full of hacks. Then some very wrong people started using JavaScript to write their CSS full of hacks. Nearly all of the web is built on hacky front-end code, and it has gotten messy.

This is not to criticize the work of those who came before. Using hacky layout methods was the only way to get anything done. We didn’t have any other options. Now we do: Flexbox and CSS Grid are layout methods built into CSS itself. They are, you might say, intrinsic to the medium.

Get it? You see what I… yeah. Anyway. The aforementioned CSS modules are just the start of it. CSS is progressing to the point that we have the tools to properly lay out our designs exactly how we want them to be laid out, with no hacks, and certainly no help from JavaScript. Being able to create what we want with a minimal reliance on hacks, tricks, and outside libraries is a part of what Intrinsic Web Design is about.

Or to hear how the creator of the term herself puts it:

I’m just talking about layout, that layout itself, and the graphic design itself, had changed significantly enough that I wanted a new word so we could say, “Oh, yeah, that new thing,” and it includes CSS Grid, but it’s not just about CSS Grid. It’s also about using Flexbox, and kind of rediscovering what Flexbox is actually intended to be for.

Plus, it’s about using some floats sometimes, using things like CSS shapes or object-fit, using a flow content, using multi-column. 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.

To put it another way, I think Intrinsic Web Design is about the shift from being limited by CSS’ capabilities to being empowered by them. It opens up a whole lot of exciting new possibilities.

Who Came up With This?

Jen Simmons. She’s a web designer and front-end developer who has worked with/for: CERN: the W3C, Google, and Drupal, and other small businesses. She currently spends her time as a Designer Advocate at Mozilla, speaking at conferences, as well as hosting and producing The Web Ahead, a fantastic podcast about the future of the Internet.

She also hosts the Layout Land channel on YouTube. If you want to learn about Flexbox, CSS Grid, and the other building blocks of Intrinsic Web Design, these videos are a wonderful and informative place to start. You should also check out her interview that I quoted above, where she and Jeffrey Zeldman discuss IWD and a whole host of other topics at length.

Entering a New Era

Things are gonna get wild as designers latch on to these ideas, and start to figure out what they can build with Flexbox and CSS Grid in conjunction with all of the layout methods we already have. I have no doubt that we’re going to see an explosion of new, or at least refined layout ideas. Then the JavaScript nuts are going to get involved, and that’s going to get truly interesting.

Non-coders especially should pay attention to what’s going on with Intrinsic Web Design, precisely because it will change, and is already changing what is possible on the web. Whether you’re strictly an in-the-image-editor UI designer or an art director, you should absolutely be researching what these technologies can do. Knowing what your front-end colleagues can do now will make your job easier.

Coders, they’re about to start asking for some crazy stuff. You should research it, too, if you haven’t already.

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