You want Styles with That?

If you were to walk into a fast-content restaurant on the Web (as opposed to a fast-food restaurant in the physical world) and were asked you if you wanted “style” with that, what would you say? In other words, given the choice between minimally-styled content and heavily-styled content, which would you choose to use? Before […]

If you were to walk into a fast-content restaurant on the Web (as opposed to a fast-food restaurant in the physical world) and were asked you if you wanted “style” with that, what would you say? In other words, given the choice between minimally-styled content and heavily-styled content, which would you choose to use?

Before you answer, remember that there are a few issues at hand. First, style is expensive–it takes a lot of money to pay someone to style your content. Second, you’re consuming so much content right now that you might not even have room to consume styles, let alone savor them. Third, you’re in a hurry, and there’s a chance that styles will slow you down from simply consuming your content and hurrying on to your next appointment.

Also consider that many people are saying “No” to heavily-styled content. Maybe it’s the extra calories, or the expense, or the mad-style disease. My guess is that it’s the no-style diets that are all the rage now. Everything in moderation, people!

Let me clarify what I mean. Right now on the Web we’re witnessing a huge decentralization of content brought on by Search Engines, blogs, RSS readers and other content aggregators. As I wrote about recently on Digital-Web magazine, I believe we’re witnessing significant change in the way people use the Web. The end result is that people, needing to triage the mountain of content they find themselves under, seem to prioritize interesting content over anything else: they don’t seem to care where it comes from or how it’s styled or how they get to it.

Styles they are A-Changing

How often do you start your search for content at Google? How often do you read your news on Yahoo? Do you, kind person, ever leave your RSS reader? All these things effectively re-style the content in a different way than its creator intended. Warning: some styling may have shifted during shipping.

In fact, in some cases people prefer less-styled content over more-styled content…are you more likely to respond to a picture-ad or a text-ad? (probably a text-ad)

If this feels controversial, like we’re settling for less-inspirational content than we need to, it shouldn’t. This is simply the way of the Web right now: the way that people are dealing with their lives and the amazing amount of information in it.

Can We Get Rid of Styles?

So, the way things are going, it would seem that we might be able to phase styles right out of our content. After all, the trend of content aggregation seems to be heading toward less-styled content. But that begs the question: if we completely get rid of styles–what do we have left?

Like many things in our glorious world, the styling of content lies on a spectrum. On one end we have content that is heavily styled, with lots of things to look at, listen to, smell, taste, etc. On the other end we have content that is not styled at all…and Thank Goodness that unstyled content is not unfathomable. If it were, we would have no idea what it is. But it is fathomable and we do have an idea what it is, and it’s simply that: an idea.

Ideas are the Only Unstyled Content

Ideas–the most basic building block in the world–are the only true, unstyled content. So everything we deal with in web design that we can perceive: paragraphs, lists, characters, headings, and ampersands are styled in some way, however minimally. To see them is to see them styled.

But that’s not how we often talk about styling in web design. When we talk about it in those terms, we almost always talk about styling as adding styles to an XHTML document via CSS. We say things like “styling a document via CSS” or “applying styles via an imported CSS stylesheet”.

Tantek’s Undo.css Stylesheet

That is why Tantek Celik’s undo.css is so interesting. What Tantek did was to create a CSS file that strips away much of the default styling inherent in browsers: styles such as those that make H1s bigger than H2s bigger than H3s. He also stripped away any list styling so that list items don’t appear to be in a list, and took away the underlineness of links. Check out the results of undo.css applied to a page containing the text of this post. (By the way, Eric Meyer also wrote up a nice piece about undo.css)

As you can see, the results of applying undo.css is dramatic. Our carefully crafted page is now basically no more than the content of the XHTML elements, all appended together.

But Tantek left the words, of course (with their default styling) so we would have something to look at. And we are down to only a few styles here: the default font family, color, and size for the characters of the language the author chooses to write in.

To go further and truly strip out all the styles (and not just the browser defaults) we would have to make the content invisible, inaudible, tasteless, odorless, and untouchable (imperceivable), returning them to the land of ideas from whence they came. But that wouldn’t be much fun, now would it? So it makes sense to have some sort of default styles, for the simple reason that if we didn’t we wouldn’t know any ideas were there for us to consider.

How Much Style is Enough?

The main issue we’re dealing with here is this: how much style is enough style? How much style does content need to effectively articulate an idea? Right now, given the behaviors we’re witnessing on the Web, it would seem that we’ve got plenty of style already: the defaults styles (even of plain ol’ RSS) seem to be enough to get people interested.

So, let’s return to our original query, slightly altered by our discussion to demonstrate that all content as we see it has style:

You want extra styles with that?

Published: December 21st, 2004

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