Paul Ford’s Interaction: Elegy for the Text Box

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In The New World of the Web, Thinking is Doing.

We live in the last days of the text box. By which I mean the plain, four-cornered box that appears in your web browser and allows you to enter a line or two of text. Four corners and a single font: That’s all a text box provides. And yet from these humble origins arose both Wikipedia and Twitter, and many, many blog posts.

Technically, text boxes are easy. A programmer can put one on a web page using a few lines of HTML code. For web designers, this was a simple world: The masses would enter text into boxes on pages, a computer program would store it on a server, and then it could be displayed as needed. Status updates, recent purchases, blog posts: All the result of text boxes.

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And what a great world for web designers. That’s because much of their work has been to make templates and define style sheets, all with the goal of consistency. Headlines might be in Verdana and body text in Georgia; line spacing was established, and images were flush right—and you were done for the day. There were always things to make sing and dance, drop shadows to add and banner ads to animate. But for a decade, when people discussed web design, they meant taking the output of a database and making it easy to read and navigate.

But something strange is happening. The text box is dying and no one is weeping. Take Twitter—the box into which you type your tweets is a box only in theory. It’s actually a highly dynamic container with all manner of code attached to it; it reacts to every press of a key, changing colors and highlighting text based on whether a tweet runs too long or contains a link. There is no “form” under the hood. You’re actually editing the web page right in the browser.

This is one of those tiny things that are actually a huge deal. For years the web worked in a very sensible way. The role of users was to put things into the box; the role of the web company was to make it look pretty. But now that dynamic has changed, radically. The role of the web company is to make it easy for users to make pretty (or at least sensibly structured, logically arranged) things on their own. No longer do users write, then preview, then publish. Now they just—edit. Which is the same as publishing. And just about everything you see on any website anywhere is, theoretically, editable.

Think about what that means for designers. Not only do web pages need to look good for readers, but since any bit of code is now a potential document, they need to work for writers and editors too. I was recently using a website built along these lines—a blogging platform where there’s no difference between the composing view and the published view—and while it was a beautiful experience, I missed the ability to switch from the homely text box to the official “published” view. The beauty was confusing; every paragraph felt permanent as I wrote it.

Changing something from “draft” to “published” is like climbing a hill and looking down. The change in perspective makes certain things obvious. It’s why editors often still print things out in 12 point Courier and edit with a pen. Every time we simplify, we take a step out of the creative process. Sometimes that’s a good step—it’s easier to move boxes on a screen than to do manual paste-up with an X-Acto knife and hot wax. Still, we risk losing chances for analysis and reflection.

If the new world of the web is just one view, truly WYSIWYG, then we need to help users gain perspective. The future of web design may be less about making things look good and more about creating different views. Maybe there should be an “ugly switch” that changes how a page is displayed, turning everything into 18 point Courier in brown on yellow and desaturating the images to black-and-white. This way you could see if the work is strong enough to rise above its medium and surroundings. The key thing to remember is that as text boxes fade away and the whole web becomes editable, the job of designers isn’t just to create a single great way to look at things. Their job is to keep users from getting locked into single ways of seeing the world—to give people who are doing more and more on the web a chance to see their ideas in new and useful ways.