inessential by Brent Simmons

Page-in-a-page design

That page-in-a-page design thing — I don’t know what to call it, though maybe web designers have a name for it. (I’m not a web designer.)

Look at, for example, Cocoa Is My Girlfriend, Theocacao, or All cool, great-looking sites, and all do that page-in-a-page thing.

I have some ideas why this design is popular:

1. Displays have gotten bigger and bigger.

We’ve got air to burn. Using a box smaller than the actual page makes it easier to avoid the readability problem of wide columns of text.

And it’s almost as if we’re working around the bug of large displays, as if we’re saying, “No! Small display! Circa 2000! I will make it small!”

2. It avoids the dirty-white issue.

The page-in-a-page design minimizes the amount of #FFFFFF space on the page — which is good, because pure white can look a little dirty in that it shows every smudge and print on your display. Textures and darker colors don’t show as much.

3. White is whiter for the contrast.

The outside-the-page borders tend to be dark while the inside-the-page is white — and this makes the inside content area pop a bit.

4. It seems more physical.

Since gradients, textures, and shadows are often used, the page-in-a-page often feels more like a real thing. Which people love — that fool-the-eye thing is hugely appealing.


I tried using a page-in-a-page design here on this site for a while — and I felt claustrophobic and inhibited. Compressed. Particle Man.

It’s probably just me. I’m a weirdo. ;)


Okay, I confess to wanting to take a hammer to all these boxes. I want to crack them open.

Part of it is that it seems like we’re trying to hold back time, as if it’s the year 2000 forever, as if we can keep doing layout for 17" monitors, as if we don’t have the will to design for 30" displays and iPhones at the same time.

The engineer in me says that the page is already in the browser-window box — another box is just not needed, it’s waste.

And the designer in me would rather see an aesthetic that embraces the reality that it’s all lights and pixels on a flat screen. It’s not the real world or even the printed page. Why pretend it is? Isn’t there something to be gained by going with what-it-is rather than fighting it?

(I feel like those painters from the ’50s: “Don’t violate the integrity of the picture plane!” Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a super-fancy pad of paper from the stationery store.)

This ain’t no disco

I wonder if it’s life during wartime, and economic and electoral uncertainty, that makes us want to have our say — but carefully, with our words politely bounded by rectangles.

If so, it goes against the grain of the web. The web is ongoing loss of control. It’s the revolution every day. (Workers of the web, yadda yadda! You have nothing to lose but your boxes!)

So, I’m saying — yeah, some more foolin’ around, please.