Embracing Asymmetrical Design

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I’ll never forget one of Karen McGrane’s great lessons to the world: truncation is not a content strategy. The idea is that just clipping off text programmatically is a sledgehammer, and avoids the kind of real thinking and planning that makes for good experiences.

You certainly can trucate text with CSS. A bit of overflow: hidden; will clip anything, and you can class it up with text-overflow: ellipsis; Even multiple line clamping is extremely easy these days. The web is a big place. I’m glad we have these tools.

But a better approach is a combination of actual content strategy (i.e. planning text to be of a certain length and using that human touch to get it right) and embracing asymetric design. On the latter, Ben Nadel had a nice shout to that idea recently:

Unfortunately, data is not symmetrical. Which is why every Apple product demo is mocked for showcasing users that all have four-letter names: Dave, John, Anna, Sara, Bill, Jill, etc.. Apple uses this type of symmetrical data because it fits cleanly into their symmetrical user interface (UI) design.

Once you release a product into “the real world”, however, and users start to enter “real world data” into it, you immediately see that asymmetrical data, shoe-horned into a symmetrical design, can start to look terrible. Well, actually, it may still look good; but, it provides a terrible user experience.

To fix this, we need to lean into an asymmetric reality. We need to embrace the fact that data is asymmetric and we need to design user interfaces that can expand and contract to work with the asymmetry, not against it.

Ben Nadel, “Embracing Asymmetrical Design And Overcoming The Harmful Effects Of “text-overflow: ellipsis” In CSS”

Fortunately, these days, CSS has so many tools to help do that embracing of the asymetric. We’ve got CSS grid, which can do things like overlap areas easily, position image and text such that the text can grow upwards, and align them with siblings, even if they aren’t the same size.

Combine that with things like aspect-ratio and object-fit and we have all the tools we need to embrace asymetry, but not suffer problems like awkward white space and malalignment.

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