The Great Fixed vs Fluid Debate

Over the last week or so I’ve seen several posts (with very interesting discussions going on in the comments) about the pros and cons of fluid and fixed width layouts:

Nothing new, really. I too wrote a bit about it a while back. I’m pretty much neutral on this issue. Give me fixed or give me fluid, as long as it’s done well. Too long or too short lines of text are hard to read. I’m not getting into that debate.

Something that surprises me is that I haven’t seen much talk about what I think is causing fluid layouts to be problematic for many users. I’m thinking of the little button in the top right of every window in every Windows application. The maximize button. Without it, one of the main reasons for not using fluid layouts would be gone, because all Windows users would be used to the fact that windows are resizeable and don’t have to fill the entire screen. On the Mac, the “maximize” button doesn’t work the same as in Windows. I have seen very, very few Mac users that resize their web browser to fill the entire screen. Instead, most resize their browser window to a comfortable width and put it on one side of their screen. Coincidence? I think not.

What also seems a bit odd to me is that many people who have large monitors and know that windows are resizeable still always have their web browser maximized, and because of that prefer fixed widths. Why? Don’t you find it useful to see more than one application at once? Why have a large monitor if you only use half of its width? I’d really like to know the reasoning behind it.

For the record, I use a 21" CRT monitor set to a resolution of 1600 by 1200 pixels. I like my windows pretty narrow, which lets me fit at least two windows side by side. A lot of the time that will be a web browser window and a text editor window. To me that is much more efficient than having to cmd-tab (same as alt-tab in Windows) back and forth.

Update: More on fixed widths at Clagnut brings up some interesting ideas on how to display images in a fluid layout. See also Images in liquid columns. One of the sites that started the current fixed vs fluid discussion, Stopdesign, has reverted to a fluid layout.

Posted on December 16, 2003 in Usability