Pixel imperfect: a vision for the future of digital screens

Calling all digital designers. Join me, if you would, in a tiny little revolution. A revolution sparked by a slightly radical thought: what if we got rid of pixels? Consign them to the dustbin of history, never to be mentioned in polite society again.

Before you spit out your tea, let me explain. I’m not proposing we actually remove from our lives those minuscule squares of light and colour that deliver all the goodness (and let’s face it, badness) of the world straight into our retinas. Rather, I’m suggesting we abandon them as a measurement by which digital design is created.

 

The times they are a-changin’

Digital types have long used the pixel to define and measure their creations. But such are the variations of pixel density across the sea of devices out there – many of which are now sharper than print – that pixels as a standard unit of measurement have become meaningless.

There are two issues here.

In terms of consistency, where there were once a couple of standard pixel densities (also known as points or dots per inch), there are now dozens, ranging from the almost archaic 72ppi on older desktops to 576ppi (and counting) on the newest mobiles.

So designing, for example, a 40px button results in wildly differing physical sizes across multiple screens and devices. Pixels, evidently, are no use here. Design programs have tried to combat this issue, but as yet have only provided cumbersome and confusing solutions.

With the second issue – high density screens – the pixels are so tightly packed that we can no longer detect individual dots.

Indeed, the 2017-edition screen is now much like a piece of print. In fact, when did anyone design a book, brochure or poster in dpi? The answer is, unsurprisingly, never. There’s no need. Dots don’t come into the equation when there are at least 300 of them per inch.

 

A px on both your houses

So what do I think can replace the now defunct pixel? What new unit of measurement can fill those tiny square boots?

Well, I propose we return to the physical unit. An old-fashioned, real-life measuring stick. And there’s really only one candidate. Yes, that’s right, the very much new-fashioned millimetre. Or even centimetre. I’m not fussy, as long as it’s metric.

Millimetres are absolute, real-world certainties. As are humans. Design for actual people and we can be confident that our beautiful flatscreened creations will be wholly suitable for human thumbs and eyeballs.

Regardless of device, millimetres will give us a better sense of how big that button should be for comfortable clicking, what size the type needs to be for good readability and whether an image is large enough to be fully appreciated.

We can also use millimetres as default widths when designing for different screen sizes. A website designed to a desktop breakpoint, for example, could be defined as 30cm across. Laptops could be 20cm, and mobiles could be divvied up between 5cm for small handsets and 7cm for larger ones. You see where I’m going with this.

 

Crossroads

This is the moment to do it. In the developed world at least, we’re at a crossroads. Retina displays are finally starting to overtake low resolution screens and even dominate the screen space.

Pixels will, of course, still exist under the hood, a technical description of how the screen displays content to you. But people don’t need to know about them. They should be an irrelevance to the ordinary consumer. And designer for that matter.

In this brave new world, we can finally be rid of the unitary mess that is unleashed every time we design a piece of work destined for the screen. From gigantic desktops and tiny laptops to awkward phablets and the near infinite array of mobiles, pixels will no longer hold sway over us. We will be unshackled.

So, are you with me?