Pixel Death & Relativistic Design

I have a crush —always had it— for the pixel. This minute source of light. This small, uncompromising, irreverent, opinionated fountain of color. It can’t be reduced any further. It can’t be simplified, summarized or clean up. It is the strongest conceptual icon of this digital day and age. It is the quintessential minimalism made intangible. And it is iconic as an icon can be.


However the reign of the pixel is fading out. The pixel is dying a slow but needed death.

It is the retina displays, yes, but also the various screen sizes and non-standard pixel densities. From tvs to e-ink devices, from cellphones to large screen displays. We can’t keep depending on the pixel. The pixel has been —up until now— the brick for building sites, the common language of developers and designers, the de-facto unit of measure. And that’s, precisely, where the problem lies. We can’t keep measuring websites in pixel units. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Verdana 8px

I remember when I started building sites for a living. If we could convince a client to go with a design above 800x600 we considered it a victory. Back then Verdana was a common typeface to use, and 8px its hot size. Seriously. It it was clean, had personality, it spoke of neo-digitalism without being alienating, it was a system font(!) and at 8px it was readable and sexy. This is back when you could see the individual pixels in the screen at an arm’s length. With the current size of our monitors today that typeface is too small to read.

So that’s been outdated for a while. And now that 8-bit is a vintage art, all the rest of the pixel design is fading away.

Relativistic Design

What’s for us to figure out is the next unit of measure. And it’s looking like it will be a relativistic unit, not an absolute one. Which means trouble because we are not used to this. We won’t have such an accessible object to gather around an agree upon like the pixel is (was).

Creative professionals will need to adapt. And this task is not only on creatives’ hands but also in software manufactures who need to provide the appropriate tools for the job. If software such as Photoshop doesn’t upgrade to include a new relativistic unit of measure and instead sticks to points and pixels, it’ll hold back our creative force. Most likely companies such as Adobe won’t make this change happen. The increasing need for such tools will open the doors for a new company, a new kid in the block, to solve a problem that few can pinpoint now.

So what’s the problem, again?

The pixel is dead, so is absolute design, and those who don’t adapt will go the way of Verdana 8px.

November 28, 2012 ☼ futurethoughts