Elbows and Office Chairs

It’s funny what you get used to.

I migrated from an iPhone to a larger Android device many years back. Nowadays, squinting at a smaller mobile screen makes me feel a bit dizzy.

When I started freelancing last year I moved in the opposite direction. At my old workplace I dual-wielded 24” monitors. Since then I’ve adapted to a single 13” MacBook Air for my desktop set-up. For a while it was claustrophobic but given a few months I became adept at juggling applications.

Despite adapting it never quite felt comfortable. So after saving enough pennies, I’ve created the best of both worlds, A.K.A., the classic freelancer set-up:

My laptop and monitor set-up

I’m giving this arrangement a few weeks. I think I’ll prefer it over the side by side. (See why below — and yes that is a mighty Logitech B100 mouse, I spare no expense!)

Out of the box it was an odd experience browsing the web once more at this scale. The resolution is larger: 1920×1080 vs 1440×900, but the pixel density is lower: 92.56 vs 127.68 PPI — Dell U2414H vs MacBook Air respectively.

Number are confusing but what they effectively mean is that the same website, or anything for that matter, appears visually larger on my new monitor.

This relationship between the physical size of a screen and its resolution is easy to forget when you’ve been working on one device for so long.

It is noticeable when working with extremes, i.e. a mobile phone and a desktop monitor, but because a design can be so different at these breakpoints the solution is often over-simplified (e.g. a separate CSS stylesheet for small ‘mobile’ devices). It’s also complicated by yet another factor: the screen’s distance from our eyes.

See Oliver Reichenstein’s article on “Responsive Typography: The Basics” for a thorough look into this effect.

We can do our best to design responsively using sensible defaults, media queries, and generous assumptions, but we’ll be forever at the mercy of elbows and office chairs. A user-defined setting we can’t override (and that’s a good thing).

My set-up with the laptop closer to me therefore seems like the most natural arrangement. It helps reduce the difference and keeps text in my line of sight at a readable size. A side by side arrangement would force too much refocusing. I’ll see how it goes! It may turn out worse for my posture.

Now if only I can get the damn colours to match… *[PPI]: pixels per inch

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