Since it's inception, design has been involved with the making of fixed things. The designer brought taste and technique; the user was largely a passive recptor, active only in exercising enough taste to choose between rival designs.
Then, on the web, we saw the beginings of a fundamental conflict. Designers had to struggle with a medium which supported user choice. They had to accomodate users' choice of different browsers, different screen types and sizes, different font sizes, different reading environments.
Many hoped that this condition was temporary; due to the immaturity of the web, that a new standard (CSS, Flash) would save them. But the condition, far from going away, will become more and more pervasive. The range of devices connected to the web, which need to access pages, is increasing : mobile phones, WiFi? laptops, audio players, home cinema. There is a greater demand for raw information stripped of design as more people suck RSS feeds into aggregators or personal viewers.
Design decisions are moving closer to the user. Web browsers always allowed user customization of font family and size. Often it was difficult for the user to access. It could be easier. No reason a browser couldn't offer a menu of prebuilt styles for users. Other customizable applications (desktops, audio players) have similar menus of "skins".
Meanwhile the providers of things are obliged to provide more fluid, less designed stuff.
The trend isn't limited to web documents :
My guess is we'll see a lot more ...
In this world, what's the role of designers?
One possibility, to work for users : to provide "skins" for viewers to put around software applications, data.
The other, to invent a new style of fluidity. To learn how to work with small fixed elements within the fluidity. ("Floats" if you like :-) A float is something like a small graphic and a set of possible rules where it can appear on the a page. Or it's a leitmotif which can be incorporated into music played in different styles.
It's only since we've had mass-produced products that most designers have been producing "fixed" things. There were, and are, still many designers who deal with modifying structures and interact with users in a non-passive way. For example:
Fluid user centred products are not less designed - they're differently design.
I think I want to make a distinction between UserCentredDesign? and an alternative to design where things are UserOrganized?. The first requires designers to be attentive to users' requirements, and to try to improve their methods of discovering what users really want. The second requires designers to come up with generic but easy to assemble components so that users produce what they really want themselves.
To me UserOrganized? is a subset of UserCentredDesign? - it just has different constraints. Its not new, just becoming more prevalent online. For example a good fitted kitchen range consists of generic easy to assemble components that users combine to produce what they really want themselves. -- AdrianHoward
But Adrian's point reminds me of a branding question. If designers work for companies not customers, then the requirements of branding, (imposing messages on the behalf of the central authority), start to swamp the requirements of the user. Designers can try to fight it, but the piper plays the tune of the guy who pays. If the customer is rich then the designer can work on custom things with user attentiveness. If things are still being mass-produced then my strategy of reusable grains is the only solution. (See also HighRoad, OnGranularity)