Making the process of building websites less complicated is a growth industry. Just look at the success of WordPress and Squarespace. Yet with all the templates and customization available from these platforms, it still leaves humans to do most of the decision-making–should you put that checkout button in the middle or top right? You’ll need another app if you want to A/B test it and find the answer.
What if instead your website used machine learning to build itself, and then rebuilt as necessary, based on data it was gathering about how it was being used? That’s what The Grid is aiming to do. After you add content such as pictures, text, and videos–the stuff everyone enjoys interacting with–your obligation to design anything ends.
“We want to make the experience more fun,” says The Grid founder and CEO Dan Tocchini. “I think the key to that is focusing on the content. It’s what all the people [users] do, just focus on the content.”
The Grid advertises itself as “AI websites that design themselves.” But what that really means is that through a lot of complicated technical work, Tocchini is trying to completely alleviate fundamental issues with web design for someone like your mom or dad.
When you create a website with The Grid it asks you to define a purpose for the content, whether that’s gaining followers, getting clicks, video views, crowdfunding, or a handful of other options. The layout will adapt and change based on those goals. You can go from something personal to commercial by adding something to sell–the commerce elements will appear and disappear as needed.
Colors are picked out of the images that you upload, algorithmically ordered, and matched together. Shapes are added around certain types of content and images are cropped perfectly. You’ll notice nobody’s face goes missing on the pages. That’s one of the hallmark features that Tocchini is visibly excited about, The Grid’s ability to detect faces and, no matter how the image is resized, keep them visible.
The underpinnings for The Grid come from Grid Style Sheets (GSS) which was created by Tocchini. It’s a reimagining of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which also replaces a browser’s layout engine with one that uses the Cassowary constraint solver.
GSS is an open source project which has been getting a good amount of traffic and recognition on its own recently. The description from the product page explains further that, “GSS is a CSS preprocessor & JS runtime that harnesses Cassowary.js, the JS port of the same constraint solving algorithm Apple uses in Cocoa Autolayout for iOS & OS X.”
The idea is based on constraint programming, which lets developers say what they want to do, and then rely on a mathematical solver to figure out how to actually do it. It’s this underlying technology that’s enabling The Grid to perform a lot of the design tasks seemingly autonomously–it’s also where the name comes from.
The machine age of self-designing websites isn’t perfect (yet). Sometimes it places content and images in ways that don’t make sense or look good in context. There’s still a lot of tweaking of code going on as The Grid gets closer to public use–and it’s not intended for people who already know how to design websites on their own.
When colors aren’t flattering or the layouts go weird, The Grid’s creative director, Leigh Taylor, steps in to correct the issues. Taylor was previously at Ev Williams’ Obvious Corporation and designed Medium’s iconic post editor. “The designers are in-the-loop with the AI,” says Taylor. “They interact with it, guide it, influence it to shape a framework of design that facilitates multiple user cases beyond what is feasible with just two hands.”
“I see design as problem solving, a guide, a blueprint for interaction and experience. A framework for presentation and brand,” Taylor explains. “The Grid doesn’t remove that, there is still a role in providing all that. All while providing tools to reduce the trivial, iterative production chores that we have become accustomed to today.”
The Grid’s own website is the best example of what will be possible in the coming months as it fully launches to the public with the help of its crowdfunding campaign. The site is full of eye-catching elements that have a subtle rhythm as it scrolls. To accomplish this, the team just threw Markdown files [text] and images at it, and the site picked its own layout.