It's a question that comes up time and time again: "What width or size should I design the web site for?" Unfortunately, the answer is always the same, "it depends."
It depends on what? Well, it depends primarily on two major considerations:
- Your target audience's screen resolutions
- The amount of space needed to display the information in a readable format
If you don't know the screen resolutions of your target audience, then take a look at W3Schools Browser Statistics and specifically the Browser Display Statistics page. There, you'll find some fairly good information based on their log-files. Of course, if you have access to your client's web stats, check there first.
Keep in mind that if you intend to use the entire display width, be sure to leave room for the scroll bars and such. For the most part, simply subtract 20 pixels from the width to determine your maximum design width. For example, if your intended audience is using 800x600, then your maximum width should be 780 pixels.
I'm all for web site usability and would rather not have to force a visitor to scroll to the right to see important information simply because their monitor's screen resolution was set lower than the width of my intended layout. However, if your target audience utilizes for example 1024x768, then by all means, feel free to use the extra real estate ... but only if you need to. This might make sense in a corporate environment where you are designing an intranet and you know for sure what dimensions the employees are/would be using.
People are also visiting the web with their cell phones, PDA's and other handheld web-enabled devices at an increasing rate. By using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), you can create an entirely different display to accomodate these visitors. So keep this in mind when planning your design.
One thing I try to bring up to my design collegues, is to think about how you personally use your web browser(s). Do you expand it to the entire width and height of your available display? I don't. I usually have several windows open at the same time and rarely do I expand the application to my entire available display. Why do I bring this up? Well, if my display is 1024x768 and the web site is using a full 1004 (or more!) pixels, then I'm probably having to scroll right to see any content.
So, whilst I'm standing on this soap box, I'll try to throw in one last thought here. If you are designing a web site for the general public, I would recommend keeping the width within 780 pixels. Why? Because as of January 2008, according to W3Schools Browser Display Statistics, approximately 8% of visitors are using 800x600 displays. I know, you're saying, "but that means 92% are using 1024x768 or higher!" You would be correct. However, I believe 10% is a significant number. Would you be willing to simply ignore or turn away 10% of your paying customers?