Keep Talking About Responsive Design

It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new post about responsive design. You might even feel like it’s getting played out. Do we really need another post on this topic?

The answer is emphatically, “yes”. We need a lot more of them. If you believe that websites should be built upon flexible foundations capable of intelligently adapting to devices of different size and capability, then please continue (or join in on) the discussion.

Responsive Design is not a Fad

The responsive philosophy is sound in theory, yet in practical application we still face a number of not-quite-resolved challenges. We struggle to find elegant, practical solutions for image handling, lack of media-query support, and the schizophrenic reporting of device/screen-widths. But technical dilemmas aside, there’s also the issue of getting stakeholder buy in. It takes longer to design responsively than fixed-width. Instead of one layout per content template, you must design multiple. This means more rigorous browser and device testing. Sure, the extra up-front time and cost may save clients money in the long run, but it’s still a tough sell. After all, when clients come to you, they’re often asking for just a website. And therein lies a much bigger problem.

When most people think “website” they think of a 960px wide site with a logo in the top left, a search in the top right, and a horizontal nav bar.

This is the mental model people have of websites, and breaking it is difficult. Similarly, people cling to conceptual models of mobile interactions. You either create an app, or something that wishes it was one. The mobile web is held down by this app-baggage—this desperate endeavor to be something it’s not. The irony is that it’s the designs WE impose that make it feel like an such an imposter. This is true for all of the web. We create the models and patterns of interaction, and when they become outdated (or in the case of the mobile web, when they simply aren’t working) its up to us to tear them down.

Breaking these mental models is tough work. So even though designers who write about responsive design might be preaching to the choir in some cases, we should remember that the techniques and philosophies that help us design more adaptively have not yet reached a tipping point.

Until we can think website without thinking “desktop” and mobile without thinking “app” lets keep talking about responsive design.

Hopefully fixed-width CSS layouts, like their table-layout predecessors, will be relegated to the web design wall of shame. They’ll become a laughable relic of the past. Two years from now we’ll look back and say, “remember when...” For this to happen, we’ll need to remain focused on solving the technical challenges, while preaching the tenets of responsive design to our clients, bosses and each other.

Only once they’ve become industry standards can we drop the prepended term responsive from design altogether, as if there never was any other way.

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Dennis Kardys

Dennis is the Design Director at WSOL. His focus is on helping clients realize the importance of user-centered design, and developing elegant and intuitive websites. You can follow him on twitter @dkardys

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