Blog: Design Musings and Other Nonsense

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Responsive Web Design – Rebuilding the Web

eight-track-tapeIn a lot of ways, the current responsive web design movement reminds me of a media format change.  Sure, you can still bump out tunes on your eight-track, but the cassette is where its at, cat daddy.  From there, well, you know the rest, CD, HDCD, DVD-Audio (which, I am told, was actually a thing), neural implants, and on and on.  The basics are that as a new, more capably technology comes into its own, the more a consuming industry moves towards the latest/greatest.

But, Is Responsive Design Great?

Ah, now that is a good question.  Personally, I would love to see a mainstream solution that combined SVGs and some sort of structured data/code to go along with it.  I miss the days of  pixel-level control, but maybe that is just me, a highly-visual person.

Even though Responsive Design may not be perfect, personally, I think it is the best option we have.  Not that we should get excited, per se, about the least worst choice we have available to us, but in my opinion, there are a lot of things responsive design does right.  Which are:

1.  At least it is attempting to deal with the issues of multiple, often disparate, target devices.

2.  When done right, it can be an elegant solution.

3.  It mitigates the need for separate sites to maintain.  One site, mobile or not.

But, like most solutions, it will not work for everything.  And, the more focus is on the user, and the scenarios in which they will be using your sites, the more likely the design will elegantly stretch from one form factor to another.

Rebuilding the Web

Like with all great format changes, in order to take advantage of the new power and fidelity responsive design can deliver, a lot of the web is going to have to be rebuilt.  That is, the work required to convert a fixed-pixel website to a responsive one is often nearly identical to developing the site in the first place.  Sure, you can (mostly) skip the visual design aspect of a project, but often this is not even so.  Often, designing a responsive website is sort of like a Mad Magazine fold-in problem.  That is, you have to think about how the site will look, folded-in on itself as it scales down to progressively smaller and smaller screen sizes.

And, I think it is important to note that most fixed-pixel websites work just fine on mobile devices.  However, I think it is also important to note that most of the time, with everything else being equal, responsive sites work better.  Sort of like the argument between VHS and DVD.  Sure, the VHS still offered the basic functionality you needed (it still played back video and audio on a TV), but DVD, almost universally, did it SO much better.  This is often the case with responsive sites.  They simply work better, most of the time, than fixed-pixel sites.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to this rule (which, I guess, is in part what makes it a rule).  Some sites truly do work best fixed-pixel.  A lot of tabular-data-driven websites come to mind here.  But, even though some don’t work as well if they are made responsive, this does not mean this is true for all sites.  All things being equal, as a (heavy) web user, I will almost universally choose the experience that is actually designed toward me vs one that is shoehorned into a different platform.

Since more and more web traffic is going mobile these days (especially web traffic coming in from marketing efforts, e.g. email blasts), ignoring responsive design is something many companies are doing today at their own harm.

Not Perfect, But it Will Do

We build a lot of responsive sites around here, and we will be the first to tell you that responsive design is no panacea.  From the added complexity, to simply creating cascading problems when you change one core element, to simply having to deal with a whole new set of constraints and challenges with projects, responsive design *definitely* does not solve all of our problems.  But, at least it is taking a stab at them.  Will we look back, 2-3 years from now, and slap ourselves in the head that we actually worked this way?  Definitely maybe.  In the meantime, though, it is our job to take the best tools, the best methodologies  and the best design standards and bring them to bear in the most powerful way we can on our projects.  Nothing in this industry stays the same very long, but sitting out current best-practices for addressing a very real need is not a good solution either.  Personally, I would rather play a flawed game than sit on the bench.  But, maybe, that is just me.

1 Comment

  1. John Locke

    Hello John:

    I think it is hardest for visual designers to adapt to the reality that is responsive design. Everyone else, such as front end developers, content managers, back end developers, aren’t as affected as drastically as the people who have agonized over every decision in the mockup. The age of multiple devices, both small and large, either makes their job exceedingly difficult, or the entire process has to slowly evolve. I think the hardest part isn’t changing the expectations of the workflow for the people inside the industry, but changing the expectations of our clients. They expect deliverables; they want their site to look how it does in the mockup, but where are they looking at the site? On a computer, on an iPad, on a phone, on a big screen? That makes it hard.

    I think the way the industry is headed, we have to all nudge expectations in direction where it becomes more about decisions on what to display, rather than pixel perfection (although I understand, there is always going to be that as well). We have to value our work, and we need to establish deep trust relationships with our clients, that we’re not going to lead them down the wrong path.

    I think that we are only just now entering the Golden Age of designing and building for the Web. Everything else was really the foundation. This industry is still very young, and there are still a lot of growing pains.


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