The phrase responsive design generates a lot of passion. Web designers seem to either love it or hate it. Why is that? Why is the phase so charged with emotion?
While much of the industry is moving to responsive design and the larger change it signals, some still talk about responsive design as though it’s a fad. Others only talk about the issues of responsive design in a way that implies the issues are so great you shouldn’t even attempt to design responsively.
Again why do people get so charged up and feel so passionate about responsive design? I think it’s ultimately for the same reasons people were passionate about the change from table-based to css based development and why people will be passionate about whatever the next major shift in web design will be.
Design is Decision-Making
Design involves a lot of decisions. Responsive design changes many of the things you decide about. The changes could be as simple as having to decide percent or em measurements instead of px measurements and it could be as large as having to decide how to reconfigure a layout at key points from small to wide screen.
It’s not just change though. Responsive design opens up the potential for many new decision-making areas. At the same time it removes some decisions that people enjoy making.
It’s a normal reaction to resist change. Forced change is never easy. When forced to change, people often hang on to the old way of doing things as long as possible. Inevitably they have to give in to the new, but for a time they hold on to the old.
I’m in the group of people excited by the new possibilities of responsive design and I’m just as excited for all the possibilities we aren’t even aware of yet.
I’ve said before that responsive design isn’t the only change going on. Changes to how we build layouts in css and an ability to break free of the rectangular underpinnings of css are coming. I think it creates the perception that responsive design extends beyond what it is, which means a perception of even more change and more resistance.
Again, design is about making decisions and the reason people have been so excited about responsive design is ultimately because it opens up the possibility of making many more decisions than we previously could. It also creates the possibility of deciding old things in new and better ways.
Before you never had to concern yourself with rearranging blocks of content. It was easier that way. It’s easier not to have to think about something. But now that you can decide about more things, you have the potential to create better designs. That’s the exciting part.
Any decision we consciously make has the potential to improve the design. Of course, it can also detract from the design if the decision is a poor one.
Why People Think Responsive Design is Harder Than it is
In addition to the passion, I think the reasons people say responsive design is hard is about the same thing. People are really talking about all the extra things we can now do because of responsive design and how difficult some of those things are.
It’s only hard if you do those things. You should do more and go beyond the responsive minimum. You should do things like create multiple versions of an image for different devices and conditions, but you don’t have to in order to create a minimal responsive design.
A minimal responsive design is still an improvement on what came before. If all you do is follow the three basics of flexible layout, flexible images and media, and media queries you end up with a better site.
Even if you do these three things as minimally as possible, say setting images to have a max-width of 100% and a height of auto, your resulting design will be better than if you didn’t.
What makes responsive design more difficult is all the new possibilities, all the new decisions you get to make. The thing is many of those decisions aren’t requirements of responsive design. They’re possibilities responsive designs gives us to make any design better.
It’s similar when talking about performance. The performance hit that comes from responsive design is mainly to do with these extra things you can now do. It leads to an unfair comparison with the old way, since you wouldn’t have been doing any of those extra things previously.
Why People Don’t Like Responsive Design
I’m talking more about the new possibilities responsive design gives us, but it does take some decisions away or declares them less than the best decision to make.
Some designers enjoyed making the decisions that are going away or they’re good at making those decisions or maybe they’re just comfortable making those decisions. It can be difficult for some to adjust.
For example before responsive the standard practice was to deliver static images created in Photoshop, or similar, as design comps. With responsive design we’re realizing a static comp can’t give the complete picture of a web design. We’re pushing deliverables to the browser.
If you enjoy working in a graphics editor this probably isn’t great news for you. It’s not that graphic editors are going away, but they’ll be used less when designing websites.
If you like designing in Photoshop it’s understandable you’d be resistant to the change, because something you like is being taken away to a degree. It’s normal to hold on to the thing you like and reject the new thing that’s causing change.
Change can be scary. It requires you work to adjust to the change. It throws you out of your routine and comfort zones. This can lead to resisting change and holding on to the status quo.
Responsive is a Good Solution for a Difficult Problem
The love/hate fest with responsive design will likely continue. Some of it is a normal reaction to change. Some of it is taking a contrary point of view for the purpose of link/click bait. Some people are just contrarian to anything. Much of it is the passion that often comes with change.
While the passion regarding responsive design isn’t going away, neither is responsive design itself. If you find yourself on the negative side you might want to reevaluate because responsive design isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’ll go away when something new comes along to take its place, at which point some will embrace the newer change and some will hold onto their comfort zone, which ironically will be responsive design.
In general, I’m a fan of progress. While I don’t always embrace change and sometimes resist changes I don’t care for, I know change and advances in technology are generally good things.
I’m embracing responsive design. I didn’t see it immediately, but it didn’t take to long to see responsive design as a solution to one of the very first questions I had about designing websites.
I may have talked about this before, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself. Years ago when first learning web design, I tok some continuing education courses. One particular day in one particular class we were learning to work with tables. I started thinking whether it would be better to use pixels or percents to define the width of the table and cells. It seemed like a question that went beyond tables and to layout in general.
Fixed seemed like a good option since if gave you a measure of control. At least until you realize you can never know the available space in which your design would display. That made flexible seem like the way to go, until you realize that available space thing still causes problems. When displayed on a very wide screen, your design could potentially end up as a long and wide string of text.
Responsive design solves the problem as it lets you adjust your layout over a range of screen sizes. I’m not suggesting responsive design is the best or final solution to the problem we’ll ever see, but it’s the first viable solution I’ve seen since first thinking about the question.
Beyond the fixed and flexible question, I embrace responsive design because I like the new possibilities I see. Sure it’ll be more difficult because there’s more to do, but that’s a good thing. It ultimately leads to better designed websites.
We’re going to design with proportion as opposed to size. We’re going to create more flexible solutions that work across more devices and conditions.
Responsive design raises the minimum standard for a design because now everything will have to work across devices. As responsive grows in acceptance, this minimum will be raised, improving site design in general.
Admittedly I can see the problems responsive design creates, but I have confidence the industry will solve those problems and again think it will open even more possibilities. For example the picture element seems to have gained acceptance with browser makers and before too long we’ll all be using it. It’ll give us the ability to change images so the best one for the given conditions is the one used.
Yes, it means more work to create additional image versions and it’s more work adding the logic to choose the right image, but ultimately it results in a better design for visitors to the site. That’s a good thing and worth some extra work.
In time we’ll be able to sense many more things about the context under which our designs are consumed. More sensors also means more work, but it means the ability to tailor websites to individuals and use cases. Again a good thing.
To me this is all simply another step forward in our ability to design and develop websites. I have no doubt something will come along to replace responsive design in time. I also have no doubt new layout options in html and css will replace the options we use today.
My guess is I’ll initially resist some of the changes and then embrace those that I think point the way forward. Something will replace responsive techniques, but it won’t change the idea of designing flexibly and dynamically.
I’m sure we’ll have these debates again when the next major shift comes along. Some will jump in and embrace the new and others will hold on to the status quo for as long as possible. It happens with every major change.
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