Is Responsive Design Soulless?

It feels like just last week we were defending creativity against some perceived limitation. Well here we are again. This time it’s responsive design that’s become the enemy of creativity. While I could simply point you to last week’s post and ask you to substitute every mention of Photoshop for responsive design, instead I have a few new things to offer.

The new controversy was started by Noah Stokes with the following tweet.

I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of website design. Everything is boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?

Noah later elaborated in a blog post, Where has all the soul gone?, and in fairness to him, he’s not out and out criticizing responsive design. His goal is more to push the industry to do better.

The tweet and post have already started a healthy discussion and I’ll post a few links at the end of this one.

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties
Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

What is Creative?

Whenever I hear this argument of something limiting creativity it comes across to me as though the person making the argument sees only one kind of creativity and it’s usually illustration, imagery, and fancy graphics. What makes an image more creative than text? Or the use of space? Or the way a composition leads the eye through it? Creativity is more than fancy graphics.

However, the argument always strikes me as one that suggests unless designs have lots of ornamentation in them they aren’t creative. Look back a couple of years at trends in web design that were apparently creative and you find a lot of ornamentation. Skeuomorphic paper and grunge everywhere you looked.

Neither is necessarily bad, but they and other ornamental details were applied everywhere with little thought as to why they were being added other than maybe they just looked cool.

Even before responsive design took hold a reaction had developed against these trends and the industry started moving toward simpler designs based on fundamental principles. Typography and grids were already becoming more prominent. Today there’s a new trend in flat design.

Not everything you see in design today is because of responsive ideas. Much of what you see was happening as a reaction to what came before, just as what happens next will be a reaction to what comes now.

Learning to Play Guitar

About 10 years ago I bought an acoustic guitar and tried to teach myself to play a few chords and scales. When you first start to play it can be painful. I don’t mean for those listening to my practice, though I’m sure they felt their own pain. I’m talking about the pain in my finger tips.

First we need to retrain our technical muscles to deal with fundamentals

Pressing your fingers against a fretboard with steel strings in between for hours on end, hurts. If you don’t believe me take your index finger and press it as hard as you can against the fingernail on your thumb. Hold it there for a minute or two if you can. Now imagine doing that for a few hours every day. It hurts.

You have to develop a callous on your finger tips before it stops. A friend of mine told me how he would drag his fingers across the concrete of any wall he walked by to help develop this callous. I did that myself. Until the callous builds up you can only play for a few minutes at a time.

It also takes time to get your fingers to form chords. They won’t naturally form the patterns necessary to play one. They have a hard time playing scales as well. Your fingers will resist because they aren’t flexible enough and have to develop the muscle memory to do what you want them to do. It takes practice to do these basic things unconsciously.

While you’re developing callous and training the muscles of your fingers, it’s hard to create beautiful music. You need to get these basics down first. Even if you’re coming from another instrument and know how to create beautiful music you’re going to have to spend a little time training your hands to do on the guitar what they already know how to do on say the piano.

Learning to Design Responsively

Where responsive design is concerned we’re musicians moving from an instrument we’ve mastered to one that’s new. We’re retraining our fingers and building up callous in order to play a steel string guitar. While learning some basics we have to put other things on hold.

We’re practicing with new techniques and processes. We’re training ourselves to think in a new way about designing websites. Many of the problems we had solved no longer apply and many of the problems we now attempt to solve are entirely new. We need to master these things before they can be applied at the height of our creativity.

A major change when moving to responsive design revolves around layout. Moving from px to em and % was the easy part. Determining where to set breakpoints and what to change on either side is a bit more challenging. Look around and you’ll find a lot of creative solutions to these problems.

A Different Kind of Creative

Even once we master the new tools, techniques, and processes don’t expect the creativity that emerges to be the same one that existed before. These new things will constrain us in different ways than the old things constrained us. That doesn’t mean the creativity will be better or worse. It’ll just be different.

Being constrained doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. I covered this last week so I won’t harp on it here. The tools we use don’t make us more or less creative. They may shape our creativity, but they certainly don’t prevent us from being creative. Do hammers suck the soul out of carpentry?. It sounds ridiculous to say. Why then do some always think a tool will suck the creativity out of design?

Speaking of hammers, let me hammer home the point that creativity doesn’t equal fancy graphics. In fact those fancy graphics constantly prove to be a performance bottleneck. A greater emphasis on performance also contributes to the designs you see today. Don’t worry though. The graphics will come back. They always do.

It’s Like 2001 All Over Again

For fun I hopped on over to Google and searched “css is boring” while setting the date range of results from 2001 to 2004. You’ll never guess what I found.

making the jump away from tables to pure CSS based layouts might be intimidating, unfamiliar, or perhaps even uncomfortable for some. Does that justify the cookie cutter look of the vast amount of tableless designs that are becoming popular the web?

Sound familiar? It’s the same argument that comes up every time something in the industry changes significantly. Changes like moving from tables to css and fixed to responsive design take time to sort out. New problems need to be solved and in solving them new questions and problems are discovered.

While the emphasis is on solving some of the new challenges, other aspects of design take a temporary back seat. In time the new will be worked out and the kids in the back seat will be driving the car.

Give it Time

The shift from fixed to responsive design placed layout front and center. For a time that’s mostly where you’ll find creativity. No, it won’t be about fancy graphics and ornamentation just yet. Those will come later. First we need to retrain our technical muscles to deal with some fundamentals.

The focus was already being placed on grids and boxes prior to the emergence of responsive design. The industry was rediscovering it’s graphic design roots in typography and grids and it was reacting against trends that had become purely ornamental. Responsive design is only one aspect in this new focus.

Don’t worry. The ornament will come back. These things are cyclical. For now the focus is on design fundamentals. We’re creating a new structure on which to build later. The creativity that’s happening looks a little different, but it’s still there.

In time responsive design will become less boxy. New technology is coming. New techniques will be mastered. New ways of expression will be expressed.

If you think responsive design needs a push toward some creativity you perceive to be missing, then figure out how to add that missing creativity. Don’t try to suggest it’s the tools or method that’s keeping creativity out. You’ll be proven wrong like everyone who’s made similar claims before you.


Like I said at the top there’s already been plenty of discussion about responsive design and creativity. Here are a few conversations I found.

I’m sure there’s more out there now, just as I’m sure this conversation of responsive design or some other tool or technique that’s limiting creativity, will come up again.

« »

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. It is always interesting to hear the responses to changes in design trend. Things go in and out of “fashion” for a reason. Like with most things, history tends to repeat itself. We’ve been incorporating a lot of these new trends in recent projects at the agency I work with–to great results. It is learning to work with the tools you are given–that is the ever evolving challenge that keeps work interesting. It isn’t hard to find good examples of well done flat design in responsive websites. I’ve pulled together a gallery of sorts in a recent blog post ( if anyone is interested. Thanks very much for this article.

    • Thanks Mac. I’ve been collecting sites and notes for a post about the trend in flat design. I might have to steal some of your examples. 🙂

      As a former history major I complete agree with history repeating itself. I think responsive design isn’t a trend, but a huge shift in how we think about designing and developing sites. As we shift though, we seem to run though all the same phases that occur with every other shift that’s taken place.

      Granted the number of shifts in thinking is limited where web design is concerned, given the short time frame, but it’s pretty easy to see what’s happening now is very similar to what happened when designers moved from tables to css. I’m sure the same thing will happen again with whatever the next big shift is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *