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A Ramble on Responsive Design

Responsive Design is the latest mantra to gain traction in the web community. Ethan Marcotte threw down the gauntlet and challenged the web design community to seriously reconsider how we think about design and code. Responsive Design is an approach that encourages us to build websites that respond to a user’s behavior and environment – i.e. a single code base that adapts to multiple devices. With a peck of flexible grids, a dash of media quieres, and 1/2 a cup of incredibly smart javascript, you could bake a single website that tastes yummy in people’s browsers, tablets, phones, TVs and whatever other crazy device hits next. Hallelujah – device ubiquity problem solved. Kind of.

I’ve got nothing against Responsive Design. In fact, I think it’s great. This isn’t a critique of responsive design inasmuch as it’s a critique of how we as a community adopt mantras at the expense of our process.

We Love to Love Things

We (the web creation industry) did what we do best with brilliant insights. We wholeheartedly, unabashedly embraced it. New grid systems, and javascript libraries were produced seemingly overnight. For decades we have looked at a 400x500px jpg the same way. Suddenly it’s got a certain allure, a newfound responsive sexiness that we didn’t see before. As with any new web technology, we see it start to pop up in our internal work first. Designers portfolios were flexible. Conference websites looked as slick on my busted ass iPhone 3G as they do on my equally busted 24 inch Dell monitor. We were preaching to the choir and the choir was singing along in perfect harmony.

All is not well in the world

Here’s where I go all Debby Downer on you. Somewhere in-between Ethan Marcotte’s line in the sand and we went from “Responsive Design” to “responsive design.” The goal became – “make this fat site skinny. Look! it animates as it gets skinnier.” Responsive design became an implementation technique and not a design strategy, the html version of a glossy button. It skipped right over all the things that we learned from “Mobile First” and “Content First” and “Users First” and went straight to the fun part. Design is more than what you end up seeing on the screen.

I love working in photoshop. I love writing code (most days). To me there is no better way to spend a day than designing something and seeing it come to life. We need to remember the core principles of Design happen before photoshop and textmate. It’s not about how to make fat websites skinny. That’s a byproduct, that’s implementation. It’s about how we as designers and builders and keepers of the internet magic fairydust can provide better solutions for our users and for our clients. That, as we all well know, happens before the first pixel comes into digital being.

Back in the dark ages (like 6 months ago), we debated whether or not websites also needed apps and whether those apps should be native or web. We were forced to start at the beginning. What do users need when they’re on their phones? Do people interact differently when they’re on their couch vs their desk chair? If I’m browsing this site while I’m driving in traffic, how can I get what I need without killing someone? Producing device specific code was costly. It wasn’t something that you could just toss off in a week or two before launch. The scope and scale of the effort necessitated the use of our whole brains. We approached it with Design with a capital D. For the record, we screwed it up all over the place. We made some good decisions, and many more bad ones. I’m sure the collective budgets of every poorly conceived and unnecessary iPhone app could feed a small nation for the next decade.

Design with a Capital D

Design is a multifaceted beast. It is UX. It is Content. It is Context. It is Visual. It is even Marketing and Branding . It’s the meat and the sizzle as I like to say (I’ve never once said that, punch me if I ever say anything remotely that lame). My personal challenge is to remember that this shit is complicated and beautiful. Lets not cheapen it by making things skinny, patting ourselves on the back, and moving on. It’s time to go back to our process and start thinking about device and context when we kick off a new project. How does responsive thinking affect our content strategy? How does it affect our advertising (there’s a great discussion of this starting now at How does it effect our ongoing deployment strategies and feature releases? How does responsive thinking make our own businesses stronger?

So I’m the guy that asks a bunch of annoying questions and then bails. Before I do, let me reiterate for clarity. I believe much of the thinking on responsive design has been absolutely brilliant. It is Big Think at it’s finest. I love the questions and I love the discussion. Since then, we’ve become enamored with the output and not the process. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon with answers or more likely questions.




I'm an art director hailing from the great northern state of Minnesota. After a decade in the industry, I'm only interested in projects where we get to add real value. I believe in making grids, breaking grids, clean code, good type, 70's motorcycles, and Raymond Chandler novels.