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The Web on the Web’s Terms

After finishing journalism school, I worked for a series of terrific newspaper and radio companies. Barely two years into it, after flirting with the web, I quit.

Compared to the web, print and radio had limited reach and were clumsy to use. In print, we plugged content into a fixed canvas and delivered the same experience to every reader. The closest we got to flexibility was an evening edition or special insert. The web attracted me because it couldn’t have been more different. It challenged me to design and build something that can reach anyone on any web-browsing device—a cause worthy of committing my career to.

But, by 2009, my enthusiasm had waned. Designing for the web felt nearly as inflexible and inaccessible as designing for print—only there was interaction. The measure of quality was pixel perfection. If your website looked and worked the same on all popular browsers, you kept your job. The web design community, in a collective hallucination and battle for web standards, had too narrowly defined success.

The reckoning

When Ethan Marcotte urged developers in 2010 to use CSS media queries, fluid grids, and flexible images to create websites that were “responsive” to all devices, it undermined the idea of a “pixel-perfect web.” Responsive Web Design emphasizes principles inherent to web design, like flexibility and accessibility, and threatened anyone who hadn’t yet embraced the challenge of serving up content to devices that ranged in capability.

Frustration directed at Responsive Web Design could’ve just as easily been directed at Apple, if the original iPhone’s web browser displayed websites at scale, as they were designed. The iPhone’s screen size would have been a painful but fantastic reminder that the web is a fluid and flexible medium. Instead, Apple gave everyone a pass and rendered web pages in a scaled-down, 980px-wide viewport.

We’re still wrestling with how difficult, time-consuming, and costly web design is. But, we’ve started to disguise that frustration as arguments against the merits of Responsive Web Design itself.

John Sonmez, for example, argues that trying to design a website that’s great for all browsing situations is a fool’s errand:

When you try to make a product that can do multiple things, the complexity of creating that product increases exponentially…. Isn’t it better in most cases to have two products that both do what they are supposed to do and do it well, than a single product that does two things at a mediocre level?…. I’m not saying you can’t design a great responsive website that serves desktop clients and mobile clients wonderfully… I’m just saying you won’t.

This argument entirely disregards the objective of the web. If we determine that we can’t deliver content to whoever is visiting, we’ve failed. Introducing additional products like alternative URLs and redirects to native applications may reduce the complexity of designing/building a proper web page, but those methods transfer that complexity right onto visitors instead.

We grapple with how to create a design system without the “fun stuff” we were able to try when we only cared about a few devices. Last February, Noah Stokes started a fascinating discussion on Branch, saying that responsive design had “sucked the soul” out of web design. Stokes expanded on his frustration with the following:

The purist in me wants a pixel perfect design in the browser and responsive gives me that at certain break points, but the in betweens are what kill me…. I would much rather see sites done adaptively for their most popular viewport dimensions where pixel perfection could be achieved because let’s be honest, we’re the only ones resizing our browser windows like mad.

Stokes makes the case for a design solution (adapting for popular dimensions) because it fits a design process (designing for popular dimensions). But, if you’re married to a process that relies on fixed widths and device parity, the web is the wrong medium in which to work.

Responsive Web Design has helped us embrace variables like screen size, location, and data connection that we should have been caring for all along. The “in-betweens” are the web. Choosing not to design for them means choosing not to design for the web. RWD demands inspiration, creativity and teamwork. It’s a unique challenge, but one that validates my choosing to work in the web in the first place.

Want to learn Responsive Web Design? Check out Sophie Shepherd’s recently released course on the topic for The Happy Cog Way, then come back and share how you’re tackling the challenge.

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