Design Process

Responsive design: don’t stifle debate with dogma

The responsive design debate was set in motion around a year ago, but seems to have reached something of a crescendo of late. Some commentary borders on the totalitarian, others’ input is philosophical, while some contributions attempt to navigate a practical way forward. Fact is, there is a veritable scramble to coin the phrases that will become tomorrow’s industry-standard vocabulary.

Designers are just plain excited about responsive design, and it’s easy to see why. We have arrived at one of those industry-defining moments which precipitates huge leaps forward in practice – think HTML 3.2 & 4, CSS2. You can perhaps forgive the piousness of some commentators. As new practices bed in, you can always rely on designers to get sanctimonious about how inadequate our practices were up until a day or so ago.

Get up, stand up

Exciting as it is, there is also a huge challenge for designers to step up, not something we have always distinguished ourselves by. As the mass-market web came into being, designers (by and large) stood idly by waiting for someone to make it easy for them, instead of just getting in there, learning some basic markup and meaningfully engaging with a new communications medium.

A shared future

Things couldn’t be more different today; a new generation of designers are falling over each other to experiment, test, share and move the practice of online UI design forward into a new era. This time the catalyst is not a new markup specification, but advances in hardware: a critical mass in use of web-enabled devices has been reached. The rules of the game have changed. Mobile access is no longer an afterthought, or a box to tick, it has parity with desktop and laptop access.

Papa don’t preach

The volume of the debate is rising, but those preaching too loudly or broadcasting their opinions on who is or isn’t doing it ‘right’ are demeaning themselves, and missing the point. We are all in this together. Our internal industry dialogue will continue and something will emerge from all this, almost certainly not in the form of a single proposal or approach. Thought leaders will get us in the general vicinity, but best practice emerges from the efforts of many, and continues to evolve, as we evolve both as designers and as a community.

The new reality

Subscribing to new thinking is one thing, but deploying it on a relevant, commercial project is another. I’ll readily admit to being right at the start of the transition and pursuing a trail-and-error approach; much preferable to breathlessly following anyone who screams they have ‘the answer’. Plus, attempting to stay ahead of the curve on this issue looks like the path to madness when even the originator of the term ‘responsive design’ has identified somewhat inevitable grey areas.

In conclusion

This is as fresh a challenge as we could hope for in our industry, and these are exciting times. The least helpful contributions to a discussion tend to be the most vociferous, but we’re off and running, on the road to best practice and the community will win. Let’s enjoy the ride and look forward to what emerges on the other side.

4 replies on “Responsive design: don’t stifle debate with dogma”

Thank you for this. I have been feeling very overwhelmed by the attitudes of some of the thought leaders on RWD. I am a busy sole proprietor who delivers full branding packages to clients and website design is just one thing I have to maintain my learning curve on.

I just got to the point where I am mastering advanced CSS selectors and gearing up to learn HTML5/CSS3 and now all of the sudden there is this new trend that everyone says has to be learned and implemented yesterday and I just feel flummoxed. How am I supposed to keep up? And secondarily, how am I supposed to sell this to my clients – mostly B2B who don’t really utilize mobile UI in their marketing strategies?

Also, what about the impact when designing for CMS frameworks? How is that going to work?

Very few evangelistas are talking about the costs of implementing this type of design not to mention all of the css/js hacks that have to be implemented to make responsive design cross-browser compatible and even go so far as to insinuate that if you can’t implement RWD without huge project cost impacts, then you are not really a very good designer/coder. Enough already!

Thank you so much for this balanced view which I discovered after reading Matt Ward’s post on “I Love Responsive Design, but…” Both made me feel better since I am at heart a pragmatist and always ask these questions about new technologies. My time, as a sole proprietor, is very valuable, and I don’t have the bandwidth to learn every new web development trend. I have to know if the new methodologies are truly worth pursuing and whether they will bring value to my clients.

…And thanks in turn for your considered comment Robin.

Much of the RWD debate is going on above the heads of the vast majority our industry who are up against the very issues you outline here. It’s a rocky road ahead for many in making the transition, not the easy or natural switch that is suggested by some commentators.

I don’t believe anyone is questioning the wisdom of RWD as an approach and, as you point out, any suggestion of a ‘second class’ of designers or developers is completely unhelpful.

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