A Guide to Responsive Web Design

There are few design trends more prominent than responsive web design, which has rapidly become the preferred way to design websites in an era that is characterized by increasing smartphone adoption, the proliferation of tablet-style devices, and screens of varying sizes that all require their own, unique layout. This innovative method of designing websites actually uses a single design that can be scaled up or down to meet the unique demands of any screen resolution, making it the perfect option for designers who want a consistent and usable experience for users across the board.

Responsive Web Design

Before getting started with this latest trend in web design, though, those new to the concept should learn more about responsive design, how it works and why it's right for virtually all of today's websites.

So, What is Responsive Design?

It's important to note that many designers, for the past several years, have been locked in a heated debate about the merits of responsive design versus adaptive design. Responsive design is generally deemed by most industry insiders to have won this battle, but it's worth noting exactly why that's the case. In the battle between responsive and adaptive design styles, there is one clear difference: Responsive designs respond to the user's resolution using a single design, while adaptive designs have multiple fixed-width designs that are displayed based on a user's screen resolution.

This means that designing an adaptive website essentially means working with multiple designs that are issued based on whether a visitor is using a smartphone, tablet, or desktop computer. Responsive designs, meanwhile merely scale down an existing design by making it skinnier, eliminating columns, and resizing images and text. This single design makes the website more efficient and consistent, and dramatically improves usability for visitors on all kinds of devices.

Because of its relative simplicity and ease of use, responsive design has become the top way to turn an existing desktop-only website into one that can meet the demands of today's smallest devices. There is simply no reason to continue creating multiple fixed-width layouts when a responsive one can be deployed instead.

How it Works: Get Familiar with Frameworks, Breaking Points, and Columns

Responsive design is pretty simple when it's invoked by end users, but it's actually quite a bit more complex than standard web designs for those who are creating and managing the implementation of a responsive website. Indeed, responsive designs require a backend framework that helps them assess a visitor's screen resolution and adjust the width and content of the site accordingly. To get this done, frameworks have been developed by independent designers and major companies like Twitter. Each one comes with a number of built-in design elements and breaking points, as well as unique JavaScript and jQuery, that helps them fit in with different websites and environments.

When one of these frameworks is employed, a website is essentially designed to fit into that framework's type of design. Most of these frameworks come with a number of "columns," usually between six and eight, which are used to scale the page. When the jQuery finds a very small device, it will eliminate these columns until the content can fit into the viewport without scrolling horizontally at all. This may cause the sidebar to be placed underneath the main content of the site on mobile devices, creating a single-column layout. For tablets, the sidebar may be slightly resized to a smaller width while the content is slightly enlarged for greater readability.

Frameworks are an important part of the process, and picking the right one can actually determine the course of a design and how flexible it is in daily use. Advanced designers have often opted to create their own backend system from scratch, but many others have opted for Twitter Bootstrap, Base, Foundation, or Skeleton. Each has its pros and cons, so be sure to read the features, specifications, and restrictions, of each responsive framework before choosing it to power a new website design.

Breaking Points: The Pixel Width that Can Change a Website

Frameworks employ columns that are subject to "breaking points." Simply put, breaking points are pixel limitations for each design size permitted in a framework. If the screen is sized less than 1,000 pixels wide, for instance, the framework may slightly narrow down the sidebar. If the screen's pixels number less than 500 wide, the design may be shifted into a single-column mode for smartphone users.

The great thing about responsive design is that authors can actually determine which breaking points they will accommodate with their finished product. Some websites choose a very large number of breaking points to accommodate for large desktop displays, slightly smaller laptops, and the landscape or portrait orientations of both tablets and smartphones. That's quite a lot of work, though it is also the best way to make sure that a website appears impeccable across every kind of device in common use.

When creating a responsive web design, it's important to know how many breaking points will be accommodated. This should be determined long before a single element is placed into the design, as changing the number of breaking points midway through the process can be time consuming and tedious. Some designs have as few as three, while others have upwards of six. Decide which resolutions need to be accommodated, and then get to the hard work of designing for them.

Plenty of Templates to Examine for a Demonstration of Responsive Design

For those web designers who are still unsure about the complexity of responsive design styles, it's worth noting that many companies actually create basic responsive templates that show off how to create just such a design. From content management systems like WordPress to private template designers, there are plenty of ways to examine the code of a responsive site in order to get a handle on how these sites should be designed and implemented.

For a better understanding of how responsive design can come to life, look no further than basic responsive templates and examples of responsive code. Bring this inspiration into a new design, and it will serve to speed up the development process dramatically.

A Natural Fit for Websites of All Kinds in the 21st Century

Opting for responsive design isn't merely about embracing one of the newest trends in the web design industry. That would certainly be a good reason to get started with it, but the benefits of responsive web design go well beyond its trendy nature. Indeed, websites that "go responsive" are likely to reach a far wider audience than those that force a traditional, desktop-oriented design to scale down for smaller screens.

Users are increasingly visiting their favorite websites via their mobile devices, and they won't be likely to visit those sites that don't explicitly accommodate their unique needs. If a site is slow to operate on a tablet or smartphone because it has not been designed in a responsive way, that sends a message that the site is low-quality, doesn't take its mobile users seriously, and should be avoided whenever a visitor is away from their regular computer. It's bad for visits, conversions, sales, and virtually every other metric by which a website is judged.

One thing that is also worth noting is that desktop and laptop sales have largely come to a standstill in many regions of the world, even as tablet sales experience exponential increases each quarter. Many users are shifting their browsing habits to tablet devices, and some are even opting to use tablets exclusively. To completely write off this segment of the marketplace is a bad idea for websites that range from online storefronts to engaging blogs. Responsive designs make sure that such an error will not be committed.

A Great Way to Embrace Dramatic Change Online

For the best chance at success in an increasingly mobile world, responsive design is a no-brainer. It's easy to learn, seamless to implement, and it's a perfect solution for an online world that has an increasingly diverse number of screen resolutions and connected devices.

Written 2013-01-31 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)webhostingsearch.com.

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