There Is No Such Thing as Responsive Web Design

A Brief and Basic History of the Internet

At the dawn of the internet, there was only text. The system was a revelation. You could transmit content over long distances almost instantly, but, constrained by bandwidth, that content could only be text. As with all technology, constraints exist to be overcome. I distinctly remember the first time I saw images in a web browser (OmniWeb on a NeXT machine in college) and getting goosebumps. “Whoa,” I thought, “this is gonna get interesting.” And, boy, did it ever. From streaming music to video over the next years, the internet as we knew it was continually expanding – not only in reach, but in potential.

One basic constraint that lasted years was the uniformity of devices we used to consume the internet: computers. The largest difference tended to be PC vs Mac, but, in terms of web browsing, they still had pretty similar desktop and screen resolutions. This led to a uniformity in web page designs. Pre-CSS layouts were still limited in terms of ability to place text and images. If you went to a site that looked odd, chances were it was designed to be odd or the developer made some mistakes somewhere. Regardless, there was never an expectation that a website would/should/could look exactly the same on any two different computers.

Then came smartphones. With extremely limited technology, the screens were initially very small and monochromatic, and people generally accepted a lesser experience in exchange for mobility. However, as phones continually iterated over the years, they offered better browsing experiences. That’s when designers and developers started to get nervous. Up until that point, one version of a website was sufficient, but they were hearing clients ask more and more for a mobile browsing experience. That generally meant creating and maintaining two completely separate versions of a site: the regular (desktop) version and an often stripped-down mobile version.

That phase thankfully died when people realized how ridiculous it was to maintain two separate versions of any site. Something had to change and Responsive Web Design came about to give us all a guiding light forward. There are similar ideas out there like Mobile-First and Progressive Enhancement, but they all come back to one idea: Just build one site and make it respond to whatever device the audience uses. It was a revolutionary idea that came with a fair bit of learning for designers and developers to make work right.

Where Are We Now?

Let’s fast-forward to today. We, like many other agencies, have been crafting responsive websites for years. And it seems that most people at least understand the difference between viewports on various devices and expect websites to work well across them all. Responsive Web Design, as a term and a concept, has served us very well over these years but I think that it is time for us to retire it. Instead, we should just call it Web Design because, at this point, that’s the expectation.

At this point, Web Design must be Responsive, so let’s start treating it that way. Anyone who doesn’t design for multiple viewports is not a real web designer because they are ignoring the everyday, fundamental experience of the internet. We all have computers in our pockets now. It’s personal, and we have to keep up.

Incorporation and navigation of constraints is the engine of the design process. Our nomenclature must reflect how our work changes.

Patrick last wrote a starter piece for those interested in learning front-end web development.
This logistics start-up hired us for a new name and identity. The results went beyond their expectations.