The Complete Guide to Responsive Web Design
Responsive web design adjusts to the size and capabilities of every device or browser it’s viewed on, thereby guaranteeing that visitors always see the best possible version of your site. With so many devices, browsers, and resolutions available on the market today, creating a responsive website is now essential for crafting a successful user experience.
If you’re a designer or a web creator about to embark on a new responsive project, you’ll probably need to adjust to thinking in relative sizes and proportions rather than envisioning one fixed and final layout. By applying responsive design to your site, a single layout will fit different browsers and resolutions.
Web design has changed a lot over the years. In the beginning, the primary goal of web design was to create a smooth browsing experience for desktop users—it was the only way people accessed the internet, after all. But since then, the mobile revolution has drastically changed the way we design for the web.
When designers build a new website today, they need to make sure it looks great, functions well, and communicates the right message across all sorts of browsers and devices. It’s pretty much guaranteed those website design clients will ask for a mobile version of their site. Responsive web design principles, tools, and templates make it possible.
What is responsive web design?
Responsive web design is an approach to how to design a website that makes it possible to render web pages on various screen sizes. This is an example of user interface plasticity—the capacity of an interface to be fluid and present itself in an ideal arrangement based on the available screen space.
But a responsive design is more than just a technical approach, it’s the backbone of good user experience. Instead of thinking about screen size and resolutions as design constraints, think of your content as fluid, giving users complete control of how they want to view it.
Responsive design requires a combination of a fluid grid, flexible images, and media queries, which work together to reformat web pages according to user preferences and provide the best possible web experience.
A grid is a two-dimensional structure of intersecting lines that lets you arrange content in columns and rows. In a fluid grid, each element of a grid is expressed as a proportion relative to its container, so it resizes depending on the size of the container it sits within. That means the exact number of columns in a grid can vary depending on the size of a user’s viewport (the visible area on the user’s device where content can be seen). For example, you can display a three-column layout on desktop and a one-column layout on mobile.
Media queries are filters applied to CSS that respond to the type of device, screen type, displaying browser or even device orientation. The purpose of a media query is to allow for different layouts using the same content blocks, each one optimized for the size or features of the device in question. A media query will design follow a rule based on minimum and/or maximum width parameters, alongside other factors such as resolution, browser, and orientation.
Images should be created in relative units called “effective pixels” (epx) to express layout dimensions and spacing, something that is more akin to “perceived size.” Elements should be designed with a base unit of 4 epx to ensure the design always scales to a whole number when the fluid grid is applied.
How to make a responsive website
- 1. Get started with wireframes
- 2. Define your breakpoints
- 3. Design for small screens first
- 4. Create a fluid grid
- 5. Optimize images for responsive design
- 6. Optimize typography for responsive design
Responsive vs Adaptive Web Design
The proliferation of smartphones in the aughts prompted the web design community to think about how to display content on various display sizes and resolutions, without sacrificing usability or performance.
A second, more tailor-made approach emerged in addition to responsive design: adaptive design. With adaptive design, coined a year earlier in a book by web designer Aaron Gustafson, designers create a layout for each breakpoint (typically 320px, 480px, 760px, 960px, 1200px, and 1600px). The design adapts to different sizes of a viewport using media queries to define what properties will be changed for small and large screens. So each web page has multiple versions of fixed layouts fit for different screen sizes.
When we compare responsive vs adaptive design, responsive is often a more effective approach for advanced designers. It takes less work to implement and maintain the design, since you don’t need to create multiple versions of layouts. With responsive design, the content of the page arranges itself optimally for each browser window. Responsive web design is also better for search engine optimization since it saves resources when Googlebot crawls your site. A single Googlebot user agent only needs to crawl your page once, rather than crawling multiple times to retrieve multiple versions of your design.
Responsive use of typography
People visit websites for content, and written text represents the vast majority of this. That means that it’s essential for text to be legible at any viewport size. So when it comes to responsive type, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Mobile-first vs. responsive design
The role that mobile devices play in our daily lives has changed drastically in the last decade. In fact, 56% of all website traffic comes from smartphones. Optimization for mobile design is a crucial part of the web design process— because a website that’s not optimized for mobile devices is losing out on approximately half of its traffic.
Making a responsive website doesn’t imply it is mobile first, and there are several differences when it comes to mobile first vs. Responsive design. Mobile-first design is an approach that suggests designers create a layout that works well at the smallest breakpoint, before adjusting it for larger viewports.
Differences between mobile and desktop design:
- Size of display. On mobile, you have less room for your content, and need to carefully prioritize what you want to display
- Interaction methods. Since users interact with content using their fingers on mobile devices, animation like hover effects won’t work well.
- Context of use. People can interact with content on the go (e.g., while waiting for a train), so mobile sites should be designed for shorter user sessions and a smaller attention span.
Benefits of using the mobile-first approach:
- Makes responsive design easier. It will help you prioritize content and features, and remove everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. As a result, you will likely reduce the user’s cognitive load on mobile and any other platforms you design for.
- Good for search engine optimization. Google evaluates website’s rankings mostly based on the content of their mobile versions. Google might not judge a page as mobile-friendly if it requires extra interaction from mobile users, such as scaling content up to make it readable. You can take the Mobile-Friendly Test from Google to check your site’s design.
How to design a responsive website with a mobile first strategy:
- Practice arranging content-first
- Design for comfortable interactions
- Use clear visual indicators
- Adapt navigation for mobile
5 responsive web design examples: