Evolving Responsive Web Design

In What We Mean When We Say “responsive” and Defining Responsiveness, Lyza Danger Gardner and Jason Grigsby cut to the heart of a disagreement I had three years ago with Ethan Marcotte, the creator of Responsive Web Design and author of Responsive Web Design, a book I published in 2011.

Ethan told the world that Responsive Web Design required, and was defined by, fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries. All three elements had to be present. If they weren’t using all three, you might be doing something interesting, but you were most definitely not doing Responsive Web Design.

Ethan invented all of this. Without him, we would likely be arguing whether it was time to consider 1280 pixels the new default fixed width for all desktop websites, and sending anything that wasn’t a desktop browser to a function- and content-limited “mobile site” whose URL began with the letter m. Ethan is a brilliant, multi-talented innovator; I am but the shadow of a hack. And yet, before he began creating his book, midway through the writing, and even a year after I published it, I continued to urge Ethan to rethink #RWD as “a bigger idea”—a concept rather than a single set of techniques.

I’m no genius. What I meant by “bigger idea” was limited to the notion that we’d one day be able to create responsive layouts with different techniques—so let’s not restrict the concept to a particular execution. I wasn’t thinking about other meanings of responsive, wasn’t considering problems of responsive content, and so on. I’m not that forward-thinking and it was three freaking years ago, come on.

I lost my gentle argument with Ethan, so the industry is having it now. And that’s just as it should be. Everything worked out for the best. Here’s why:

If Ethan hadn’t included three simple executional requirements as part of his definition, the concept might have quickly fallen by the wayside, as previous insights into the fluid nature of the web have done. The simplicity, elegance, and completeness of the package—here’s why, and here’s how—sold the idea to thousands of designers and developers, whose work and advocacy in turn sold it to hundreds of thousands more. This wouldn’t have happened if Ethan had promoted a more amorphous notion. Our world wouldn’t have changed overnight if developers had had too much to think about. Cutting to the heart of things and keeping it simple was as powerful a creative act on Ethan’s part as the “discovery” of #RWD itself.

We’ve only become ready to think about things like “responsible” responsive design, adaptive content, and a standard approach to responsive images now that we have built our share of first-generation responsive sites, and encountered the problems that led to the additional pondering. Baby steps. Brilliant baby steps.

Some commenters want to use initial-capped Responsive Web Design to mean responsive design as Ethan first defined it, and lowercase responsive design to mean an amorphous matrix of exciting and evolving design thinking. Lyza says soon we’ll stop saying Responsive altogether, a conclusion Andy Clarke reached three years ago.

Me, I like that Ethan stuck to his guns, and that the classical definition will always be out there, regardless of how web design evolves thanks to it. Kind of like there’s HTML 5, a defined and scoped W3C specification, and HTML living standard, an evolving activity. Our industry needs roots and wings, and, lucky us, we’ve got ’em both.