Responsive Design. I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

ON 25 MAY 2010, when Ethan Marcotte coined the phrase “responsive web design,” he defined it as using fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries to deliver elegant visual experiences (e.g. layouts and type treatments) that accommodate the reality of our post-iPhone, post-Android, post-iPad digital landscape:

Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them.

Ethan expanded his vision in Responsive Web Design, a book I consider so important I published it. I and many others think it is a landmark book, an evolutionary milestone in the development of web and interaction design as a practice and as an industry.

But I also think it may be an even bigger idea than we initially realized—an idea too big to be limited to a single, technical approach to the problem of multiple, disparate viewing environments.

I understand well why Ethan favors his fluid grid/flexible image approach. When you see a fully responsive design at work, it often seems magical.

But the purpose behind “responsive design”—the concept of what it strives to achieve—should be separated from the specific techniques used to achieve it. As the worldwide community embraces his idea (and as new methods of CSS layout become practical), the techniques of responsive design will continue to improve and, dare I say it, adapt. (See flexbox, etc.) Along the same lines, “adaptive layout,” a practice that combines the benefits of fixed-width design with the realities of multiple screen sizes, is no longer an alternative to responsive design; instead, it becomes a form of responsive design, albeit a less robust one than the fully responsive (fluid) method Ethan describes in his book.

Our understanding of “responsive design” should be broadened to cover any approach that delivers elegant visual experiences regardless of the size of the user’s display and the limitations or capabilities of the device.

An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

HTML5, CSS3, UX, Design: Links from An Event Apart Boston 2011

Meeting of the Minds: Ethan Marcotte and AEA attendee discuss the wonders of CSS3. Photo by the incomparable Jim Heid.

Meeting of the Minds: Ethan Marcotte and AEA attendee discuss the wonders of CSS3. Photo by the incomparable Jim Heid.

THE SHOW IS OVER, but the memories, write-ups, demos, and links remain. Enjoy!

An Event Apart Boston 2011 group photo pool

Speakers, attendees, parties, and the wonders of Boston, captured by those who were there.

What Every Designer Should Know (a)

Jeremy Keith quite effectively live-blogs my opening keynote on the particular opportunities of Now in the field of web design, and the skills every designer needs to capitalize on the moment and make great things.

The Password Anti-Pattern

Related to my talk: Jeremy Keith’s original write-up on a notorious but all-too-common practice. If your boss or client tells you to design this pattern, just say no. Design that does not serve users does not serve business.

What Every Designer Should Know (b)

“In his opening keynote … Jeffrey Zeldman talked about the skills and opportunities that should be top of mind for everyone designing on the Web today.” Luke Wroblewski’s write-up.

Whitney Hess: Design Principles — The Philosophy of UX

“As a consultant, [Whitney] spends a lot of time talking about UX and inevitably, the talk turns to deliverables and process but really we should be establishing a philosophy about how to treat people, in the same way that visual design is about establishing a philosophy about how make an impact. Visual design has principles to achieve that: contrast, emphasis, balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, texture, harmony and unity.” In this talk, Whitney proposed a set of 10 principles for UX design.

Veerle Pieters: The Experimental Zone

Live blogging by Jeremy Keith. Veerle, a noted graphic and interaction designer from Belgium, shared her process for discovering design through iteration and experimentation.

Luke Wroblewski: Mobile Web Design Moves

Luke’s live awesomeness cannot be captured in dead written words, but Mr Keith does a splendid job of quickly sketching many of the leading ideas in this key AEA 2011 talk.

See also: funky dance moves with Luke Wroblewski, a very short video I captured as Luke led the crowd in the opening moves of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Ethan Marcotte: The Responsive Designer’s Workflow (a)

“The next talk here at An Event Apart in Boston is one I’ve really, really, really been looking forward to: it’s a presentation by my hero Ethan Marcotte.”

Ethan Marcotte: The Responsive Designer’s Workflow (b)

Ethan’s amazing talk—a key aspect of design in 2011 and AEA session of note—as captured by the great Luke Wroblewski.

An Event Apart: The Secret Lives of Links—Jared Spool

“In his presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jared Spool detailed the importance and role of links on Web pages.” No writer can capture Jared Spool’s engaging personality or the quips that produce raucous laughter throughout his sessions, but Luke does an outstanding job of noting the primary ideas Jared shares in this riveting and highly useful UX session.

An Event Apart: All Our Yesterdays—Jeremy Keith

Luke W: “In his All Our Yesterdays presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jeremy Keith outlined the problem of digital preservation on the Web and provided some strategies for taking a long term view of our Web pages.”

Although it is hard to pick highlights among such great speakers and topics, this talk was a highlight for me. As in, it blew my mind. Several people said it should be a TED talk.

An Event Apart: From Idea to Interface—Aarron Walter

Luke: “In his Idea to Interface presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Aarron Walter encouraged Web designers and developers to tackle their personal projects by walking through examples and ways to jump in. Here are my notes from his talk.”

Links and Resources from “From Idea to Interface”

Compiled by the speaker, links include Design Personas Template and Example, the story behind the illustrations in the presentation created by Mike Rhode, Dribble, Huffduffer, Sketchboards, Mustache for inserting data into your prototypes, Keynote Kung Fu, Mocking Bird, Yahoo Design Patterns, MailChimp Design Pattern Library, Object Oriented CSS by Nicole Sullivan and more!

An Event Apart: CSS3 Animations—Andy Clarke

“In his Smoke Gets In Your Eyes presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Andy Clarke showcased what is possible with CSS3 animations using transitions and transforms in the WebKit browser.” Write-up by the legendary Luke Wroblewski.

Madmanimation

The “Mad Men” opening titles re-created entirely in CSS3 animation. (Currently requires Webkit browser, e.g. Safari, Chrome.)

CSS3 Animation List

Anthony Calzadilla, a key collaborator on the Mad Men CSS3 animation, showcases his works.

Box Shadow Curl

Pure CSS3 box-shadow page curl effect. Mentioned during Ethan Marcotte’s Day 3 session on exploring CSS3.

Multiple CSS Transition Durations

Fascinating article by Anton Peck (who attended the show). Proposed: a solution to a key problem with CSS transitions. (“Even now, my main issue with transitions is that they use the same time-length value for the inbound effect as they do the outbound. For example, when you create a transition on an image with a 1-second duration, you get that length of time for both mousing over, and mousing away from the object. This type of behavior should be avoided, for the sake of the end-user!”)

Everything You Wanted to Know About CSS3 Gradients

Ethan Marcotte: “Hello. I am here to discuss CSS3 gradients. Because, let’s face it, what the web really needed was more gradients.”

Ultimate CSS3 Gradient Generator

Like it says.

Linear Gradients Generator

By the incomparable John Allsopp.

These sessions were not captured

Some of our best talks were not captured by note-takers, at least not to my knowledge. They include:

  1. Eric Meyer: CSS Anarchist’s Cookbook
  2. Mark Boulton: Outing the Mind: Designing Layouts That Think for You
  3. Jeff Veen: Disaster, DNA, and the Fathomless Depth of the Web

It’s possible that the special nature of these presentations made them impossible to capture in session notes. (You had to be there.)

There are also no notes on the two half-day workshop sessions, “Understand HTML5 With Jeremy Keith,” and “Explore CSS3 With Ethan Marcotte.”

What have I missed?

Attendees and followers, below please add the URLs of related educational links, write-ups, and tools I’ve missed here. Thanks!

“Mobile” versus “Small Screen”

As we try to become more responsive with our designs, a lot of attention has been focused on providing “mobile” styles. We’ve all been adding viewport meta tags to our templates and @media screen and (max-device-width: 480px) to our stylesheets.

It’s very tempting (and scope-friendly) to tell a client that we can adjust their site for mobile users, when much of the time what we’re actually doing is simply adjusting a design for small screens.

…Simply adjusting a design for a smaller screen and calling it “mobile” does a disservice to both mobile users and developers. Making link targets bigger and image sizes smaller does help the mobile user, but it only addresses the surface issues of usability and readability. It doesn’t address their need to do things easily and quickly.

via It’s the Little Things – “Mobile” versus “Small Screen”.

Mobile v Small Screen, Edible City beta, HTML5 Reset, Science Blogs, Monkey Do

Big Web Show Episode 45

BABY GOT FRONT-END! Tim Murtaugh, Dan Benjamin and I discuss “mobile” versus “small screen,” HTML5 and HTML5 Reset, Science Blogs, the Edible City beta, and more. The Big Web Show #45: Tim Murtaugh.

Webvanta Video: Jeffrey Zeldman on the State of Web Design

From the floor of An Event Apart Seattle 2011:

Jeffrey Zeldman at An Event Apart Seattle 2011.

“Mobile is huge. The iPhone, iPad, and Android are huge. On the one hand, they are standards-facing, because they all support HTML5 and CSS3, so you can create great mobile experiences using web standards. You can create apps using web standards. On the other hand, there is also the temptation to go a proprietary route. In a strange way, although the browsers are much more standards compliant, it seems like we are redoing the browser war. Only now, it’s not the browser wars, it’s platform wars.”

Video interview, plus transcript: Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman on the State of Web Design. Thank you, Michael Slater.

An Event Apart Seattle 2011

I’m enjoying An Event Apart Seattle 2011 and you’re not. Despair not, help is available:

Web Forms for Kids; SVG for Everybody

In Issue No. 323 of A List Apart for people who make websites, learn to love (and make cool stuff with) SVG and design web registration forms for kids.

Cross Platform Scalable Vector Graphics with svgweb

by Jim Ray

Pity Scalable Vector Graphics. It’s been an official standard since before IE6 was released yet has never found much of an audience on the web, certainly not the one it deserves. Just as SVG was starting to establish some browser support, along came the canvas tag, stealing the thunder of dynamically generated client-side images. Yet despite all the attention being paid to canvas, there’s still a place for SVG, particularly for developers looking to replace plug-ins like Flash for data visualization. Unlike canvas or other script-only approaches, SVG can be easily divided into design and code elements, with just a little code to add interactivity. It even works on devices like the iPad and iPhone. And now, thanks to svgweb and a clever use of Flash, it works on older platforms no one could have ever imagined supporting SVG. Jim Ray shows how.

Designing Web Registration Forms for Kids

by Debra Levin Gelman

Designing websites for kids is a fascinating, challenging, rewarding, and exasperating experience: you’re trying to create a digital experience for people who lack the cognitive capacity to understand abstraction; to establish brand loyalty with people who are influenced almost exclusively by their peers; and to communicate subjective value propositions to people who can only see things in black-and-white. Fortunately, it’s possible to create a successful registration process for these folks with an understanding of how their brains work. Debra Levin Gelman explores how to design effective registration forms for kids based on their context, technical skills, and cognitive capabilities.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart.