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Posted by Amit Chail on March 7, 2013

Lately, you may have heard the catchphrase: ‘Responsive Web Design’ (RWD). (We’ve actually written about it before as well). So just what does this term mean and what does it mean for your website?

It seems over 27 million have also written about RWD.

The term itself has been making the rounds for a while as a slick buzzword that conjures thoughts of a hip, trendy, exciting new look for websites. While on some levels, RWD may currently be hip, trendy, and exciting; the driving concept behind the school of thought is hardly new.

All the way back in the year 2000 (I realize that wasn’t actually very long ago, but in Internet terms it might as well be dated in line with the Industrial Revolution), web development standards master John Allsopp wrote an ever-relevant essay titled “A Dao of Web Design”. In just shy of 4000 words, Allsoppmakes an inspiring and immensely convincing case for the need to design and develop for the web as a changing medium, without fixed limitations seen in print and more dated web design:

“The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility.”

That’s right, nearly 13 years ago there was already a major school of thought urging web designers and developers to toss out print design carry-overs and limitations and work with the web as it’s own ever-changing beast.

Slides from ‘Web Design Concepts for Non Web Designers’ presentation from The Chopping Block, inc.

This whole concept is tied up beautifully in Allsopp’s final line:

“The journey begins by letting go of control, and becoming flexible.”

What exactly does this mean for everyone? I’m willing to assume that not everybody reading this blog is a developer, designer, or even project manager. Maybe you’re in marketing, maybe your gig deals with handling the budgets – maybe you just run a company and want to keep relevant online (and, heck, why wouldn’t you?). If your life involves a web presence on any level, at any point, for any reason – especially if you have been through the development process before – you need to rethink the status quo approach to creating a website.

We see in the news regularly that sales of traditional web accessing methods are falling while alternative (phones, tablets, and beyond) web access is climbing by the day and leaving more and more companies behind. Meanwhile, reactionary backlash gets around that RWD is over-priced and not worth the effort. Under-informed and heated arguments against progress and the inevitable future are never sustainable and rarely stand the test of time.

Cartoon from Business Week article on Office Luddites.

Responsive Web Design is about much more than a trendy term and a nifty trick that you see on screen. RWD is not a quick fix tacked onto the end of an already-lengthy web development project. That is how you quickly run into bloated and out-of-control budgets that turn people off of the concept altogether.

Responsive Web Design, as a phrase, contains the word ‘design’ for a very good reason. You need to be thinking about RWD from the very beginning. Single, static wireframes for an ‘average’ monitor size are obsolete. To draw a comparison, this is similar to deciding, based on stats and numbers (which are – or were – no doubt accurate by some measure, but do not come close to telling the whole story), that the average men’s pant size is 34 and designing only for that. By that logic, anyone larger or smaller is out of luck. To extend this example, tacking RWD onto the end of the development process is the equivalent of handing a slimmer man a belt and a huskier fellow a pair of scissors and expecting that to be sufficient.

Now, do you see where this spells trouble for the entire process? Thinking responsively means thinking about the best user experience – for every user, on every platform – at every level of discovery, concept, design, and development. Let this inform all of your content and design decisions along the way and you will surely end up with a more enjoyable, more accessible, and more profitable web project in the end. You will also end up with a much more well-rounded, concise and accurate level of content throughout your site.

True Responsive Web Design means things change. It means that our development process is due for change, that our implementation must change, and that our audience has most definitely changed. Beyond any hype or misinterpretations, RWD, at its core, means embracing and working with change. The web is not static – it has changed so drastically in such a short period and will continue to evolve from here. RWD is a design philosophy that is actually on par with the medium we’re designing for and is equipped to deal with where the web is going.

What Allsopp was getting at in his “A Dao of Web Design” essay is about so much more than just design trends and new tricks to show off (in fact, it isn’t about either of those at all).  By his measure, “letting go of control” was more about the entire process and less about the final surface result. Embracing change is, in essence, “becoming flexible”.

For more information on Responsive Web Design, please check out the following resources:

Interested in pursuing your own RWD project? Drop us a line and we’ll get started right away.