The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

The difference between a Trend and a Shift

– June 20th, 2011 –

Back in 2003, when I first got wind of Web Standards, I was working at the BBC in Cardiff. I read Jeffrey’s book and followed the excited writings of Doug, Dan and Dave. The web was electric with promise of a new direction. And all the while, I was working with some developers who questioned my excitement with new Web Standards pathway that was being laid before my eyes:

Why do you want to do that?
Table are better, because Tables WORK!
We can’t change, this is the better way because we can be sure the website will behave in the same way on all browsers.
CSS isn’t for layout, it’s for changing the colour of things.
Web Standards is a trend.

And so it went. Week after week. Month after month. Until some big sites were launched that made people sit up and take notice. The Wired redesign, EPSN and the PGA site. yes, all the while, there were the naysays. The people who refused to accept that Web Standards was an acceptable way forward and, overall, a Good Thing. This is happening today with Responsive Web Design. Although, we’re seeing it at a faster rate and, as a result, there’s a lot of nuances that are perhaps not being addressed in the advocacy of this approach.

Let’s start at the beginning…

Last year, Ethan wrote an important piece on A List Apart called Responsive Web Design. It detailed the combination of a few techniques he’d previously written about under one ‘approach’. Then, in Seattle in March of last year at An Event Apart, that approach was combined in a ‘Perfect Storm’ of presentations from most of the speakers; a collective understanding that we need to move things along in a particular direction.

A few people have been advocating this approach over the past eighteen months, myself included. To me, Responsive Web Design is a set of techniques that serve to solve a bigger problem that I’ve been exploring for two years: Content Out not Canvas In. I’m excited about Responsive Web Design as an approach, as it helps me frame some of my thinking into practical implementation. Flexible grids, images and media queries give me some of the tools to let me create what’s inside my head. But, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, or for every project.

Let’s skip back to today…

This morning I got wind of a blog post from Luke Jones about his frustrations with the implementation of the collection of Responsive Web Design techniques. I share some of his frustration. But, just like with Web Standards before it, we need to go through this period of discovery. Pushing boundaries and breaking them is a vital piece of the design puzzle and we’re very lucky, in this industry, to be able to do this type of experimentation (you know, without anyone dying or anything). However, the interesting part of this post is the ensuing comment discussion (95 and counting at publication of this post). it’s clear to see that there is an awful lot of confused designers out there trying to work out if this thing is valuable and should we use it. Let me just cherry pick a couple of comments:

That’s the thing, I’m not saying it looks bad I’m just saying what’s the point? I haven’t seen a valid reason for changes in browser widths affected how a website is displayed. Luke Jones
“That it changes at all is a red mark against usability, the user loads the page, the expectation as to the structure of that page is set. ” Stuart Frisby
Users (me especially) do not want to see a site change when resizing the browser.Luke Jones

This final comment from Luke actually encapsulates the problems:

I think that’s exactly it: there is overkill and inappropriate usage going on with the new technique. I honestly think the only people who notice a lot of the responsiveness are people like us, which makes it a waste of time.

I agree with this. But, that’s ok. Responsive Web Design is REALLY NEW and NOBODY knows how to do it properly/right/appropriately yet! We’re all just experimenting. And THAT’S FINE!

If the approach is deemed to be appropriate, then there is no reason why it can’t be done. If people do it on their own blogs, because they want to experiment, then that’s fine. It really is.

We’re all just trying to work this out.

Like it or not, web design is maturing to a state of recognising the importance of content, presenting that content in different contexts that are appropriate for the users of those websites and applications. We’re also challenging web design practice that has been around for 15 years or so, and graphic and typographic design practice that has been around for close to a 1000 years!

This will continue to hurt. And when Responsive Web Design matures, something else will come along that will challenge us again. And that’s how we grow. That’s how we move this thing forward.

Just as Web Standards was a shift in how we create websites, Responsive Web Design is part of another shift. It may be a little trendy at the moment, as people grapple with how to use it, but quickly – together with other things like Content Strategy, and the One Web, and Mobile First etc. - it will become another tool in this shift to a better, ‘Content Out’ web.

Filed in: css, design.

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