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Responsive web design turns ten.

May 27th, 2020

Ethan on the thinking and research that inspired the term:

Around that time, my partner Elizabeth visited the High Line in New York City shortly after it opened. When she got back, she told me about these wheeled lounge chairs she saw in one section, and how people would move them apart for a bit of solitude, or push a few chairs together to sit closer to friends. We got to excitedly chatting about them. I thought there was something really compelling about that image: a space that could be controlled, reshaped, and redesigned by the people who moved through it.

I remember spending that evening reading more about those chairs and, from there, about more dynamic forms of architecture. I read about concepts for walls built with tensile materials and embedded sensors, and how those walls could bend and flex as people drew near to them. I read about glass walls that could become opaque at the flip of a switch, or when the movement was detected. I even bought a rather wonderful book on the subject, Interactive Architecture, which described these new spaces as “a conversation” between physical objects or spaces, and the people who interacted with them.

After a few days of research, I found some articles that alternated between two different terms for the same concept. They’d call it interactive architecture, sure, but then they’d refer to it with a different name: responsive architecture.

Fascinating.

Responsive web design is so locked in now a decade later it’s just an assumption. I would have called it an assumption in half that time. My answer in an interview…

Is responsive something that you have to sell in any more or does everyone get it now?

I think that responsive design was an assumption in 2015. Even then, if you delivered a website to a client that was just a zoomed out “desktop” website they would assume it’s broken and that you didn’t really do your job. Today, even more so. It’s just not done.

The technical side of responsive design is fascinating to me of course. Even Google has guides on the subject and highly encourages this approach. But the core technical implementation isn’t particularly complex. Stay fluid; use some @media queries to restyle things as needed.

The bigger deal in the last decade was the impact on businesses. Adjusting workflows to accommodate this style of thinking. Combining teams of developers who used to work on entirely different codebases now working on a single codebase. The impact at organizations wasn’t nearly as straightforward as the technology of it all.

There is a resonance between that and more recent shifts in the world of building websites, like the astounding rise of design systems and, even more so, the Coup d’état of JavaScript.