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photo showing how responsive design works on a monitor, laptop, and various mobile devices

An Introduction to Responsive Web Design

February 11, 2013 - Design, Mobile, VMBC, Web - , , ,

Over the past couple years, we’ve been experimenting with a design philosophy called Responsive Web design, and it is something we think holds tremendous potential for our clients moving forward. In a relatively short period of time, it has proven itself to be one of the most powerful web tools to b widely adopted over the past half-decade.

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As you may know, the basic idea behind this approach is that a web site should respond to the screen size on which it’s being presented and automatically change itself – in terms of content organization, design, font sizes, etc. – to enable the best user experience in any given environment.

The result is a single .com URL that presents the ideal content, in the ideal layout, whether it’s being viewed on a desktop monitor, a tablet or a Smartphone screen, in any orientation. (To see this in action, go to www.clearairchallenge.com on both a laptop and a smartphone.)

The immediate advantages of Responsive Web design are obvious: as Smartphone and tablet penetration continues to explode, the sheer number of devices running on different platforms, at different resolutions and in different screen sizes, virtually requires that a marketer make some design trade-offs between deign and customization.

But a single, flexible site design, working equally well on all screens, means no more time- and expense-consuming custom solutions; no more trying to retrofit content from one screen to another; no more worrying how a family of distinct sites is going to play together; and no more endless programming changes whenever you make a single change to your site(s).

However, there are a couple other larger ideas at play here that are equally exciting. First, what responsive Web design is really saying is that your vision for your brand, and the content that drives your brand forward, should be constant. The idea that we need to reinvent the design wheel for each screen size is borne out of limited early-stage technologies that required that effort. Instead, we can begin to embrace individual screen sizes as distinct channels (as opposed to lumping them all together as simply “digital”), and have a conversation about each channel’s messaging role in the larger strategic plan… without starting from scratch each time.

Second, as we’ve watched responsive design mature, what’s become clear is that it is not simply the layout that needs to be responsive, but the larger context in which the information is delivered. This is one area where digital designers can learn from traditional publishers. Look at a newspaper and consider how many templates are actually in use. Now look at a web page (probably your own); I bet that you’ve had a single template, regardless of the content presented, for as long as you can remember.

How do you expect visitors to understand what is truly important, and when compelling content is being introduced when it all looks the same as the rehashing of an internal press release? Responsive design should allow for multiple contexts and enable customization based on the individual visitor, how they got here and what we know about them. Then the true promise of responsive design will come to life.

The process of creating effective Responsive Web design takes longer than traditional design and development, but it turns out that the process itself is one of the approach’s great advantages. Each piece of content, image, copy, graphic, must be thought through, not simply for how it will be used in one design, but for its overall role and value. In this way, you start to establish rules and priorities: as a screen shrinks and you need to cut to the chase, what exactly is the most critical piece to present? Which visuals are absolutely necessary; which are not? What’s the goal? And what’s the fastest way to get there?

In the end, we really love the thinking behind Responsive Web design because it’s one more step in breaking down the perceived walls between mobile and your broader digital marketing arsenal. It speaks to our belief that mobile is a platform, and is inevitably becoming the predominant platform for brand marketing on digital devices. And any technology that makes it easier for our clients to unify all of their marketing efforts under a clear, single focus is good by us.

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