My Life As A Web Designer, Part Four: Oh Good, A New Acronym (RWD)
When we left off our story, lo these many weeks ago, all was well with the web design world. Standards were taking hold, CSS was making it easier to separate design and content, and even Microsoft had decided to play by the rules (thanks partly to Europe actually cracking down on their monopoly, as opposed to the U.S. just pretending to). The 2000s were moving along smoothly with nothing to stop web designers from hand coding their sites with beautiful, clean code and just as beautiful sites.
The iPhone Kills Web Design Paradise
And then Steve Jobs ruined everything. That’s right, I’m looking at you, iPhone. OK, not that there’s anything specifically wrong with the iPhone, or that we saw it at the time. The problem was with what the iPhone did: it made people want to browse the web on a tiny screen.
And before you start screening at me, I know some people were already doing that. The term Crackberry was invented for a reason, and people were trying to use those even tinier screen to browse the web occasionally, and the experience was almost universally horrible. At that point web designers had two choices: ignore the relatively small number of people trying to browse the web that way; or try and use browser sniffing to figure out what type of screen people were using and serve them up appropriate versions of the web site for the screen (thus necessitating more work, of course, to create those alternative sites). If you ever got on a web site using a mobile device and noticed that it started with m. instead of www., that’s what happened, and that was the normal way dealing with people using their phones to browse the web in those days.
But the iPhone changed all that. When it was introduced in 2007 suddenly millions of people were surfing the web on a screen smaller than any desktop or laptop monitor. And while the new breed of smartphone had the ability to zoom in on appropriate parts of the page to make reading easier, the experience was still far from optimal. And so web designers were still left with their less than optimal options of two separate sites, or leaving the quickly growing population of phone web surfers out in the cold.
HTML5 & CSS3 Save the Day
We Need a Hero
And we got one in Ethan Marcotte, whose 2010 A List Apart article Responsive Web Design is now a seminal article in the web design field and required reading for anyone setting out to become a web designer. In it Marcotte set out a number of tools and techniques for designing our websites to look good on any screen using the latest standards. The basics are the use of fluid grids, flexible images and media queries that allow our designs to flow properly whatever the device or orientation. While it does involve more work for the designer up front, we generally want our sites to look good and work right no matter what device people are using. Responsive Web Design (RWD) is now generally considered the proper way to design websites for today’s web, although there are some debates on the proper way to go about doing it.
I Need a New Brain
This is all well and good, but I’ve been doing this work for almost twenty years now, and learning yet another new way to design web pages is getting to be a little much. Nonetheless, as I said above, we web designers want our sites to look good everywhere. As one who’s lived and worked through the evolution of the web from it’s early days, I’ve had to relearn making websites several times, and each has generally been an improvement over the last.
I’d like to think responsive web design is the end; these techniques future proof the sites we’re working on now and will be appropriate for whatever changes may take place in the future. But I’m no spring chicken, and I know how unlikely that is. Still, I suspect I won’t be designing websites when whatever new rules, tools and techniques arise that force us to once again change how we do what we do.
On the other hand, I’ve said that before, at least twice. I’m getting used to being wrong.