A passable but imperfect solution for full-bleed background images on Android and iOS

I’m working on a site right now that has a fixed, full-bleed (i.e. background-size: cover) background image on the <body>. The content flows over it, mostly obscuring it completely, but the background is occasionally revealed in the spaces between content blocks. Some blocks have a semi-transparent background so you can see the fixed background as if through frosted glass.

Here’s the CSS:

body {
  background: rgb(255,255,255) url('../images/ui/body_bg.jpg') center center no-repeat fixed;
  background-size: cover;
}

It’s a cool effect, but it really, really does not want to play nicely on mobile. Various odd things happen on both Android and iOS, and they are completely different.

Quick side note: Yes, the background image is a JPEG. Normally I only use PNG or SVG images in UI elements, but I had good reason to use JPEG here: even though it’s only two colors (with some in-between colors due to antialiasing), the pattern in the background is incredibly complex, and a JPEG version of the file is about 1/5 the size of the PNG. And since it’s an illustration, I tried making an SVG version first, but the pattern is so large that the SVG was about 2 MB! So JPEG it is… which may be a factor in the issue I’m having on Android, but I haven’t tested a PNG version of the image to verify that.

iOS Problems

I’m an iPhone user, so I mainly test responsive sites on iOS. I do own an Android phone (a Motorola Moto E, which I highly recommend as a cheap-but-decent Android phone for testing), but I generally only break it out during the final round of browser testing prior to launching a site.

The issues with background images on iOS are well-known to most web developers. iOS has a number of rather arbitrary seeming limitations imposed upon the Mobile Safari browsing experience, generally for one of three reasons: 1) performance, 2) touch interface usability, 3) the whims of the ghost of Steve Jobs. In the case of background images, background-attachment is not supported. I’m not really sure how this would impact either (1) or (2) — although I think with the early underpowered iPhone generations, it did impact performance — so I think we’re dealing mostly with (3) here. At any rate, because you can’t have an attached background on iOS, I added this in my media queries:

@media screen and (max-width: 782px) {

  body {
    /* For background handling on iOS */
    background-attachment: scroll; background-repeat: repeat;
  }

}

Another quick side note: Why is my phone break point at 782 pixels, you ask? Because that’s where WordPress has its break point for the admin interface. I’m not exactly sure why the WP team chose that number, but why fight it?

Besides the background attachment, there’s also the issue that background-size: cover on a phone is going to make the background image huuuuuuuuuge because it’s scaling it to fit the height of the page content, not the screen size. I initially solved that with background-size: 100%;, since we’re now allowing the background to repeat. As you’ll see, however, that led to problems on Android, so I ended up scrapping it.

Android Problems

Yes, Android has problems. Don’t even get me started! But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I opened the page in Android, and, although the background image was displaying as I expected in terms of size and attachment, it looked… awful. The original source image I am working with is a generous 2400 x 1857 pixels, enough to look reasonably sharp on most displays, even at high resolution. And it looks great on my Mac, great on my iPhone. But on the Android phone it was splotchy and low-res looking… like it had been reduced to 200 pixels and then upscaled (which is maybe what Android is doing, somehow… and here is where I’m wondering if the image being a JPEG is a factor, but that’s just a stab in the dark).

I tried a number of possible solutions, the most obvious being to set exact pixel dimensions for the image. I tried 1200 x 929, basically a “x2” size for high-res devices. Still looked like crap. I even tried setting it to 2400 x 1857, the actual dimensions of the image, and it looked like crap… and I don’t mean pixel-doubled, which is what it actually should be; I mean the same splotchy weirdness I had been seeing at other sizes.

And then I discovered David Chua’s solution:

html {
  /* For background image scaling on Android */
  height:100%; min-height:100%;
}

Yet another quick side note: Here I am not placing this inside a media query. We don’t want to only fix this issue on phone screens. Granted, the iOS solution above needs to work on iPads, too… something I haven’t really solved here. I’m workin’ on it!

This change for Android worked perfectly! By this point I had, temporarily at least, removed the iOS workarounds I mentioned above, so on Android the background image was not only perfectly scaled to the browser window, looking sharp and clean, but it was even fixed-position, just like on desktop!

But… the image was back to being huuuuuuuuuge on iOS. Apparently this html trick for Android does absolutely nothing on iOS, so you’re left trying to find another solution that won’t simultaneously break Android.

An uneasy compromise

It’s not perfect, but I found that if I put both of these tricks together, everything works… the only thing we lose is the fixed-position treatment that Android allows but iOS does not. But the background looks great on both platforms and most importantly, behaves consistently on both.

Here’s the complete code I’m rolling with, for now:

html {
  /* For background image scaling on Android */
  height:100%; min-height:100%;
}

@media screen and (max-width: 782px) {

  body {
    /* For background handling on iOS */
    background-attachment: scroll; background-repeat: repeat;
  }

}

As noted above, this doesn’t really address iPads. A simple solution would be to change the media query to @media screen and (max-width: 1024px), but a) that doesn’t account for the larger iPad Pro and b) it also means a desktop display will lose the proper background effect if the window is smaller than that size. I don’t really have a solution; an adaptive treatment using either server-side or JavaScript-based browser detection would be a consideration, but I don’t really like resorting to that sort of thing for something as basic as this.

It doesn’t help that I recently gave my iPad to my daughter so I don’t currently have a tablet of any kind for testing. That’s about to change as I have a newly ordered Kindle Fire arriving today, but of course that’s not going to give me the answer for an iPad. I can try Responsive Design Mode in desktop Safari, but that’s not always a perfect representation of the quirks of an actual mobile device.

Still… this combined solution for phones is an improvement over the default behavior in both cases.

Some problems just never go away… especially where CSS3 multi-columns are concerned

Note: This post has been updated.

I don’t use CSS3 multi-columns (based around the column-count and column-gap properties) very much, mainly because a) I don’t need columns in my layouts very often and b) usually when I do need columns, this method is inadequately flexible for what I’m trying to accomplish.

Today I have a good use case though. A simple (but long) list of links, that I want to display as 3 columns on wide screens, 2 columns on tablets and a single column on phones. Great, except when I got it working, I found that — in Chrome only, which is a bit odd — the top of the first column is higher than the rest. It looks fine in Safari and Firefox.

I googled, as always, for a solution, and found several suggestions that seemed like they should work, and people claimed they did work, but for me, they didn’t. Then I found this comment on a post on the topic, and decided to try the column-break-inside property, which is something I normally only use in print CSS.

It still didn’t work. But then, vendor prefix to the rescue! I needed the -webkit prefix, and it worked. This needs to be applied to the elements inside your column container, not the container itself. Here’s my full CSS block:

.columns {
  -moz-column-count: 3;
  -webkit-column-count: 3;
  column-count: 3;
  -moz-column-gap: 3em;
  -webkit-column-gap: 3em;
  column-gap: 3em;
}

/* Fix for unbalanced top alignment in Chrome */
.columns > * {
  -webkit-column-break-inside: avoid;
  column-break-inside: avoid;
}

You’ll also want to repeat the .columns section (or its equivalent for your class/element names) in your media queries, changing column-count appropriately where you want to collapse down to fewer columns.

Since other solutions worked for other people, I’m guessing my solution might not work for everyone either. But I hope it helps someone… maybe you!

Update (6/28/2017)

This problem really does never go away. And I’ve just run into a situation where the above fix doesn’t work. This is only affecting Safari — I think Chrome has actually fixed the bug. But some trial and error led to this new solution that fixes the problem in Safari as well.

/* New fix for Safari */
.columns > * {
  display: inline-block;
  width: 100%;
}

I’m still not totally sure why display: inline-block; is the magic bullet for column alignment issues, but it works. Adding width: 100%; is what keeps these inline blocks from actually appearing on the same line, if they’re short enough. (Also note that I removed the column-break-inside stuff… don’t seem to need it with this change.)

Responsive Web Design: A Practical Approach (Part One… Again)

With exactly three posts here all summer, the last being nearly two months ago, it might be reasonable to assume this blog had been abandoned. Wrong! I have simply been so busy, building so many responsive websites, that I haven’t had time to gather my thoughts to share in anything longer than 140-character bursts.

“‘Responsive’ websites?” you say, and I hear the internal quotation marks in your voice. Yes. If you don’t know what responsive web design is… well, let’s be honest. You found this post, if you found it at all, when you googled “responsive web design” so I suspect you have at least a passing familiarity with the term. So let’s get started.

(Actually, before we get started, a quick note: astute observers may… um… observe that I wrote a seemingly identical post to this one back in June. And yes, that’s right. But after a summer immersed in this stuff, rather than continuing from there with “part two” it felt better to start over from the beginning with a more in-depth introduction.)

Getting Started, or, rather: How I Got Started

I’ve owned an iPhone for about 4 1/2 years now, and one of the first things I noticed shortly after it became the hottest thing around was that everyone was suddenly creating mobile websites. There were even services created just to help you convert your website into a mobile website. But it was always a separate experience (usually with a domain name that started with m.) and invariably an inferior one.

A lot of websites still do that, and it still sucks. It’s two separate websites, which is bad for users — often content doesn’t make it to the mobile site, and when that happens there’s no easy way to get to it on the desktop version — and it’s bad for site owners — double (or more) the work.

But about a year ago I started to notice a new approach, one that didn’t require two separate websites, and one that, owing partly to how quickly it caught on with the superstars of web design, usually yielded much better looking results: responsive web design (which I will henceforth lazily refer to as RWD). RWD uses CSS3 media queries to detect the window/screen size the page is displayed on, and changes the layout of the page to suit the screen. On the fly. Same page. Same CSS.

So there is no mobile site, no desktop site. There’s just the site. And it looks great on any screen.

In theory.

Of course, this solution is not perfect. But it is better in so many ways — standards compliant, future-proof, user-friendly, easy to maintain — that it is clearly the optimal solution for mobile websites today.

Getting Started (you, this time)

Before you delve into RWD, there are a couple of things you need to know: 1) HTML5 and 2) CSS3. More specifically, you need to embrace the concept of semantic HTML fully, as a well-structured HTML document is essential to the responsive approach.

I assume if you’re thinking about RWD, you’ve long since abandoned table-based layouts, and you probably don’t even remember the <font> tag existed, right? Right. But for RWD to work well you need full separation of your visual design from your document structure.

My personal preference is to take this to an extreme: I never even use <img> tags except in body content. All visual elements of the layout are contained in my CSS, even logos, and I avoid using images wherever possible. By taking full advantage of the visual effects offered by CSS3, and accepting “graceful degradation” in older browsers (or, in reverse, “progressive enhancement” in newer ones) — a topic we’ll get to in a bit — you can create a lean, well-structured site that is ripe for the responsive treatment.

Building Blocks

Nothing starts from nothing. (Whoa, that’s heavy.) And certainly a responsive website doesn’t (or generally shouldn’t) start from scratch. There are three building blocks that I now include in every site I build out:

reset.css

Created by CSS guru Eric Meyer, reset.css is a handy little file that removes all styling, which can vary between browsers, from all HTML elements, allowing you to “reset” the design and start with a clean slate. Just remember that it means you’re going to have to redefine everything — I guarantee your CSS file will eventually contain strong { font-weight: bold; } and em { font-style: italic; } but that’s the price you pay for complete control.

html5shiv.js

Developed (or at least maintained and expanded upon) by Remy Sharp, the purpose of html5shiv.js is to enable support for new HTML5 elements in older, but still widely used, non-HTML5 browsers like Internet Explorer 8 and earlier. You don’t have to use the new tags like <article> and <nav> to do RWD, but it’s fun, and feels like the future.

jQuery

There are a handful of popular JavaScript libraries out there whose goals are generally to 1) standardize inconsistent JavaScript across browsers, and 2) make working with the DOM easier, so you can do cool, standards-compliant, cross-browser compatible animations and interactivity with just a line or two of code. jQuery is arguably the most popular of these, and is my personal favorite. Again, this is not strictly required for RWD, but I use it all the time, and often in ways that enhance the capabilities of my responsive layouts. (One specific example: it’s great as a foundation for resizing complex elements like slideshows… of course, for that matter, it’s great for making the slideshows in the first place.)

Finding Your Break(ing) Point(s)

The grand vision of pure RWD is a fully fluid layout that scales dynamically to any screen size, and a grand vision it is indeed. But we are living in an imperfect world, with many factors to consider.

In my case, I typically work with outside designers. Designers who appreciate and support RWD but are not immersed in its intricacies like I am. And I don’t want them to have to be. So as a hybrid developer-designer, I make use of my somewhat unusual but not especially unique skill set to handle the responsive adaptations for them. They just deliver a “regular” web design to me, I build that out, and then I adapt and scale and shift things around as needed for the smaller screen sizes, doing my best to stay true to the spirit of the original design.

There are two keys to making this approach work:

  1. Get the designs in Illustrator format, not Photoshop. (No, seriously. You’ll find out why in a bit.)
  2. Be prepared to start thinking about break points and accept that a perfectly fluid layout is not in your immediate future.

To understand break points, you need to understand common screen dimensions. You also need to understand the importance of margins to an aesthetically pleasing layout.

For years the target screen size for web design has been 1024×768 which, delightfully, is also the effective resolution of the iPad. (Yes, the newer iPads have a high-resolution “Retina Display” which is 2048×1536, but CSS pixel measurements are “pixel-doubled” on these displays, so you don’t really need to think about high-res too much, except when it comes to images, and we’ll discuss that in a minute.)

So, we can (still) start with 1024×768. But that doesn’t mean your design should be 1024 pixels wide. You need margins, both for stuff like window “chrome” (borders, scrollbars, etc.) and also just to give your content a little breathing room. A commonly accepted standard width to use for web designs is 960 pixels, and I still stick with that.

This can sometimes cause some confusion for designers who are used to the fixed palette of a printed page. Your content can/should go all the way to the edges of that 960-pixel layout, and you still need to think about what comes outside of that area. So it’s good when you’re designing to think of foreground and background. Have an arbitrarily huge background canvas, with a 960-pixel-wide by whatever-pixel-tall box floating top-center over it, where your foreground content will go.

But I digress. We start with 960. That’s our maximum break point. (OK, if your audience is primarily looking at the site on 30-inch displays, you might want to consider an additional larger break point at 1200 or so.) Then we move down from there. I like to think of it like this:

Device/Screen Type Screen Width Content Width #wrapper CSS
Large computer displays (optional) 1280 and up 1200 margin: 0 auto;
width: 1200px;
Computer/iPad (landscape) 1024 960 margin: 0 auto;
width: 960px;
iPad (portrait) 768 720 margin: 0 auto;
width: 720px;
Small tablets/phones Varies Fluid margin: 0 auto;
width: 90%;

The “small tablets/phones” layouts typically collapse to a single column and are the only truly fluid layouts I use; the larger break points go to fixed widths, which makes for easier scaling of columnar content.

Note that I typically follow the convention of placing everything inside my <body> tags inside a <div id="wrapper"> tag, which allows me to apply CSS to the overall page body and separate CSS to the foreground content (what’s inside the “wrapper”).

Occasionally I will split “small tablets/phones” into two separate break points, with small tablets somewhere between 500 and 640 pixels. I may also change the content widths somewhat to suit the specifics of the design.

Mobile-First Sounds Great, but Let’s Be Honest: It’s Really IE8-First

Earlier in the year, Luke Wroblewski took the idea of RWD a step further with his inspired vision for Mobile-First web design. Initially I wholeheartedly embraced mobile-first, but I’ve since reconsidered.

What is mobile-first? It’s RWD, but instead of starting from the desktop layout and using CSS3 media queries to adjust the layout to smaller screens, it starts from the small screens and works its way up. The main benefit of this approach is that it allows you to prevent mobile devices from loading unnecessary assets (images, etc.) that they won’t actually use.

There’s a major downside to mobile-first, however, at least in my experience trying to implement it: there are still a lot of people using Internet Explorer 8 (and earlier), which does not support CSS3 media queries. So unless you create an IE-specific stylesheet (using conditional comments), IE8 and earlier users will be stuck with a strange variation on the phone version of your site.

So after building a few mobile-first RWD sites, I have abandoned that approach, and gone with what could be called an IE8-first approach. I am not really building to IE8. I work primarily on a Mac, and I preview my work in Chrome while I’m developing. But what I mean is I’ve gone back to that standard 1024×768 screen as the baseline for my CSS, with CSS3 media queries for the smaller screen sizes (as well as for print and high-resolution displays, the latter of which is next up).

Getting Retinal

Remember earlier when I said your designs should be in Illustrator rather than Photoshop? Here’s why: high resolution. Sure, you can change resolution in Photoshop too, but… wait, you’re not still slicing-and-dicing, are you? By working with discrete objects in Illustrator, resolution-independent and, when possible, vector-based, you have the maximum flexibility when you render these objects out as 24-bit PNGs with alpha channel transparency. (You are doing that too, right?)

Starting with the iPhone 4, Apple introduced the “Retina Display” which is their marketing term for, basically, screens with pixels too small for you to see. The goal is to achieve a level of resolution on an LCD screen that rivals print. The exact pixels-per-inch varies from screen to screen, and is not really too significant. The key point is that above a certain pixel density threshold, CSS treats all pixel-based measurements as pixel-doubled. As I noted above, although the current iPad screen resolution is 2048×1536, its effective pixel size in CSS is still 1024×768. There is a practical reason for this (if CSS stuck with the actual pixels, all web pages would appear absurdly tiny on such a screen). But there’s also a practical downside: most images on most web pages are now being scaled up in the browser to these pixel-doubled dimensions, resulting in a blurry appearance.

But here’s something really cool: you can specify the display dimensions of an image in CSS, and the browser will scale the image down on-the-fly. This has been the bane of many web developers’ existence for years, where people who didn’t know better would upload a very large, high resolution photo and scale it down in the page, resulting in ridiculous download times as the image slowly drew in on the page.

Used effectively, however, this characteristic provides an extremely easy way to make images high-resolution on displays that support it. By using CSS to scale the dimensions of an image to 1/2 its actual pixel size, the image will display in full resolution on screens that support this.

Of course, doubled dimensions mean quadrupled pixels, and depending on the details of JPEG or PNG compression, the high-resolution images may be more than four times the file size of their standard-resolution equivalents. So it’s nice to, again, use CSS3 media queries to only deliver these high-resolution replacement images to screens that can display them properly. (This will be demonstrated in the full example code below.)

You Say Graceful Degradation, I Say Progressive Enhancement

The matter of graceful degradation and/or progressive enhancement (depending on how you look at it) is tangential to RWD, but it’s something you’re likely to be dealing with as you build a responsive website.

Not all browsers support all CSS3 capabilities, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. I’m especially fond of box-shadow and border-radius, and in working with RWD you’ll probably get quite familiar with background-size as well. Remember that most of these newer capabilities will probably need to include vendor prefixes (like -moz- and -webkit-) as well. It’s cumbersome, and will probably be as painful to clean up as <blink> tags in a few years, but for now it’s the way to get things done.

The biggest challenge with progressive enhancement may well be convincing site stakeholders that it’s OK for the site to look (subtly) different in different browsers. Then again, if you’re doing RWD, that should be a given.

So, What Does This Actually Look Like?

As I’ve iterated my RWD approach this summer, I’ve inched closer and closer to a standard template I can use to start a new website. I feel it’s not quite there yet, but my basic CSS file structure is standardized enough that I can share it here. In a subsequent post, I hope to provide a zip download containing a full template file set for creating a new responsive website.

Here’s a rough example of what my typical CSS file looks like. Again, personal preferences dominate here: I like to write my CSS from scratch, and I typically organize it into three sections: standard HTML (basic tags), CSS classes (anything starting with a period), and DOM elements (anything starting with a hash mark).

The idea is that we’re going from general to specific. Within the standard HTML and CSS classes I alphabetize everything, so it’s easier to find things to change them as I go. Within the DOM elements I try to keep everything in the order it actually appears in the HTML structure. (I also alphabetize the properties within each element definition… but that’s just because I’m anal retentive.)

Sample CSS File

/* IMPORT */

@import url('reset.css');

/* STANDARD HTML */

body {
  font-size: 100%;
  line-height: 1.5em;
}

/* CSS CLASSES */

.column {
  float: left;
  margin: 0 5% 1.5em 0;
  width: 45%;
}

/* DOM ELEMENTS */

#wrapper {
  margin: 0 auto;
  width: 960px;
}

#logo {
  background: transparent url('img/logo.png') center center no-repeat;
  -moz-background-size: 250px 100px;
  -webkit-background-size: 250px 100px;
  background-size: 250px 100px;
  height: 100px;
  width: 250px;
}

/* CSS3 MEDIA QUERIES */

/* PRINT */
@media print {

  * {
    background: transparent !important;
    color: black !important;
    text-shadow: none !important;
    filter: none !important;
    -ms-filter: none !important;
  }
  @page { margin: 0.5cm; }
  h1, h2, h3, p { orphans: 3; widows: 3; }
  h1, h2, h3 { page-break-after: avoid; }
  pre, blockquote { border: 1px solid #999; page-break-inside: avoid; }
  abbr[title]:after { content: " (" attr(title) ")"; }
  a, a:visited { color: #444 !important; text-decoration: underline; }
  a[href]:after { content: " (" attr(href) ")"; }
  a[href^="javascript:"]:after, a[href^="#"]:after { content: ""; }
  img { max-width: 100% !important; page-break-inside: avoid; }
  thead { display: table-header-group; }
  tr { page-break-inside: avoid; }

}

/* LARGE TABLETS (UNDER 1024 PIXELS) */
@media screen and (max-width: 1023px) {

  #wrapper {
    width: 720px;
  }

}

/* SMALL TABLETS/PHONES (UNDER 768 PIXELS) */
@media screen and (max-width: 757px) {

  #wrapper {
    width: 90%;
  }

}

/* HIGH-RESOLUTION DISPLAYS */
@media only screen and (-moz-min-device-pixel-ratio: 1.5),
    only screen and (-o-min-device-pixel-ratio: 3/2),
    only screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio: 1.5),
    only screen and (min-devicepixel-ratio: 1.5),
    only screen and (min-resolution: 1.5dppx)
{

  #logo {
    background-image: url('img/logo_x2.png');
  }

}

The Test Suite

Of course, all of this work means nothing until we’ve seen what it actually looks like in the web browsers on these different devices. To that end, a decent test suite is essential.

One cool trick about RWD, which is not only useful to dazzle clients when pitching a RWD approach to their websites, but is also helpful for quick testing as you go, is that the responsive approach works simply by making your browser window smaller on a computer. So you can shrink the window down and approximate what the site will look like on a tablet or a phone without actually having one in your hand at all times.

But before you go live, you do need to test it for real on different devices, just like you need to test in different browsers. The table below shows my test suite. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s practical, and it all fits in one small messenger bag.

Device Operating System Browser(s)
MacBook Air Mac OS X Mountain Lion Chrome (latest)
Firefox (latest)
Safari (latest)
MacBook Air
with Boot Camp
Windows 7 Internet Explorer 9
Chrome (latest)
Firefox (latest)
MacBook Air
with Parallels Desktop
Windows XP
(3 separate virtual machines)
Internet Explorer 8
Internet Explorer 7
Internet Explorer 6
Firefox 3.6
Note: I only offer my clients very limited support for IE6.
iPad (Retina Display) iOS 6 Mobile Safari (latest)
Chrome (latest)
iPhone (Retina Display) iOS 6 Mobile Safari (latest)
Chrome (latest)
Samsung Galaxy Player 4
(high-resolution)
Android 2.3 Android web browser

Give Me Something I Can Print!

You may have noticed in the full example CSS above that I included CSS3 media queries for print. The need for decent print output will vary by project — different sites’ audiences may be more or less inclined to print out pages. In general I think of printing out web pages a bit like I think about… well, honestly, I can’t even think of a good analogy. You just shouldn’t do it. But sometimes it has to happen. I won’t be exploring the infuriating nuances of print CSS here, other than to say that if you do need to support printing, the code provided in this sample is a good place to start. (Sadly, although I use it regularly, I neglected to make note of its source. If you know where it’s from, please let me know in the comments.)

Where Do We Go Now?

OK Axl, hang on. I know I’ve dumped a lot on you here to think about, without necessarily providing enough specifics. But that’s kind of the point: in order to do this right, you really need to learn it for yourself and gain the experience of building RWD sites directly. This is what has been working for me but my approach is certainly neither the only nor the best way, I’m sure.

My hope is to follow up this post with a “Part Two” entry this time around, where I get into more of the specifics of an actual example website. In the meantime, experiment and discover! And be sure to check out the entire A Book Apart series, as they provide the conceptual and detailed knowledge needed to get started with this exciting new approach to web design.

Practical responsive web design, part one

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but I’ve been too busy writing code instead. Plus, the techniques are evolving and changing so fast, that by the time I finish a project, the way I built it is already obsolete.

Now, with the Breaking Development Conference in town and a few recent responsive site launches under my belt, it seemed like a good time to write up a summary of what I’ve learned, what I’m doing, and where I think all of this is going.

First, a quick aside. I didn’t attend the conference. I would have liked to, but as an independent developer I never seem able to justify the standard $500-per-day rate most conferences charge. That doesn’t mean the conferences don’t have value; they’re just not for me.

Before we begin

There are a few caveats I want to lay down before I start talking about responsive web design:

This stuff is changing… fast. Anything I write here may become foolishly out of date by the time I hit the “Publish” button. Responsive web design is a work in progress, and there are no rules (yet).

What I’m doing may not be “by the book,” proper-name Responsive Web Design. The book is great, and there are “experts” who have much deeper knowledge of these strategies than I do. But as I said above, there are no rules (yet). I want to describe the practical techniques I am employing on actual live web projects, under often less-than-ideal circumstances.

Every website is different. The company is different. Its audience is different. The content and style and context where it will be viewed are different. The balance between showing off fancy new features on high-resolution tablet displays and supporting corporate IT departments that are still straggling with Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 will vary. In short, what I am doing may not work for you. But I hope it can give you some ideas that will.

A practical baseline

My goal with responsive design is to get the biggest “bang for my (client’s) buck.” I recently read a about a study that found almost 4,000 different Android devices in a site’s access logs, with many of them only appearing in the logs once. It is not possible to account for all of these variations. And, after its primary goal of providing an optimal user experience across a variety of devices, not needing to account for each of them individually is the second biggest purpose of responsive design. (That’s also, arguably, its biggest practical benefit.) By building on a fluid, flexible structure from the beginning, a site will look good regardless of slight variations in its presentation.

But I’m not starting from scratch. I work with a number of designers who deliver their work to me in a variety of formats (usually Adobe software). They’re tremendously talented, but they don’t all have a full working knowledge of fluid grids and all of the other considerations that go into responsive web design. So my job is largely to translate these “traditional” web designs into something that works, more or less, with a responsive approach.

I’m targeting three basic screen types: computer (desktop or laptop, including iPad in horizontal orientation), tablet (primarily iPad in vertical orientation, but also smaller tablets like the Kindle Fire or the Nook Color), and smartphone (primarily iPhone, but also Android and Windows Phone). Additionally, I am trying to balance a Mobile First approach with support for Internet Explorer 7 and 8. (I am fortunate to be in a position not to need to worry much about IE6 anymore, and IE9 plays well with CSS3 media queries.) In some cases I am also targeting “very large” computer displays, those with a horizontal resolution of 1280 or above, with a scaled-up layout.

So, instead of accounting for 4,000+ different screens, I’m aiming at 3 (or 4) general screen categories. I am also accounting for two basic browser categories: IE 7 and 8, and everything else. (Yes, if you approach it in the right way, it’s really that simple. Almost.)

Fixed, yet flexible

With this “practical baseline” in mind, and working primarily with traditional fixed-width web designs as a starting point, I’ve established break points (widths at which the layout changes significantly) at around 700 pixels (varying by site between 640 and 720); at 960 pixels for the “standard” computer (and horizontal iPad) layouts; and, for the “very large” displays, at 1200 pixels. This allows for a traditional fixed-width web design approach to be used, rather than accounting for a completely fluid layout across all screen sizes. It may sound like a cop-out, but I find it to be a very helpful way to get things done when collaborating with designers who are not living and breathing this stuff the way I do every day.

For screens below my “around 700” threshold, I drop into a fully-fluid, single-column layout targeted at the smartphone user experience. In these cases there may be other significant changes to the layout, such as collapsing content blocks into expandable buttons, allowing users to quickly see what’s on the page without having to scroll endlessly. (This is not a radical invention of my own… it’s more-or-less how the mobile version of Wikipedia functions.)


In part two, I will get into the details of how I built out a pair of recent websites, including a few code examples, to show how the HTML and CSS fit together, and how I balance the seemingly incompatible worlds of mobile-first and IE8.

Yes, it’s… yet another redesign

I’ve redesigned this blog more times than I can count. Many of those redesigns have been incremental tweaks, to be sure, but still, there’ve been probably dozens of times that I’ve completely torn it down and rebuilt it, more-or-less from scratch. This is one of those times.

I’ve also (finally) wised up a bit. Usually when I post these redesign announcements, I don’t include a screenshot… as if this is the last time I’ll ever redesign the site. I wish I could go back to some of those earlier posts and see what the site actually looked like when I announced the changes. I can remember most of them, even from the pointless ramblings I composed to commemorate their creation. But it would still be nice to see them on the outside of my brain.

There are some big changes in this version. Most significantly, I’m using two (relatively) new technologies as both key components of the underlying structure and also as inspiration for the design itself. They’re created (or at least inspired) by some amazingly talented people in this field, so they deserve recognition.

First, the fonts are being delivered by Typekit. Finally, web designers have more fonts at their disposal than Arial, Georgia and Verdana. (Yes, there are some others, but these three are the most excessively used.) There are some awesome people behind Typekit, but I especially want to call out founder Jeffrey Veen and creative director (and probably the best web designer on the planet) Jason Santa Maria.

Next up, we have a responsive web design using CSS3 media queries. (Yes, that’s probably the most boring possible link about one of the coolest technologies out there right now in web design.) I think we have Ethan Marcotte to thank for devising this brilliant use of CSS3 media queries to dynamically adapt web page layouts to the size of the browser window. At the very least, he named it and helped spread the word with the aforelinked A List Apart article and his new book.

In short, by employing CSS3 media queries to adjust the page layout to an appropriate width and number of columns (and smartly resizing elements within), it’s possible to easily adapt a web page’s presentation to suit the capabilities and dimensions of a number of screens. Just take a look at this site on your 27-inch iMac and then on your iPhone (or your roughly equivalent non-Apple devices) to see what I mean. I’m sure I’m not doing Ethan’s work justice, either in my description or in my application of it here, but I’m excited about the potential regardless.

It’s a great time to be a web designer!

Update: I went for less than 48 hours with Futura PT Light as my primary font for body text here, despite knowing it was too light and, perhaps, too geometric for good body type. Finally, at a friend’s prodding, I resorted to the inevitable: Proxima Nova. I love Proxima Nova. It’s the primary font I use in all of my business materials (and in my logo itself). I had envisioned a kind of ’50s retro school textbook concept with this site redesign, and Proxima Nova, a 21st century font, doesn’t fit that description, but… man, it just looks so good. So, now it’s here.