The Adoption of Adaptation

I wrote a little while ago about one of the trends I saw emerging at An Event Apart, namely what the mighty Ethan has dubbed Responsive Web Design. With widespread browser support for media queries and the hype around the iPad and iPhone, there’s a perfect storm of interest in adaptive layouts.

Huffduffer and dConstruct were just the start: now Jon and Colly have both updated their personal sites to become beautifully adaptive and responsive to whatever user-agent their visitors are using.

This is true web design—design with a real understanding for the medium. I still maintain that rigidly-constrained graphics tools—i.e. all of them—are an impediment to moving the web forward in this direction. But the bigger impediment is in the mindset of those who still think of hypertext as something fixed and controllable, like a printed page (see also: every attempt at magazine apps on the iPad).

Back in 2006, I wrote about the unpushed envelope:

The ability to alter the presentation of a website without altering its structure should have opened up the floodgates of design creativity.

CSS hasn’t revolutionised web design. The reason lies not with the technology (which is revolutionary), but with the designers using it. Most designers have simply swapped the old technology (tables and font tags) for the new technology, without fully exploring what’s so completely new.

It has taken its own sweet time, but I think the sea change might finally be coming. Dave’s CSS Zen Garden and John’s A Dao of Web Design were the harbingers. Now the first pebbles are beginning to trickle down the mountainside of the web, heralding what I hope is an oncoming avalanche of beautiful, responsive, adaptive layouts.

It makes sense that this change is starting on personal sites; places that have always served as playgrounds and sandboxes for experiments that can then be rolled out in a more commercial setting. Steering larger websites down a new route will always be more challenging. Take the new layout changes on Flickr—they are beautiful changes …as long as your browser window is wide enough. I had to expand the browser window on my laptop in order to view everything on the Flickr homepage or else suffer an ignominious crawlbar.

Still, I’m confident that we’ll see the trend for adaptive layouts spread to larger sites. In the same way that Doug’s Wired redesign and Mike’s ESPN redesign proved the potential of CSS, some enterprising designers at a large site—like Flickr—will take up the challenge of leading the way with responsive web design.

Update: Ethan talks about responsive web design on The Big Web Show:

The Big Web Show: Responsive Web Design on Huffduffer

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