Fanfare for the common breakpoint
.net Magazine is running a series of articles on their site right now as part of their responsive week. There’s some great stuff in there: Paul is writing a series of articles—one a day—going step-by-step through the design and development of a responsive site, and Wilto has written a great summation of the state of responsive images.
There’s also an interview with Ethan in which he answers some reader-submitted questions. The final question is somewhat leading:
What devices (smartphones/tablets) and breakpoints do you typically develop and test with?
Ethan rightly responds:
Well, I’m a big, big believer of matching breakpoints to the design, not to individual devices. If we’re after more future-proof responsive designs, we should stop thinking in terms of ‘320px’, ‘480px’, ‘768px’, or whatever – the web’s so much more flexible than that, and those pixels are a snapshot of the web as we know it today. Instead, we should focus on breakpoints tailored to the design we’re working on.
He’s right. If we’re truly taking a Content First approach then we need to “Start designing from the content out, rather than the canvas in.”
If we begin with some specific canvases (devices), they’re always going to be arbitrary. There are so many different screen sizes and ratios out there that it doesn’t make sense to favour a handful of them out of tradition. 320, 480, 640 …those numbers aren’t any more special than any other screen widths.
But I now realise that I have been also been guilty of strengthening the hallowed status of those particular pixel widths. When I post screenshots to Flickr or include screenshots in presentations I automatically do what the Media Queries site does: I take snapshots at “traditional” widths like 320, 480, 640, 800, and 1024 pixels.
Physician, heal thyself.
But really I should be illustrating the responsive nature of the design by taking screenshots at truly arbitrary widths: 173, 184, 398, 467, 543, 678, 832 …the sheer randomness of those kinds of numbers would better reflect the diversity of screen sizes out there.
Of course what I should really be doing is posting pictures of the website on actual devices.
I think our collective obsession with trying to nail down “common” breakpoints has led to a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of responsive design: it’s not about what happens at the breakpoints—it’s about what happens between the breakpoints.
Of course, if breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead, because responsive design relies on breakpoints both in creative workflow and as a key to establishing user-need-and-context-based master layouts, i.e. a minimal layout for the user with a tiny screen and not much bandwidth, a more fleshed-out one for the netbook user, and so on.
I was surprised that he suggested the long-term solution would be a shake-out of screen widths resulting in a de-facto standardisation:
But designers who persist in responsive or even adaptive design based on iPhone, iPad, and leading Android breakpoints will help accelerate the settling out of the market and its resolution toward a semi-standard set of viewports. This I believe.
I don’t think that will happen. If anything, I think we will see even more diversity in screen sizes and ratios.
But more importantly, I don’t think it’s desirable to have a “standard” handful of screen widths, any more than it’s desirable to have a single rendering engine in every browser (yes, I know some developers actually wish for that: they know not what they do).
Find photos that I took on April 26th, 2012.