Designing for the Unexpected

I’m not sure when I first heard this quote, but it’s something that has stayed with me over the years. How do you create services for situations you can’t imagine? Or design products that work on devices yet to be invented?

Flash, Photoshop, and responsive design

When I first started designing websites, my go-to software was Photoshop. I created a 960px canvas and set about creating a layout that I would later drop content in. The development phase was about attaining pixel-perfect accuracy using fixed widths, fixed heights, and absolute positioning.

Ethan Marcotte’s talk at An Event Apart and subsequent article “Responsive Web Design” in A List Apart in 2010 changed all this. I was sold on responsive design as soon as I heard about it, but I was also terrified. The pixel-perfect designs full of magic numbers that I had previously prided myself on producing were no longer good enough.

The fear wasn’t helped by my first experience with responsive design. My first project was to take an existing fixed-width website and make it responsive. What I learned the hard way was that you can’t just add responsiveness at the end of a project. To create fluid layouts, you need to plan throughout the design phase.

A new way to design

Designing responsive or fluid sites has always been about removing limitations, producing content that can be viewed on any device. It relies on the use of percentage-based layouts, which I initially achieved with native CSS and utility classes:

.column-span-6 {
  width: 49%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;
}


.column-span-4 {
  width: 32%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;
}

.column-span-3 {
  width: 24%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;
}

Then with Sass so I could take advantage of @includes to re-use repeated blocks of code and move back to more semantic markup:

.logo {
  @include colSpan(6);
}

.search {
  @include colSpan(3);
}

.social-share {
  @include colSpan(3);
}

Media queries

The second ingredient for responsive design is media queries. Without them, content would shrink to fit the available space regardless of whether that content remained readable (The exact opposite problem occurred with the introduction of a mobile-first appr

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