Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Responsive Web Design

Designing for multiple resolutions

Responsive Web Design | Challenges | Getting Consensus

A series of devices with different screen sizes: Apple desktop computer, Apple laptop, Apple iPad, Apple iPhone.

The Web View Has Changed

The Web has changed much in recent years. Not that many years ago the majority of viewers were viewing websites on desktop systems running the Microsoft Windows operating system in CRT displays 1024 pixels wide and 768 pixels high.

Flat Screens Display Differently

A pivotal shift in the size of displays began when flat screens became more affordable and most desktop users moved to flat panel (LCD) monitors.

The new 16:9 ratio monitors meant that they are able to see wider content without scrolling than with traditional 4:3 ratio monitors (think of the difference between old tube TVs and modern wide-screen TVs).

Newer monitors and mobile devices now support much higher resolutions.

Mobile Demands Rethinking Assumptions

Shortly after smart phones and tablets began to appear on the market, sites could no longer make assumptions about how their pages are viewed.

Today the majority of the visits to websites are on mobile devices and that is increasing.

It's not just mobile or desktop any longer — it's a world of specific device capabilities, screen sizes, and connection speeds, as well as considerations for how the page size affects the user experience in these many scenarios.
— DZone

The Problem with Resolutions

The old standard of 1024x768 worked fine for 17 inch monitors, but isn't optimal for today's devices (which tend to shrink traditional webpages to fit the screen and therefore become unreadable).

To further confuse things, resolutions differ between devices quite markedly as seen on this database of device resolutions:

New devices at different resolutions are being designed all the time, some including higher pixel density than traditional screens.

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Responsive Web Design

That's where “responsive web design” (RWD) comes in.

RWD modifies the content to suit the viewport (screen size) as it decreases or increases. Since device sizes are not a constant, we should look at how we can modify the page content to fit correctly as resolutions shift.


RWD depends upon two aspects of CSS:

  1. the inherited aspects of CSS; and
  2. using @media to determine the device's capabilities.

Because older devices and browsers may not correctly read CSS3 or recognize @media calls, we'll have to build the site so that the content displays in a readable format without these capabilities, THEN modify the content to display as we want in devices that DO recognize these.


Breakpoints are the sizes of the viewport where the design has to change to accommodate the content. Depending upon your design, there can be quite a range of the number and location of breakpoints.

More complex pages tend to require more breakpoints.

Long Single Page Sites

This has led to a increasing number of one-page single-column sites. The site navigation takes you down the page rather to a new page.


Web design is a rapidly developing field. I suggest you have a look at current information and recent developments.

I've had a number of discussions about what modern web design looks like and there are many opinions. Personally, I'm more concerned with making information available than figuring out what “modern” looks like.

If you would rather take the vertical approach, have a look at Mobirise, a web development tool better suited to that environment.

Testing Responsive Design

Manually resizing your browser to view your site at various resolutions to see where your design breaks is a useful practice while developing the layout.

However, when you want to see how your site looks in several common devices, you need to be more precise.

Viewing on Specific Devices

The most effective method is to view the site on multiple devices and in different operating systems:

However, this isn't an exhaustive list and it isn't practical for most designers outside of very large organizations with huge budgets.

Also, browser trends vary. At one time most people used Internet Explorer on Windows computers, but now Chrome accounts for a huge majority of site visitors and even Edge is using Chrome-based engines.

Browser Tools

Most modern browsers have some sort of developer tools available in them. You may need to change the configuration or look for the settings in the browser's options, but they are there.

Most will provide information on how the CSS and HTML is being interpreted by the browser and often much more.

There are extensions and tools available for various browsers. Check to see what is available for your browser that works for you.

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Design Challenges

As you can imagine, there are some considerable design challenges involved.

Thankfully, with the separation of content and layout, we can make corrections as needed as techniques are invented to deal with these challenges.

Display Considerations

There are a number of other considerations in determining how to display your site content. Hopefully, you'll be using responsive design to take care of these potential issues:

Don’t Forget the Scroll Bar

Be sure to leave room for the vertical scroll bar.

But that may not be an issue for long.

Safari was the first to remove the visible scroll bar since scrolling has become so common, particularly on mobile devices, that the visible scroll bar is no longer necessary and detracts from the viewable content.

Pixels and Monitor Resolutions

Pixels are a unit of measurement, each pixel representing one dot of content on the monitor.

Obviously, the larger the area a set number of pixels is spread to, the blurrier it will appear to the viewer, so people tend to use higher resolutions (larger numbers of pixels) as the size of the monitor increases.

Very high resolutions may create issues with reading the text within dialogue boxes and programs.

Designing for Multiple Resolutions

It then follows that people are going to see your web pages on various different sizes of screens (and in varying colour depths).

It is not unusual to see a site designed for a larger screen become unnavigable when viewed at a lesser resolution.

Javascript Can Fail

Many sites use Javascript or other means to determine the size of the viewer's screen and adjust their content accordingly. This will fail if Javascript is not enabled or if the device is too old.

Responsive Design a Better Solution

Responsive Web Design offers a much better solution.

Even if the site is viewed using an older computer that is unable to interpret @media calls or current CSS, the content should still be viewable. The user experience may not be optimal, but is usable.

”Special Needs“ Visitors

Keep in mind that there will always be users that have special needs such as colour perception problems and reliance on tools such as web readers for those with visual impairment.

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Getting Consensus

Designing a site for someone that isn't familiar with common web concepts can be challenging.

Your job is to explain their business to potential clients or customers.

Avoid Jargon

You and your client need to avoid miscommunication, including the use of common jargon.

Explain things simply, using language everyone can understand.

Understanding Your Potential Client's Business

Be sure you understand what your client is telling you.

Use examples from your client's expertise, but don't make incorrect assumptions about their jargon.

You need to translate what they tell you into simple concepts on their website.

No “Absolute” Layouts

Most people are familiar with printed documents. All such documents look fine regardless of the methods used to create them.

Web design lacks the absolute control that people take for granted in print.

Different Browser, Different Experience

Each browser and each operating system can display things slightly differently.

This can be difficult to grasp for those that have never viewed the same site in multiple browsers, operating systems or screen sizes.

Showing them their current site in a smart phone alongside a computer view can help them understand.

What if it Fails?

There is nothing more annoying than content that lays on top of other content or doesn't show at all. The following example is how two menus can be mangled on older browsers that don't support CSS.

Navigation menus can be mangled by older browsers.

Features not supported by every browser can fail.

It is better if the site degrades gracefully rather than failing altogether.

Developer Responsibilities

Developers need to view their sites using the browsers commonly in use on various operating systems.

A CSS Example

Take a look at Alice with CSS then look at Alice without CSS

Both page open in separate tabs so you can compare them.

Both pages are virtually identical except one is missing the CSS.

I'd rather view the page with the CSS enabled. Wouldn't you?

Related Resources

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Updated: March 17, 2021