Misconceptions of Responsive Design

We are no longer anticipating a post desktop world. We're living in it. Day by day, the number of devices, platforms and browsers we have to design for is growing and changing. We now have to think about how our sites will look on a desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, Google Glass, iWatch and whatever comes next.

Now many companies are scrambling to find solutions for their five, ten or even three-year-old sites to quickly adapt their web presence to meet the “in the moment” needs and expectations of mobile users.

Here comes responsive design with its unrestricted screen size approach as the savior to our mobile ills. Easily found, easily shared, easier to maintain and build and cheaper in the long run, it offers the best of both desktop and mobile experiences with greater consistency of brand experience across all devices.

However, does responsive design truly live up to the legend that has been built up about it in the industry?

Yes and no. With any great hero, there are going to be certain myths, half-truths, tall tales, rumors and misconceptions surrounding them. Because of this, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the things being said about responsive design to provide some clarity on the “one code” solution.


Many believe that responsive design is the bastard child of desktop and mobile, trying to create one solution to serve two different audiences and failing to fulfill the needs of either.

Website designs have to be simplified to compensate for mobile, which limits brand experience and user engagement. Load times on mobile are horrific because a phone or tablet is trying to load a whole site over a cellular connection. Further, navigation can become a complete nightmare, as buttons disappear with no rhyme or reason. All of this severely compromises user experience across the board.

We can’t deny that much of this argument concerning responsive design is true. However, most of these problems are not so much the technology's fault, but rather the fault of the minds behind the website.

Responsive design requires more thinking and upfront work for designers, developers and the people developing content, working in tandem to meet the needs of users and the company. It requires more collaboration than creating separate sites for mobile and desktop.

Load time is still an issue, but as the technology has grown, so have the resources to deal with this problem. There are many plug-ins and other solutions that bypass the load time issues that come with an abundance of images and content.


No, but they are really, really close.

Though the terms are largely used interchangeably, there a few stark differences.

Responsive design is a client-facing solution wherein a fluid grid layout adjusts to the right size based on media queries sent from a user’s device. Adaptive Design, on the other hand, is server-facing and, rather than a fluid layout, has built-in “break-points”, or pre-set layouts built for a variety of screen sizes. The server recognizes the size of a user's device and sends the most appropriate layout for that device.

Because adaptive design is server-facing, it has the benefit of loading a bit faster and, because there are pre-set breakpoints instead of a fluid grid, is easier to code. It is a cheaper and more pragmatic approach than responsive design. However, screen sizes are still very unpredictable, so designing the right breakpoint for a variety of devices can be quite a hassle. Most designers practice an agnostic approach that embraces both styles in order to get the most bang for the buck.


Not at all. Apps still have a valuable place in the mobile world.

Though many people have an aversion to native apps—having to download something they may or may not use that often just for an optimal mobile experience—responsive design can’t compete with the richer, more immersive experience an app can provide. Not to mention the brand equity that comes with having a piece of real estate on a user’s digital device.

What it really boils down to is how you expect a user to interact with your site and the type of brand experience you want to provide.

A responsive website is great for casual users who may not utilize your website that often. However, an app designed around the frequent needs of users, such as flight check-in or banking, may be more practical.

Content publishers such as the Huffington Post are experimenting with using both in an attempt to serve the needs of their audience at different times of the day and for different experiences.

A firm’s choice should be based around its users, services and the resources available. Responsive design is an ideal choice if most people visit your site on a casual basis, and/or you’re trying to save money and resources. If you’re trying to go for a more custom, curated and immersive experience, then apps are the way to go. And if you have the resources and the audience to do both, have fun.


Albert Einstein once said, “For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, neat and wrong.” That same logic is not lost on the way many firms are viewing responsive design and their issues with emerging technology as a whole. Responsive design is a great web design approach for providing your audience with the optimal viewing experience on a variety of solutions. What it is not is a one-size-fits-all quick fix solution.

Responsive design is just an approach, a tool, a means to an end. The true magic lies in the people behind the scenes—the designers, developers, content writers and companies that are willing to get their hands dirty and collaborate to make the solution work.

Like anything worth doing, you have to put the work in for responsive design in the beginning. There has to be great communication between all parties involved in the project and a great understanding of your audience and their needs. The collaboration, effort and knowledge behind the scenes have to be just as fluid as the layout you’re attempting to design.

Written by Ken Hammond on March 6, 2013


Add A Comment
Ken says:

Thanks for commenting Corey. Here's some helpful info from our friends at mailchimp - http://mailchimp.com/mobile-friendly-campaigns/

Tony says:

Hey, this website isn't responsive! LOL

Corey says:

Great article. I'd like to read an article about responsive design for email. Web and email are completely different and I'd really like to be able to pinpoint best practices in regard to email coding for responsive design.

Ken says:

Hi Clarissa,

Thanks so much for your comment. The right solution really depends on context. In general most of the time we find that responsive design is a more elegant solution.

clarissa says:

So do you feel there is a better solution that RD or AD? or are you just pointing out a general observation?

Written by
Ken Hammond