Musings from a device free designer on appropriate tools


Note: This is in part a response to ModemLooper’s post ‘Responsive WordPress themes are back assward’ and also a collection of my thoughts on the way to approach sites across devices.

I think one of the issues as illustrated in articles like ModemLoopers is an easiness to jump to the worst examples and broad stroke a solution. My own thoughts are a more flexible ‘per situation’ solution is the best one. Just like you don’t repeat the same design over and over again – responsive, adaptive… mobile apps all have their place it’s picking from the toolset and using the right one for the case.

Unique Snowflakes.

Before I go on, my thinking has cemented lately against a ‘one size fits all’ approach to pretty much anything. Take themes, yeah sure they kind of work out of the box for a range of cases – but should anyone be doing something that’s ‘kind of’? Those of us making this our profession certainly shouldn’t.

There has been a lot of talk about device independence and to me this is step one and the first thing as a designer you should do. Don’t think in terms of wiggling browser up and down to media query points. Think of it as a fluid mighty morphing site. The focus away from pixels is one I’m keen to keep in sight as in the great A List Apart article ‘Vexing Viewpoints’. After that come the more ponderous considerations of a mobile approach. Even the term mobile is being used by me with caution as doesn’t hit the spot fully either – we can’t assume (the mantra of the device free designer).

Responsive got itself a bad name.

A point against responsive that has happened in the past is the loading everything and kitchen sink. First up, if you are saying this let me introduce to you the ‘Mobile First’ approach. Secondly, if you’re not creating sites that are mobile first … let me introduce a concept to you MOBILE FIRST. Don’t give responsive a bad name, if you are going to do it – do it right.

I would like to add I love responsive. To me it is a movement (and yes I see it as one) which has turned my designer world upside down and raised all our bars. What I do not like is responsive without brains. This is what I think is the cause of much of the stick shaking at responsive. It’s not something you should see as a ‘feature’ either in my book – just do it like you’d bother to test in a range of browsers. Also, don’t charge extra for it. That’s just plain wrong as your costs should adapt with technology not be fixed and have bolt ons every time something should have – you’re not a mobile phone contract.

Templates are just another possible tool.

Modemlooper makes a case for using templating for showing different versions depending on devices. This isn’t a bad approach but it is hidden under the pile of kicking responsive in the head and that doesn’t really help. It does bring up a few issues. One of these being the blur in terms. Responsive can (and should) mean you remove things and move them about – that’s just doing responsive right period. The lines of adaptive and responsive are blurred by their very definitions and even ‘device independent’ doesn’t fully cut it as an explanation.

At the root of what a lot of he says is a matter of education needed to not create lesser but more appropriate experiences on mobile. Heck maybe we need a new technique called ‘Appropriate’ (or maybe we are all going to drown in terms soon). Mobile themes such as the drop and go plugins / themes have for a long time caused a wide range of misinformation over what should be a mobile experience. I would cheerfully click a button and see mobile themes like that vanish as they are brainless. We can do so much better than that as a mobile solution.

Modemlooper’s post does read a bit of a ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water one’ and whilst I do realise this post was written in a rant format it tars all with the same damning brush. This is the other point that really needs to be underlined. Responsive has its place – it did and still does. Brainless responsive (like brainless adaptive, like brainless mobile apps) doesn’t have its place.

The joy of tools we can all play with.

Performance junkies will chew on the ‘what method’ (looking at mobile first and all the best practices not brandishing broad brushes) is best over time and that’s kind of the cool thing with this device un-centric approach. It’s a revolution not just in the design world but the development world also. I don’t know the facts so I’m staying away from that one. My focus is on looking at the tools and seeing which one works from project to project. On using my designer brain and not just blindly applying anything.

Appy Elephant.

The elephant in the room is apps. Responsive has been argued as blindly ignoring apps almost to the point of seeing the world as ideally app free. I don’t think that ever was the case and whilst it has been levied against even me, it never was my thought process either. I love apps but I love (wait for it) apps that have brains… do something different from a responsive site and work for the purpose better than a responsive, adaptive, ‘hamsteraptive’ site (hedging my bets on any new terms there).

I do not believe just because you are on any thingy be it mobile or not you should get an experience just because you’re there. You can’t assume that every site needs the same mobile experience. You also while we’re at it can’t assume ‘ithingies’ are mobile. You can’t force a cookie cutter template onto them either they can’t get out of. You know what excites me in the app world? Apps that work for the mobile device when a site wouldn’t, that do something sites can’t / don’t / won’t. That bring something beyond a browser to the table.


Where does this leave me as a designer? It leaves me excited that’s what it does. It leaves me with so much to learn, so many new playgrounds and tools to build things with. So many platforms I can create on and build things that make sense for humans. It also leaves me as 2013 approaches dropping one part of the job description I’ve used for so many years. It started last year and I no longer see myself as a web designer. I am just a designer and it’s kind of liberating to realise that. I am just a device free designer.

Enter the year of refinement

The new year has turned and with it the seemingly endless design trend speculation posts.  I’m always rather sceptical of how unless you are Mystic Meg you can actually predict the future design trends.  Surely the entire point is they are both future and trends – trends implying they are used by more and more people.  For me though, 2012 is about one thing and that’s the web entering what I like to think of as its ‘long trousers phase’ of design as there is a new maturity in the way things are done.


  1. The general direction in which something tends to move.
  2. A general tendency or inclination.
  3. Current style; vogue: the latest trend in fashion.

intr.v., trend·ed, trend·ing, trends.

  1. To extend, incline, or veer in a specified direction: The prevailing wind trends east-northeast.
  2. To show a general tendency; tend: “The gender gap was trending down” (James J. Kilpatrick).

I’ve like many others been privileged (and I do count what I’ve seen a privilege) enough to see web design develop from what was nothing more than a seed of positioning things that do things on a page.I rode out the black and red design days and with each step forward a new discipline emerged.   Every ‘webbie’ worth their salt though knows the tales of old web design – mainly because us old web designers like to tell them over and over… The point though is I truly feel this year sees this what until now has still been juvenile form take on an adult approach.

Aside from huge leaps in technology (fonts, colours and the spectrum of tools we now can use) another sign to me of maturity is specialisation.  In art there are so many mediums you can use.  I see the different roles that web designers can take like those mediums.  I also am a strong believer that nobody can be an expert in all but as a web designer you should have exposure to all.  I am a firm advocate of specialisation once you find something that fits.

2012 to me is therefore not about what is ‘hot or not’ it’s about recognising a milestone that I feel web design has reached.  Has it gone the complete journey – not at all but that’s the exciting thing.  This is just one step along the path to a career and discipline that didn’t even exist such a few years ago.