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.

5 thoughts on “Musings from a device free designer on appropriate tools

  1. Love the counter point. I like “Device Free Designer”. It’s sorta what I’m talking about in my post. Designers are not creating desktop sites the way they use to and the reason is the many device issue. Making something work on everything with the same set of tools causes deflated design. You really only need to handle two sets of visitors; desktop and mobile. My suggestion to use template files instead of relying on media queries is to accommodate mobile without worrying about device. Make the mobile template files fluid and it will work on any device. You could say thats what responsive is but it comes at a price.

    1. Thanks. I don’t think you need to handle two different sets in all cases – that isn’t what I am saying. I’m suggesting no blanket approaches at all and each site is looked at and then it can be reviewed what methods and user experiences are needed.

      I like the idea of template files but I would like to know the performance impact versus the mobile first approach. Not something I can as said comment on as I don’t have the facts.

      I don’t think making the mobile template fluid is the only method. I do see having your site responsive as a given though – then it’s a matter of what ‘story’ you tell on other devices. A point to note is we have to consider up and down scale – the focus is often downwards but it can go both ways from a desktop.

  2. Let’s take bbPress as an example. Making that markup responsive is a head-meet-wall scenario. Instead, pushing an alternative template that is made for the device is the better way to go. You are right, it’s not a one way or no way issue. Each site needs to figure out what works for their users.

    A site loads faster if you cut dead weight from the markup when not needed, there is no performance issue. Desktop sites do not need to be responsive at all. This has only been adopted because of smaller screens. It was a first attempt at dealing with it. WordPress offers an alternative and in my opinion a better way through templates.

    1. Hmmm not sure agree with ‘desktop don’t need to be responsive’. Personally just on my desk I have 4 ‘desktop’ sizes that all range. How many people also browse full screen? It’s kind of one of my points right there – you can’t be device centric when saying ‘no need for this or that’. Responsive should just be a simple first step everything is. What happens after that is up to the situation and toolbox.

      1. Simple sites like blogs work fine doing responsive first but Facebook, Twitter, google+ do not. They give you a full desktop experience when viewed from a desktop. Why? Take it from me, crushing that kind of content down does not give a great experience. But we agree it’s not a blanket decision.

        The theme on this site has done responsive correctly. I’ve seen some others with 3-4 columns that are squished. Those themes need to drop all the columns and only show what the user needs. That is better done with template swapping.

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