Stop designing for screen width, design for content

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December 07, 2012
Stop designing for screen width, design for content.

Thumb320, 768 and 1024. Do these numbers mean anything to you?

No, it’s not the Da Vinci code, they are the widths in pixels that many designers associate with mobile, tablet and desktop screen widths.

The problem I have with this is that my mobile isn’t 320 pixels wide, my tablet isn’t 768 pixels wide and my desktop screen certainly isn’t 1024 pixels wide. There are hundreds of different screen sizes out there on a variety of different devices and yet we still think of responsive web design as 320, 768 and 1024.

What happens to all those screen sizes in between?

I have seen many sites that use these three breakpoints for their designs and simply create 3 static layouts that centre within the nearest width.

This is better than having an old fashioned, static, desktop only site as they are at least serving a one column, simplified version for mobile and a touch friendly version for tablet but then why would you alienate all other screen sizes by not taking them into consideration?

Sure the design will still work on the other sizes but what happens when you have a tablet that is smaller than 768? They will get the mobile experience on a tablet! And when viewing it on a laptop screen smaller than 1024? We’ll just send them the tablet layout and laugh at them for not having one of the 3 screen sizes that we have deemed worthy.

It's about percentages not pixels

When you create your responsive layouts, you should always aim to set as many of your dimensions as possible in percentages. This helps to ensure that your content will grow and shrink evenly through different screen sizes and will do so in proportion to the device it's being viewed on. This approach will also ensure that your content is always filling 90% (or as much as you determine) of the screen instead of possibly 50% of the screen as the content is centred on a screen size that is a few pixels smaller than the next available breakpoint.

Content is king

When choosing your breakpoints, you should always be making your decisions based on where the content breaks and not to device screen widths. Instead of creating a design and then modifying it to fit the iPad screen comfortably, you should find out at what width your content starts to struggle.

I tend to start with a 1400 wide design and slowly make the browser smaller until a piece of content breaks the layout or gets close to doing so. That then determines my next breakpoint. It doesn’t matter whether it is at 1200, 800 or 673, if the content still works then why change the layout?

You will find that you will end up with strange breakpoints such as 477 or 982 and that you may have 2, 6 or 10 different breakpoints. The point is that the content will decide rather than the intended screen sizes that you wish it to be viewed on.

With the array of different devices and screen sizes being released every month, it is impossible to determine a set of definite breakpoints for our responsive projects. The truth is that whilst we are using a variable such as screen width to determine our responsive layouts, we will struggle to serve a perfect layout to every different size but by following a few of the tips above, we can at least ensure that the content is always displayed as best as possible.

What breakpoints do you typically use? Do you avoid breakpoints altogether? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, wide load image via Shutterstock.

Javier Ghaemi

Javier Ghaemi is a multi-disciplined designer with experience in working across print, web and product design. He has worked on websites for brands such as GQ and Vogue and is excited by responsive design, web fonts and designing for touch devices. Follow him at @onlinedesigner2 or at www.javierghaemi.co.uk.

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