How Responsive Web Design Works

Learn the key principles and features of responsive web design, how it provides a great user experience across devices, and why it's important for your website.

How Responsive Web Design Works
Photo by Brooke Lark / Unsplash

Think back to the days before responsive web design. You would spend hours upon hours designing a website, ensuring all elements fit perfectly on the web page. But then you would open it on your phone, and half of the content is cut off, or you'd have to scroll sideways to see everything. It was frustrating. But with responsive web design, those days are behind us. In this blog post, we will examine how responsive web design works and why it's crucial for today's top web designers everywhere. So let's get started!  

Defining Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design (RWD) has become increasingly important as more people access websites on various devices. This type of web design means creating content that is responsive to the width and orientation of the screen dimensions the visitor's device.

Responsive Web Design Illustration
Source: Stéphanie Walter

With responsive design, your website layout is transformed to fit your viewing environment. It is done using several tools such as flexible images and CSS3 media queries-an extension of the @media rule. Furthermore, fluid proportion-based grids are also used to ensure that all users can easily view your web pages no matter what device they use.

Everything from responsive images, text, layout, and menus must change sizes to fit different devices and screen sizes and resolutions. Responsive design ensures that visitors have access to the same content regardless of their device; in other words, responsive design adapts to any desktop or mobile device, which increases customer engagement and satisfaction with your website. With responsive web design, you only need one site that responds perfectly to all screens: no more separate URLs or complicated coding!

4 Main Features of Responsive Web Design

In 2010, Ethan Marcotte revolutionized the world of web design by introducing "Responsive Web Design" (RWD) to designers and developers across the globe. In essence, responsive websites are defined by three main characteristics:

Media queries

Media query lets us tailor our web designs to the user's device instead of defining limits in HTML/CSS. By using condition checks, we can target specific classes of devices and even inspect their physical properties. This improved approach provides users with a tailored experience based on their device needs.

A media query allows us to target not only certain device classes, but to actually inspect the physical characteristics of the device rendering our work.
Media queries in web design
Source: Tran Mau Tri Tam ✪ on Unsplash

The media query encompasses a media type (screen) and the actual inquiry inside parentheses. This inquiry includes an explicit media feature (max-device-width), in tandem with its assigned maximum width value of 480px, employed to assess compatibility.

Despite the fact that modern browsers consistently support media queries, there are still some older versions of browsers that aren't compatible. To guarantee this issue is addressed, you can use css3-mediaqueries.js JavaScript library to give these outdated web browsers the capability to accept this feature and stay up-to-date with modern web standards.

Fluid grids

With responsive design using CSS, your website's columns will rearrange themselves to fit the size of the user's browser window or mobile device - whether it be a 21-inch desktop computer, a 13-inch laptop, a 9.7 tablet, or a 5.5 mobile phone! It gives users ultimate control over their own browser size and viewing experience and saves time and money for designers as they can update one version instead of multiple versions.

As Marcotte puts it:

Fluid layouts [….] put control of our designs firmly in the hands of our users and their browsing habits.

Ethan Marcotte proposed a legacy layout technique that was widely used in the past decade. At its core, this method utilized a straightforward mathematical formula to scale up or down grid elements: Target size/context = relative size. This equation formed the foundation for determining and adjusting element sizes as well as spacing throughout your design framework - all of which were calculated using relative units and could be amended when necessary. While this system proved dependable most of the time, there were still some flaws associated with it.

Fluid layouts for desktop and mobile device
Source: Domenico Loia on Unsplash

Keep in mind that not only should you be sure to optimize interactive elements in your design for various screen sizes, but also keep device orientation in mind - people love the freedom of being able to flip their devices between portrait and landscape. Flexibility is essential here. Every element must work together seamlessly so that users can access information optimally.

With such flexibility comes continuous consistency across all devices utilizing just one design layout - allowing you to focus on what matters most: providing an optimal viewing experience that is visually appealing yet functionally efficient for visitors!

Flexible visuals

Marcotte speaks to the utilization of code that restricts rich media files from surpassing max-width in their containers and viewports. Meaning when the "flexible container resizes," he states, it carries through with the inner visuals too.

Since there are now over 8 billion unique devices on Earth today, this feature makes it possible for teams to create designs that can adjust automatically and fit flawlessly into any device - small or large in size and shape!

Responsive typography

Time is sparse, and no one wants to spend hours deciphering the intricacies of your business. That's why website legibility is imperative: use fonts that enable visitors to rapidly comprehend as much detail as possible in an abbreviated amount of time.

Use a highly-legible font on your website to ensure readability on small screens, especially regarding parts like navigation labels. On any screen size, extra small fonts are hard to comprehend. Therefore, we recommend using larger font sizes for the body copy (around 16px), which should be easily visible on desktop and mobile devices. You can further adjust the type depending on the browser or screen width and on the design of your font.

Responsive typography
Source: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When it comes to arranging text on smaller screens, spacing is essential. Providing too much space between your words may make them look isolated. If the spacing isn't adequate, everything will be packed together, one on the other! To ensure a balanced appearance for all users, play around with different line heights until you find one that works - usually, something in the 1.25-1.5 range should do the trick, depending on your browser width and which typeface you're using.

When designing for mobile, it's important to note how varying line heights will affect the readability of your text. Additionally, a large font size may cause content to appear further down on a page than intended. Amplify the impact of your design by experimenting with different weights, cases, and colors. These methods help differentiate between sections of content as well as other elements on a page.

The Benefits of Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design is a gift from the gods! With responsive design, websites are designed to adjust automatically to the viewer's device and screen size. It eliminates the need for separate mobile sites, allowing businesses to maximize their traffic regardless of device. The responsive web also ensures that customers have a seamless transition when they switch between devices, improving user experience and increasing customer engagement. All this boils down to one key thing: responsive web and responsive designs make life easier - both for companies that build and maintain websites and for their customers who access those websites.

Although it has its drawbacks, such as:

  • not being fully optimized;
  • slowing performance;
  • potential web browser incompatibility;
  • making advertising or targeting campaigns harder to build;
  • offering different experiences to users depending on the device's difficulty.
The Benefits of Responsive Web Design
Source: Luke Chesser on Unsplash

But these disadvantages are fully covered by the important benefits of responsive design. To better understand why responsive web design is critical, let's explore some of the top reasons for its importance:

  • Google prioritizes websites that are easy to view and navigate on mobile devices. Therefore, since 2015, it has been essential for those who want good rankings in search engines to ensure their website follows a responsive design with mobile-friendly behavior.
  • A well-built mobile website creates strong trust and recognition with your consumers. Statistics reveal that users are likelier to recommend companies with an aesthetically appealing and optimized mobile site.
  • A seamless user experience across all devices encourages customer engagement, amplifies lead generation, and drives sales and conversions. Research shows that after a poor mobile experience, more than half of consumers leave for the competition's website.

An Example of an Excellent Responsive Website

A responsive web design is great for creating an enjoyable user experience, no matter what device they're on. One impressive responsive website example is that of GitHub.

GitHub offers a smooth, uninterrupted journey across all devices. Although there are slight discrepancies between the desktop and tablet experience: when shifting from desktops to tablets, the upper section changes its two-column layout into one column with copy situated on top of the signup form instead of beside it. Additionally, while GitHub's login form is positioned at center stage on laptops and tablets, only an action button appears for mobile users. As such, customers must select this prompt to unveil the enrollment field below it.

Tips for Creating a Responsive Design

Together, these three types of functionality allow designers to craft a responsive design.

If you're looking to create a responsive website, there are several essential tips to remember. First, start with responsive design principles rather than jumping straight into the visual design of your website - responsive design must come before cosmetics.

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Web pages layout elements

When creating a website, the first and foremost step is to customize different sizes for layout components dependent on media query or breakpoint. The number of containers you'll need will vary based on your design but typically center around these elements:

  1. Header
  2. Navigation
  3. Content
  4. Sidebar
  5. Footer
Common layout for websites
Source: Devwares

Be sure that elements like navigation menus, headings, responsive images, and content blocks will resize automatically across mobile devices and browsers. Next, ensure your site is optimized for mobile devices, minimizing the text entry needed for users and removing any unnecessary elements.

Common resolutions for desktop and mobile devices

Finally, use media queries wisely - these requests allow different CSS styling to be applied depending on the screen size of each device. With these tips in mind, responsive websites are within anyone's reach!

Common resolutions for desktop and mobile devices
Source: Worldwide Screen Resolution Stats

According to the Worldwide Screen Resolution Stats, these have been determined as the most frequent resolutions across mobile phones, desktop, and tablet devices:

  • 1920×1080 (8.9%)
  • 1366×768 (6.7%)
  • 360×800 (5.9%)
  • 1536×864 (4.1%)
  • 414×896 (3.8%)
  • 390x844(3.3%).

CTA (call-to-action)

With prominent calls-to-action (CTAs), your website's visitors will be able to find the right path. CTAs are essential stepping stones, guiding users to where they need to go - such as a link or button that leads them towards signing up for a program or making a purchase. Make sure you have clear and concise CTAs so people can easily reach their destination!

Make sure your CTA button stands out in color, size, shape, and style. Clearly defined circulars, squares, or rectangles are the most recognizable shapes, while more creative forms can be confusing, so it's best to stick with what people already know. Incorporate generous spacing and white space around important buttons and text links to prevent misclicks and make them finger-friendly for touchscreen devices.

Call-to-action example of Spotify
Source: Spotify

When it comes to colors, use up to two or three from your brand's color palette. A bright, eye-catching shade will draw visitors' attention and help guide them toward clicking on essential CTAs. Add dimension to your website with drop shadows and gradients that subtly encourage people to click on buttons you want them to click!

Test Responsiveness

Take the first step to a successful mobile-ready website by running Google's Mobile-Friendly Test. Just enter your site or mobile version's URL and press "Test URL" for quick and comprehensive results that will help you create an optimized, user-friendly experience.

Responsiveness Testing
Source: freestocks on Unsplash


As you can see, responsive design is a handy and powerful tool for any website. It's easy to understand, intuitive for user experience, and has many benefits – from improved UX to higher search rankings. Plus, in a world where most browsing is now done on mobile devices, ensuring your site is as mobile-friendly as possible is just plain wise. It can be daunting at first if you don't know where to start, but once you get the hang of it, you should find that designing a responsive site isn't too tricky. All that matters is that your site looks great no matter what device someone views it on! So whether you're creating a new website or need to update an existing one, make sure you include some basic RWD principles. And if you want to read further on the subject, feel free to check out our other articles on how best to use RWD features and utilize various UI elements, so your site looks professional yet fun!