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Is Responsive Web Design leading to restrained, dull and bland sites?

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Time to read: 4 minutes

One of the talks at a Digital Barn event sparked the below tweet:

In the past, sites we'd created were really heavy on the tangible, physical nature and had become known for this style. Sites like Swallows and Damsons and Beanies have this kind of character in buckets. They were great fun to create and really capture the essence of their brands, and became something of a signature style for Moogaloo.

But times move on, aesthetics evolve and trends change. Even Apple, a company who's design principles can rarely be faulted are now coming under fire for their over reliance on Skeuomorphic design (Skeuo-what-now?), a criticism, that if valid could equally be leveled at some of our past work.

On top of visual trends, the context we view web pages on and the technology we use to built them with on moves on too. In 2011, more smartphones were sold than client PCs and tablet users are found to spend 30% more time on sites than PC users.

Thinking back to what was reflected in the opening tweet, is has Responsive Web Design brought about, or perhaps neccesitated, a move away from this more graphically intense design style in favour of a more minimal approach and potentially lacking visual?

My reasoning for why this may be occurring is at 2 points in the design process:

  1. Mobile first - very much the responsible and cost effective thing is to build a site with the content first and foremost. The mobile screen forces us to cut all the excess filler, and focus on the content. The slower download speeds of mobile data connections mean that all those big background graphics are no longer relevant, coupled with excellent CSS3 and SVG support in these mobile devices and we can recreate a fair amount of these effects we previously used graphics for, in a cleaner, more scalable manner.
  2. Designing in the browser - seeing as we're designing for the web browser, shouldn't we be building it in the web browser? When Photoshop is no longer the primary tool used for desiging the majority of a site and is relegated to creating a few graphical assets, the scope and space for large elaborate and visually intense websites becomes somewhat secondary - after all, if the content works perfectly fine in a simple mobile screen space, why the need for all the visual flourishes of a 200 layer Photoshop file?

Between these 2 recent progressions in web design, it's easy to see how responsively built websites can lead to a cut down main site that lacks the spark and artistic flair a full desktop site would previously had poured into it. Add in a finite amount of project budget, and we now have to start weighing up spending that extra time on visual details for the desktop user vs a more enjoyable and accessible user experience on smaller and mobile devices.

The important point to remember though is that Responsive Web Design is itself not to blame for restrained, dull and bland sites. The people building them are. With any new technology, comes challenges in how to adapt this into the bigger design process without it affecting the end result. As pointed out by Andy Budd in the below Branch discussion, it was a challenge to those in the early Standards movement and is a challenge now with the Responsive movement.
That said, I'd rather be at the forefront of a movement and ahead of the game than stuck at the back and playing catch up all the time.

For the past year, Moogaloo have been investing in the time to learn how and to build all our sites in a responsive fashion. Whether you're a creative film production company, an online seller of cheesecakes or offer professional services, a website that scales to any devices size should be a priority, and that certainly should not lead to a dull site.

You can follow a discussion on this topic in the Branch below: