Bear with me as I write this post, it’s probably going to be a little disjointed and vague as I try to recount my experiences and various discussions with fellow designers at the Clearleft organised Responsive Day Out.

Responsive day out

The format of the day was well considered with the speakers doing short, 20 minutes talks one after another in groups of 3 followed by a brief Q&A where they all came back on the stage to take a few questions from the audience. That does lend itself to either brief overview talks or in a couple of cases a specific talk about a particular problem or facet of responsive design.

I’d like to express my thanks to all the speakers right now and considering there were a couple of first time talks the standard was excellent and subject matter varied but I took away a couple of things about the day and hearing the stories of fellow designers both during and after the conference and it’s those I’d like to try and at least get out of my brain in some way right now.

Process and the evils of Photoshop

I know there is at least one of my twitter followers who groans at every mention of process and I know this will also get a reasonable sized grunt too (go on Chris..) but while I often enjoy hearing about various processes and workflows I get a real split feeling about where people are going with responsive workflows and also what’s being said in public on Twitter and blogs and what’s sometimes happening behind agency or freelancers doors.

The morning speakers covered some of their process tips and workflows and the more we push for browser prototyping as a the way to work with RWD it feels like Photoshop or Fireworks visuals are being almost demonised (edit for clarity: not by specifically by the speakers, just an industry trend/general feeling) to the extreme and I see many talks or blog posts saying we should be in the browser and sending clients style tiles and asset libraries or guides but to be honest it’s starting (to me at least) to feel a little unsatisfactory.

Bear with me here because like some of my other previous posts, I’m not saying I don’t believe in a certain way or tool, just that sometimes there doesn’t seem to as much mention of negative aspects as positive which creates a bit of a false sense of security. 

Throwing out Photoshop visuals or full comps does make sense, after all, you’re not able to show a client all the breakpoints and layout options right? That’s a fairly sensible, logical jump.

When we’re prototyping in HTML and creating style guides or panels and swatches I sometimes feel like I’m selling a client a jigsaw puzzle that they’re expected to put together without seeing the picture on the lid.

I’d have liked to have heard a talk go into more detail about when a process hasn’t worked or broken down and something has needed to be changed to get a result. It’s patently clear that everyone in the industry is making this up they go along – there’s nothing wrong with that but I think there’s possibly more that can be done to share where things are going wrong rather than focusing on praising what we all feel isn’t quite an optimal process. Quite what that is …

Pragmatic design and development

I’m very lucky to work where I do, my partner at Offroadcode is an exceptionally pragmatic, results driven developer. He’s had some long standing views on responsive design that I’m going to be asking him to blog about on the Offroadcode site soon but it was really great hearing Andy and Tom’s talks about their work on the BBC and Guardian sites and how they weigh cost vs benefit in delivering content to a massive and varied audience.

There’s a lot of compromise in design and their work deciding which compromises and tweaks to make to optimise their sites was really interesting. There is a book about responsive web design (obviously) but it’s now time to keep pushing and not worrying about not going by the book.

I’d like to see more developers taking on responsive design and sharing their thoughts because while it’s got design in the name, it’s something I feel we would benefit from having more angles of attack to “solve”.

It’s not new!

I heard a few people talking about responsive design and Ethan’s article being reasonably new or a year or so old, it’s not and I don’t think we can hide behind that any more. It’s nearly 3 years since Responsive Web Design was published and we still tout the Boston Globe as a poster boy project and yes it’s a good site for sure but again, that’s getting on for 2 years old too. Have we stood still long enough or too long? Where do we go from here?

There will be people who have entered the industry in the last 2 and nearly 3 years who should have been exposed to this sort of design methodology from day 1.

Their companies might not have embraced it immediately but there’s a wave of designers who aren’t harking back to the olden days like myself or many other older folks. This is their default in one shape or form.

Browser makers need to much do more

Anna gave a fascinating talk about console browsers and Bruce Lawson from Opera is always a great ambassador for his company and the community and talked through a wide range of potential new CSS code that might help.

Again, I’m going to defer to my partner Pete on this one because frankly he’s been saying for nearly 2 years that many problems in responsive design require the browser makers to work together even closer and faster and it pains me a little that there’s a possibility he’s actually right.

The reason I’ve “seen the light” a little here is that while Bruce was demonstrating some possible new CSS level 4 media query options for dealing with different pointer values such touch, fine and talking through the adaptive images options available to us

I couldn’t help but feel as a designer I’m just being told to throw more and more code at a problem we’re actually still struggling to clearly define.

Looking at the amount and wacky formatting of code for the picture element makes me a bit sad to be honest and after hearing Andy talking about how they make tactical and pragmatic compromises on the Guardian site, perhaps we’re approaching much of this the wrong way as Pete said and the better, more flexible (although very much a 90/10 solution) would be to deliver a better image format to the browser and beat the browser manufacturers until they do a better job at supporting from their side. Paul Robert Lloyd touched on this in his talk too.

Measuring things

Now, bear with me for the next paragraphs as I try and elaborate on a feeling. This steps beyond what I think we all probably do on a day to day basis in the office on client projects where you’re probably building a responsive site in the same way as I am. Or the person 4 rows behind you at the conference or one of the speakers you enjoyed. Most people’s processes vary from project to project but ultimately the end result is still a website that solves a problem for your client. Be it increasing sales of their new range of Bruce Lawson mohawk hair dye or whatever.

You probably build it in roughly the same way as everyone else as well. That’s fine and it’s not really what I got from the last few talks from OwenPaul and Mark Boulton.

My feeling throughout the conference is once we admit how we’re currently working and building with media queries, tweak points or whatever you want to call them is that to support (or just make accessible)  so many varied and growing browser types, we need a better way to measure what we’re creating.

Owen’s talk which was an explanation of his 24 Ways article Composing the new cannon last year. I’m not ashamed to admit I simply couldn’t grasp the concepts he was talking about clearly enough to think of a use for them. His talk clarified a lot of his ideas and theories (they’re his theories by the way, suggestions for exploration) and it’s planted a seed about how (and indeed if) we can measure our canvas in todays browser and device environment which is getting ever more confusing and back to front (Chromebook Pixel … high DPI touch laptop on a mobile connection mind asplode!).

When the videos from the conference are available, if you only watch one, please watch Owen’s with an open mind.

Mark and Paul (thanks for the mention in your talk!) both also spoke well about this almost philosophical search for boundaries and how to measure things. Not necessarily practical information to take away and use in your next client project but for me these talks have started a niggle that we’re trying to measure something “a website” using tools that may not be flexible enough to do it yet. What the answer is, I don’t know – like I said it’s just a seed that was planted.

I’m pretty sure at some point in the not too distant future we’re going to see someone who changes their job title from being an actual designer to some sort of design philosopher…

Meeting and sharing

I was blown away recently at being invited to speak at Hybrid Conference in August and I’m generally shy and not really a big conference person so I wanted first to thank from the bottom of my heart all the people who said hello to me over the last couple of days and many who were kind enough to say they read and enjoyed my writing.

I had some great chats with several people at the after party (Thanks Gridset) who told me that they read this blog because from time to time I write about when things aren’t going so well or when something goes to pot and that it’s a sometimes nice compliment to the many other blogs out there focus on how great processes are or that clients always do as they’re told. It’s given me a timely boost to at least finish off a few of the drafts I’ve had sat in my folder.

One of the main reasons for coming down was to meet people and get a feel for the conference scene that I’m going to be more involved with this year leading up to speaking in August and it was truly a pleasure meeting so many new people this week.

Twitter vs reality

One of the other big takeaways for me was that while the call to share more – stats, case studies etc is always there I think there’s a bigger need for people to share the downsides and times when projects haven’t gone perfectly according to the style swatch and what you’ve done to remedy it. It’s nice to hear things are going well and your clients are awesome (that’s good marketing right!) but it’s also immensely helpful hearing about when it goes wrong.

I know you’ve hit a stumbling block at some point because we’re all making it up as we go along so blog about it!

Twitter is often the equivalent of an old fashioned highlight reel where the perception is that only successes should be shouted about and it creates quite a curious feeling for me when I meet people who then share these amazing stories about their experiences in real projects and solving problems. I think more sharing of these things will help move us closer to knowing what we’re actually doing than being selective and sharing only success stories. It brings a better sense of perspective about what we’re doing.

The organisers

A massive thanks to Clearleft, Shopify and Mailchimp who and to @Adactio who kept everything flowing smoothly and moving along and thanks to all the speakers. The short talks + Q&A format combined with a generous lunch break moved everything along nicely and for £50 I think it was an absolute steal.

James Young

Written by James Young

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