Designing for the Sudden – A Listing Aside


I’m undecided after I first heard this quote, however it’s one thing that has stayed with me through the years. How do you create providers for conditions you’ll be able to’t think about? Or design merchandise that work on gadgets but to be invented?

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Flash, Photoshop, and responsive design#section2

After I first began designing web sites, my go-to software program was Photoshop. I created a 960px canvas and set about making a format that I might later drop content material in. The event part was about attaining pixel-perfect accuracy utilizing fastened widths, fastened heights, and absolute positioning.

Ethan Marcotte’s discuss at An Occasion Aside and subsequent article “Responsive Net Design” in A Listing Aside in 2010 modified all this. I used to be bought on responsive design as quickly as I heard about it, however I used to be additionally terrified. The pixel-perfect designs filled with magic numbers that I had beforehand prided myself on producing have been not ok.

The concern wasn’t helped by my first expertise with responsive design. My first venture was to take an present fixed-width web site and make it responsive. What I realized the arduous manner was you can’t simply add responsiveness on the finish of a venture. To create fluid layouts, you should plan all through the design part.

A brand new strategy to design#section3

Designing responsive or fluid websites has at all times been about eradicating limitations, producing content material that may be seen on any machine. It depends on the usage of percentage-based layouts, which I initially achieved with native CSS and utility courses:

.column-span-6 {
  width: 49%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;

.column-span-4 {
  width: 32%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;

.column-span-3 {
  width: 24%;
  float: left;
  margin-right: 0.5%;
  margin-left: 0.5%;

Then with Sass so I might make the most of @contains to re-use repeated blocks of code and transfer again to extra semantic markup:

.brand {
  @embrace colSpan(6);

.search {
  @embrace colSpan(3);

.social-share {
  @embrace colSpan(3);

Media queries#section4

The second ingredient for responsive design is media queries. With out them, content material would shrink to suit the accessible house no matter whether or not that content material remained readable (The precise reverse downside occurred with the introduction of a mobile-first method).

Wireframes showing three boxes at a large size, and three very narrow boxes at a mobile size
Parts changing into too small at cell breakpoints

Media queries prevented this by permitting us so as to add breakpoints the place the design might adapt. Like most individuals, I began out with three breakpoints: one for desktop, one for tablets, and one for cell. Through the years, I added increasingly more for phablets, extensive screens, and so forth. 

For years, I fortunately labored this fashion and improved each my design and front-end abilities within the course of. The one downside I encountered was making modifications to content material, since with our Sass grid system in place, there was no manner for the positioning house owners so as to add content material with out amending the markup—one thing a small enterprise proprietor may battle with. It’s because every row within the grid was outlined utilizing a div as a container. Including content material meant creating new row markup, which requires a degree of HTML data.

Row markup was a staple of early responsive design, current in all of the extensively used frameworks like Bootstrap and Skeleton.

<part class="row">
  <div class="column-span-4">1 of seven</div>
  <div class="column-span-4">2 of seven</div>
  <div class="column-span-4">3 of seven</div>

<part class="row">
  <div class="column-span-4">4 of seven</div>
  <div class="column-span-4">5 of seven</div>
  <div class="column-span-4">6 of seven</div>

<part class="row">
  <div class="column-span-4">7 of seven</div>
Wireframe showing three rows of boxes
Parts positioned within the rows of a Sass grid

One other downside arose as I moved from a design company constructing web sites for small- to medium-sized companies, to bigger in-house groups the place I labored throughout a collection of associated websites. In these roles I began to work rather more with reusable parts. 

Our reliance on media queries resulted in parts that have been tied to frequent viewport sizes. If the aim of element libraries is reuse, then this can be a actual downside as a result of you’ll be able to solely use these parts if the gadgets you’re designing for correspond to the viewport sizes used within the sample library—within the course of probably not hitting that “gadgets that don’t but exist”  aim.

Then there’s the issue of house. Media queries permit parts to adapt based mostly on the viewport dimension, however what if I put a element right into a sidebar, like within the determine under?

Wireframes showing different configurations of boxes at three different sizes
Parts responding to the viewport width with media queries

Container queries: our savior or a false daybreak?#section5

Container queries have lengthy been touted as an enchancment upon media queries, however on the time of writing are unsupported in most browsers. There are JavaScript workarounds, however they’ll create dependency and compatibility points. The fundamental concept underlying container queries is that components ought to change based mostly on the dimensions of their guardian container and never the viewport width, as seen within the following illustrations.

Wireframes showing different configurations of boxes at different sizes
Parts responding to their guardian container with container queries

One of many greatest arguments in favor of container queries is that they assist us create parts or design patterns which are really reusable as a result of they are often picked up and positioned wherever in a format. This is a vital step in transferring towards a type of component-based design that works at any dimension on any machine.

In different phrases, responsive parts to switch responsive layouts.

Container queries will assist us transfer from designing pages that reply to the browser or machine dimension to designing parts that may be positioned in a sidebar or in the primary content material, and reply accordingly.

My concern is that we’re nonetheless utilizing format to find out when a design must adapt. This method will at all times be restrictive, as we are going to nonetheless want pre-defined breakpoints. For that reason, my foremost query with container queries is, How would we resolve when to alter the CSS utilized by a element? 

A element library faraway from context and actual content material might be not the very best place for that call. 

Because the diagrams under illustrate, we will use container queries to create designs for particular container widths, however what if I need to change the design based mostly on the picture dimension or ratio?

Wireframes showing different layouts at 600px and 400px
Playing cards responding to their guardian container with container queries
Wireframes showing different configurations of content at the same size
Playing cards responding based mostly on their very own content material

On this instance, the size of the container aren’t what ought to dictate the design; moderately, the picture is.

It’s arduous to say for positive whether or not container queries might be successful story till we have now stable cross-browser help for them. Responsive element libraries would undoubtedly evolve how we design and would enhance the probabilities for reuse and design at scale. However possibly we are going to at all times want to regulate these parts to swimsuit our content material.

CSS is altering#section6

While the container question debate rumbles on, there have been quite a few advances in CSS that change the way in which we take into consideration design. The times of fixed-width components measured in pixels and floated div components used to cobble layouts collectively are lengthy gone, consigned to historical past together with desk layouts. Flexbox and CSS Grid have revolutionized layouts for the net. We will now create components that wrap onto new rows once they run out of house, not when the machine modifications.

.wrapper {
  show: grid;
  grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, 450px);
  hole: 10px;

The repeat() operate paired with auto-fit or auto-fill permits us to specify how a lot house every column ought to use whereas leaving it as much as the browser to resolve when to spill the columns onto a brand new line. Related issues will be achieved with Flexbox, as components can wrap over a number of rows and “flex” to fill accessible house. 

.wrapper {
  show: flex;
  flex-wrap: wrap;
  justify-content: space-between;

.baby {
  flex-basis: 32%;
  margin-bottom: 20px;

The most important advantage of all that is you don’t must wrap components in container rows. With out rows, content material isn’t tied to web page markup in fairly the identical manner, permitting for removals or additions of content material with out extra growth.

A wireframe showing seven boxes in a larger container
A conventional Grid format with out the same old row containers

It is a large step ahead on the subject of creating designs that permit for evolving content material, however the actual recreation changer for versatile designs is CSS Subgrid. 

Keep in mind the times of crafting completely aligned interfaces, just for the shopper so as to add an unbelievably lengthy header virtually as quickly as they’re given CMS entry, just like the illustration under?

Playing cards unable to reply to a sibling’s content material modifications

Subgrid permits components to reply to changes in their very own content material and within the content material of sibling components, serving to us create designs extra resilient to alter.

Wireframes showing several boxes with the contents aligned across boxes
Playing cards responding to content material in sibling playing cards
.wrapper {
  show: grid;
  grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, minmax(150px, 1fr));
     grid-template-rows: auto 1fr auto;
  hole: 10px;

.sub-grid {
  show: grid;
  grid-row: span 3;
  grid-template-rows: subgrid; /* units rows to guardian grid */

CSS Grid permits us to separate format and content material, thereby enabling versatile designs. In the meantime, Subgrid permits us to create designs that may adapt so as to swimsuit morphing content material. Subgrid on the time of writing is barely supported in Firefox however the above code will be applied behind an @helps characteristic question. 

Intrinsic layouts #section7

I’d be remiss to not point out intrinsic layouts, the time period created by Jen Simmons to explain a mix of recent and previous CSS options used to create layouts that reply to accessible house. 

Responsive layouts have versatile columns utilizing percentages. Intrinsic layouts, alternatively, use the fr unit to create versatile columns that gained’t ever shrink a lot that they render the content material illegible.

fr models is a strategy to say I need you to distribute the additional house on this manner, however…don’t ever make it smaller than the content material that’s within it.

—Jen Simmons, “Designing Intrinsic Layouts”

Intrinsic layouts can even make the most of a mix of fastened and versatile models, permitting the content material to dictate the house it takes up.

A slide from a presentation showing two boxes with max content and one with auto
Slide from “Designing Intrinsic Layouts” by Jen Simmons

What makes intrinsic design stand out is that it not solely creates designs that may stand up to future gadgets but in addition helps scale design with out shedding flexibility. Parts and patterns will be lifted and reused with out the prerequisite of getting the identical breakpoints or the identical quantity of content material as within the earlier implementation. 

We will now create designs that adapt to the house they’ve, the content material inside them, and the content material round them. With an intrinsic method, we will assemble responsive parts with out relying on container queries.

One other 2010 second?#section8

This intrinsic method ought to in my opinion be each bit as groundbreaking as responsive internet design was ten years in the past. For me, it’s one other “all the pieces modified” second. 

But it surely doesn’t appear to be transferring fairly as quick; I haven’t but had that very same career-changing second I had with responsive design, regardless of the extensively shared and sensible discuss that introduced it to my consideration. 

One cause for that could possibly be that I now work in a big group, which is kind of completely different from the design company function I had in 2010. In my company days, each new venture was a clear slate, an opportunity to attempt one thing new. These days, initiatives use present instruments and frameworks and are sometimes enhancements to present web sites with an present codebase. 

One other could possibly be that I really feel extra ready for change now. In 2010 I used to be new to design typically; the shift was scary and required loads of studying. Additionally, an intrinsic method isn’t precisely all-new; it’s about utilizing present abilities and present CSS data another way. 

You possibly can’t framework your manner out of a content material downside#section9

One more reason for the marginally slower adoption of intrinsic design could possibly be the shortage of quick-fix framework options accessible to kick-start the change. 

Responsive grid techniques have been all over ten years in the past. With a framework like Bootstrap or Skeleton, you had a responsive design template at your fingertips.

Intrinsic design and frameworks don’t go hand in hand fairly so effectively as a result of the advantage of having a number of models is a hindrance on the subject of creating format templates. The fantastic thing about intrinsic design is combining completely different models and experimenting with strategies to get the very best to your content material.

After which there are design instruments. We most likely all, in some unspecified time in the future in our careers, used Photoshop templates for desktop, pill, and cell gadgets to drop designs in and present how the positioning would take a look at all three levels.

How do you try this now, with every element responding to content material and layouts flexing as and when they should? This kind of design should occur within the browser, which personally I’m a giant fan of. 

The talk about “whether or not designers ought to code” is one other that has rumbled on for years. When designing a digital product, we should always, on the very least, design for a best- and worst-case situation on the subject of content material. To do that in a graphics-based software program package deal is much from very best. In code, we will add longer sentences, extra radio buttons, and additional tabs, and watch in actual time because the design adapts. Does it nonetheless work? Is the design too reliant on the present content material?

Personally, I look ahead to the day intrinsic design is the usual for design, when a design element will be really versatile and adapt to each its house and content material with no reliance on machine or container dimensions.

Content material just isn’t fixed. In spite of everything, to design for the unknown or sudden we have to account for content material modifications like our earlier Subgrid card instance that allowed the playing cards to reply to changes to their very own content material and the content material of sibling components.

Fortunately, there’s extra to CSS than format, and loads of properties and values might help us put content material first. Subgrid and pseudo-elements like ::first-line and ::first-letter assist to separate design from markup so we will create designs that permit for modifications.

As an alternative of previous markup hacks like this—

  <span class="first-line">First line of textual content with completely different styling</span>...

—we will goal content material based mostly on the place it seems.

.component::first-line {
  font-size: 1.4em;

.component::first-letter {
  coloration: purple;

A lot greater additions to CSS embrace logical properties, which change the way in which we assemble designs utilizing logical dimensions (begin and finish) as an alternative of bodily ones (left and proper), one thing CSS Grid additionally does with capabilities like min(), max(), and clamp().

This flexibility permits for directional modifications based on content material, a typical requirement when we have to current content material in a number of languages. Prior to now, this was usually achieved with Sass mixins however was usually restricted to switching from left-to-right to right-to-left orientation.

Within the Sass model, directional variables should be set.

$route: rtl;
$opposite-direction: ltr;

$start-direction: proper;
$end-direction: left;

These variables can be utilized as values—

physique {
  route: $route;
  text-align: $start-direction;

—or as properties.

margin-#{$end-direction}: 10px;
padding-#{$start-direction}: 10px;

Nonetheless, now we have now native logical properties, eradicating the reliance on each Sass (or an identical device) and pre-planning that necessitated utilizing variables all through a codebase. These properties additionally begin to break aside the tight coupling between a design and strict bodily dimensions, creating extra flexibility for modifications in language and in route.

margin-block-end: 10px;
padding-block-start: 10px;

There are additionally native begin and finish values for properties like text-align, which implies we will exchange text-align: proper with text-align: begin.

Like the sooner examples, these properties assist to construct out designs that aren’t constrained to at least one language; the design will replicate the content material’s wants.

Wireframe showing different text alignment options

Mounted and fluid #section11

We briefly lined the ability of mixing fastened widths with fluid widths with intrinsic layouts. The min() and max() capabilities are an identical idea, permitting you to specify a hard and fast worth with a versatile various. 

For min() this implies setting a fluid minimal worth and a most fastened worth.

.component {
  width: min(50%, 300px);
Wireframe showing a 300px box inside of an 800px box, and a 200px box inside of a 400px box

The component within the determine above might be 50% of its container so long as the component’s width doesn’t exceed 300px.

For max() we will set a versatile max worth and a minimal fastened worth.

.component {
  width: max(50%, 300px);
Wireframe showing a 400px box inside of an 800px box, and a 300px box inside of a 400px box

Now the component might be 50% of its container so long as the component’s width is not less than 300px. This implies we will set limits however permit content material to react to the accessible house. 

The clamp() operate builds on this by permitting us to set a most well-liked worth with a 3rd parameter. Now we will permit the component to shrink or develop if it must with out getting to some extent the place it turns into unusable.

.component {
  width: clamp(300px, 50%, 600px);
Wireframe showing an 800px box inside of a 1400px box, a 400px box inside of an 800px box, and a 300px box inside of a 400px box

This time, the component’s width might be 50% (the popular worth) of its container however by no means lower than 300px and by no means greater than 600px.

With these strategies, we have now a content-first method to responsive design. We will separate content material from markup, that means the modifications customers make won’t have an effect on the design. We will begin to future-proof designs by planning for sudden modifications in language or route. And we will improve flexibility by setting desired dimensions alongside versatile options, permitting for kind of content material to be displayed accurately.

Due to what we’ve mentioned to this point, we will cowl machine flexibility by altering our method, designing round content material and house as an alternative of catering to gadgets. However what about that final little bit of Jeffrey Zeldman’s quote, “…conditions you haven’t imagined”?

It’s a really completely different factor to design for somebody seated at a desktop pc versus somebody utilizing a cell phone and transferring by way of a crowded avenue in obtrusive sunshine. Conditions and environments are arduous to plan for or predict as a result of they modify as folks react to their very own distinctive challenges and duties.

Because of this selection is so necessary. One dimension by no means matches all, so we have to design for a number of eventualities to create equal experiences for all our customers.

Fortunately, there’s a lot we will do to supply selection.

Accountable design #section13

“There are elements of the world the place cell knowledge is prohibitively costly, and the place there’s little or no broadband infrastructure.”

I Used the Net for a Day on a 50 MB Finances

Chris Ashton

One of many greatest assumptions we make is that individuals interacting with our designs have a great wifi connection and a large display monitor. However in the actual world, our customers could also be commuters touring on trains or different types of transport utilizing smaller cell gadgets that may expertise drops in connectivity. There’s nothing extra irritating than an internet web page that gained’t load, however there are methods we might help customers use much less knowledge or cope with sporadic connectivity.

The srcset attribute permits the browser to resolve which picture to serve. This implies we will create smaller ‘cropped’ photographs to show on cell gadgets in flip utilizing much less bandwidth and fewer knowledge.

  srcset=" 1024w,
     alt="Picture alt textual content" />

The preload attribute can even assist us to consider how and when media is downloaded. It may be used to inform a browser about any important belongings that should be downloaded with excessive precedence, bettering perceived efficiency and the person expertise. 

<hyperlink rel="stylesheet" href=""> <!--Customary stylesheet markup-->
<hyperlink rel="preload" href="" as="fashion"> <!--Preload stylesheet markup-->

There’s additionally native lazy loading, which signifies belongings that ought to solely be downloaded when they’re wanted.

<img src="" loading="lazy" alt="…">

With srcset, preload, and lazy loading, we will begin to tailor a person’s expertise based mostly on the state of affairs they discover themselves in. What none of this does, nonetheless, is permit the person themselves to resolve what they need downloaded, as the choice is normally the browser’s to make. 

So how can we put customers in management?

The return of media queries #section14

Media queries have at all times been about rather more than machine sizes. They permit content material to adapt to completely different conditions, with display dimension being simply one in every of them.

We’ve lengthy been capable of verify for media sorts like print and speech and options corresponding to hover, decision, and coloration. These checks permit us to supply choices that swimsuit multiple situation; it’s much less about one-size-fits-all and extra about serving adaptable content material. 

As of this writing, the Media Queries Degree 5 spec continues to be beneath growth. It introduces some actually thrilling queries that sooner or later will assist us design for a number of different sudden conditions.

For instance, there’s a light-level characteristic that lets you modify types if a person is in daylight or darkness. Paired with customized properties, these options permit us to rapidly create designs or themes for particular environments.

@media (light-level: regular) {
  --background-color: #fff;
  --text-color: #0b0c0c;  

@media (light-level: dim) {
  --background-color: #efd226;
  --text-color: #0b0c0c;

One other key characteristic of the Degree 5 spec is personalization. As an alternative of making designs which are the identical for everybody, customers can select what works for them. That is achieved by utilizing options like prefers-reduced-data, prefers-color-scheme, and prefers-reduced-motion, the latter two of which already get pleasure from broad browser help. These options faucet into preferences set through the working system or browser so folks don’t must spend time making every web site they go to extra usable. 

Media queries like this transcend selections made by a browser to grant extra management to the person.

Anticipate the sudden#section15

In the long run, the one factor we should always at all times anticipate is for issues to alter. Gadgets specifically change quicker than we will sustain, with foldable screens already in the marketplace.

We will’t design the identical manner we have now for this ever-changing panorama, however we will design for content material. By placing content material first and permitting that content material to adapt to no matter house surrounds it, we will create extra sturdy, versatile designs that improve the longevity of our merchandise. 

A variety of the CSS mentioned right here is about transferring away from layouts and placing content material on the coronary heart of design. From responsive parts to fastened and fluid models, there’s a lot extra we will do to take a extra intrinsic method. Even higher, we will check these strategies through the design part by designing in-browser and watching how our designs adapt in real-time.

In the case of sudden conditions, we want to ensure our merchandise are usable when folks want them, each time and wherever that may be. We will transfer nearer to reaching this by involving customers in our design choices, by creating selection through browsers, and by giving management to our customers with user-preference-based media queries. 

Good design for the sudden ought to permit for change, present selection, and provides management to these we serve: our customers themselves.