random posts about nerdy stuff

Responsive Breakpoints

Visitors on your website use a wide variety of devices and screen sizes. It's important to plan the site's design for all of these to retain a great user experience. What might look great on the designer's 27" 5k screen might not fit as well on a visitor's 13" 1280x800 notebook. The way each block or blade of content is designed should cater to these, and other sizes either by how they're defined to behave or by using CSS breakpoints to deliver that same element with different styling.


Responsive website in multiple devices

We have much more than a simple list of devices to design for. Smartphones come in a variety of sizes as do tablets. Desktop and notebook users may not always view your site at 100% screen size, especially on an OS that lets you snap a site to the left or right of the screen. Tablet users may use the device in landscape or portrait. During the design process, it's important to plan for all of these viewports to ensure the site works and looks great across the board.

Design Process

Big images are great, but how much of the screen do they take up on a shorter display like a tablet or small notebook? If text is positioned in a specific spot on top of a hero image or slideshow, can it still fit if the image is smaller or shorter? These are things that are important to consider when building out the initial design to make sure things can be resized to responsively fit in different environments.

A simple way to plan for responsive when building a desktop sized comp is to consider how things will resize at less than your Photoshop art board. Does the left and right of the image get cut off if the image is at a fixed height, and is that still ok? If the height is a percentage retaining the original ratio of the image to avoid any cropping of the image, can the associated text on top of the image still fit and be readable?

Blocks of content should either be able to resize to fit different environments based on percentages, while retaining their readability. If at any point, like on a smartphone, the percentage widths of an element make it unreadable, a CSS breakpoint should be change the element to best fit in that particular size. Example: You may have four columns of content showcasing a list of top clients in your desktop comp. Four columns of text may not fit well on a smartphone, so the breakpoint will adjust the layout at these sizes to show the same content stacked in one column rather than side by side in four. Planning for this breakpoint in the design process with a comp helps ensure the site is true to the designer's vision while making sure it looks and works great in every environment.

Ask the client what device they use to make sure when they view the comps it looks great on their specific screen.

Many times, seeing display issues in a comp is as simple as viewing the design at 100% within the browser on a particular device. If a client's primary computer is a smaller notebook, and they look at the comp at 100% in their own browser (which may have a shorter height with tabs and bookmarks bar), it's easier to notice things like "Why can't I see this content above the fold?" or "This image is too tall for my screen.". Delivering a 100% JPG or PNG comp for review which can be viewed within the actual viewing environment can showcase precisely what the end result will be. A PDF or image viewed at sizes other than 100%, or worse - printed out on paper, can't accurately show what the final product will look in a browser.


In most cases, two breakpoints can be enough: mobile (smartphones and tablet portrait) and desktop (tablet landscape and notebook/desktop). These two sizes fall into ranges of pixel sizes:

  • Desktop: 1024px - 1200px and beyond
  • Tablet: 768px - 1024px or < 1024px
  • Phone: < 768px (optional)

Setting a unique style for phone is optional as in many cases, tablet in portrait mode may look the same as on phone. Other breakpoints may take into account the device height too. A notebook might have a 1366px wide screen, but it's important to consider they only have 768px (minus the browser frame, tab and bookmarks bar, dock, etc) viewing height before scrolling.

Breakpoints should cascade from desktop down to smaller devices since we make adjustments from the larger size to fit on smaller screens.

"Mobile first" isn't always the best approach, especially if the design we're starting from are designed for a desktop browser. CSS means "Cascading Style Sheet", which means style declarations will cascade from top to bottom. Build your CSS for desktop then include your responsive edits to the original styles at the end, which will retain the desktop style for anything not overwritten for the other breakpoints. I like to keep my main CSS in a separate file from the responsive CSS to keep things tidy. In most cases, the responsive adjustments I make for extra large or smaller mobile sizes is relatively short. Keeping them separate is a tidy way of making things easy to locate.

Alternate Elements for Specific Viewports

Oftentimes, a multi-column layout works fine on desktop but has to be structured differently to fit on a mobile sized device. For example, we may have 2 columns with text on the left and 2 images on the right. On mobile, the default assumption would be "stack left column on top of right column", but in this case might not look as good. For this, I set a .mobile-only and .desktop-only CSS class that sets display: none; to completely hide an element in a breakpoint. This way, I can have a desktop version of the block HTML duplicated for mobile in the code, yet only one shows up on desktop and the other on mobile.


  • Browser Display Statistics - important to note that screen resolution does not mean the user's browser is full screen. People with larger screens can see content side by side in multiple windows, so actual browser size will usually be less than screen resolution, and height will always be shorter than screen resolution.

Vector vs. Raster Images for Web

In the world of HiDPI screens and responsive websites, having high quality images in your website designs is a must. Graphics, especially ones that include text, must be readable at varying sizes when viewed on desktop and mobile devices.

Each browser renders images a bit differently, and web browsers on Windows might render a bit different than on Linux or Mac.

Raster Images

JPG, PNG and GIF images are all raster images. This means that the image is made of pixels each with a single color. If you zoom in on a raster image, you'll see a grid of colored squares that make up the overall image. These formats are best for photos and photo-realistic graphics as they can be compressed in a way that alters pixels by their nearest color while still retaining the same look at higher compression levels.

Example of a rastor image

When a raster image is resized, the browser renders the resized image in the best way it can to retain the image clarity. Modern browsers will attempt to clear up the image with softening filters to prevent pixilation, an effect that looks like sharpening that can produce jagged lines most noticeable in Internet Explorer.

Example of a photo in multiple browsers

Vector Images

Vector images are a series of shapes and lines that can be resized without losing clarity. These image formats are made up of defined points, curves and solid shapes defined by shape, percentages, widths and hues. When a vector image is resized in a web browser, it'll always look clear and crisp.

Example of a vector image

All modern web browsers support the SVG file format for vector images. In most cases, an SVG file can be used like a standard image, though does not always support applied CSS filters. Since an SVG file is basically a text file similar to XML, you can target elements within the image for additional functionality by element ID. Cool stuff.

File Sizes

Having a website that loads quickly is important. The largest file sized elements in a site are most likely images and video, which is why compression is important. Each web asset should be created in the most effective file format possible considering how it'll look as well as how small the file size can be. A logo, for example, will probably look best as a vector image whereas a photo can be compressed as a JPG.

Let's take this iMac graphic, for an example. I exported it from Adobe Illustrator as an SVG, PNG and JPG file, PNG and JPG at 72dpi. Since it's a vector image to begin with, it's nothing more than a series of shapes that is considerably smaller as an SVG.

  • SVG - 4 KB
  • PNG - 13 KB
  • JPG - 20 KB

Browser Support

Now that all modern web browsers support SVG images both on desktop and mobile, it's a good idea to start considering this as an ideal file format in your web sites. Vector images look great on HiDPI screens on our tablets and phones as well as Apple's desktop and notebooks with retina screens. Since they look great at any resolution and can often be much smaller in file size, they're a much better solution than creating @1x, @2x and @3x versions of the same raster file for these different screens.

Pros and Cons of Using a Website Template

For some, the idea of being able to download a pre-built website template sounds like the quickest way to get a site up and running. Though this is the case for some, it may make things even more time consuming in the long run. As with any web project, it is important to have a good plan, including a site hierarchy, user flow, goals and an idea of what sort of content each page might include.

Benefits of using a pre-built theme:

  • Template is a complete, working website out of the box
  • It may include some fancy features that being part of the template, you don't have to build from scratch
  • Theme developers may have spent time making sure the design is mobile friendly and works well across a wide variety of web browsers

These are all things that can help speed up the development process and let you focus on content rather than building a site from scratch. Things like browser compatibility, responsive grids, charts and other animated features might be there ready to go.

Question to ask yourself is "Will my content fit into this theme?"

If you're lucky enough to find a theme that is in line with the site you're building, going with a theme is a fine idea. Here are some great places to find Wordpress and other website themes:

When not to use a theme:

  • A theme doesn't match your content
  • Many updates are required to change the look of the theme to your needs
  • Theme isn't frequently up to date or well supported by the author
  • Comes with a long list of bells and whistles that you don't plan to use

It makes sense that a theme developer will try to fit every possible element and feature into their product, especially when it's one that's for sale. However, if you plan to use a theme as a starting point for your project but don't plan to use many of those extra features, those will just get in the way causing your site to run slowly.

Many systems are so full of these little features or elements you don't want, you might find yourself spending more time just getting things to work than you would simply building on your own.

Design is a big issue for most themes. By using a theme that isn't designed around your content, you aren't able to gain a benefit you would otherwise get from a designer's design which considers your user's experience, calls to action and other elements that may better get your site's point across.

You're the developer, build it yourself

If you're a web designer/developer, your best course of action is build your own stuff. Build from the ground up using tools you can depend on and learn some new tricks. If all you do is rely on a plugin for some site feature, you won't get the benefit of learning how things work. The fewer things you learn how to do, the quicker all this web stuff will start to go over your head. Sure, it might take some time in the beginning, but the benefit is an increase in knowledge and a lean, mean, end product that works great.

A starting point isn't a bad idea though. Things like Bootstrap or other CSS frameworks can save you time when putting together a custom UI.