Book Review: Moving forward with a “Responsive Web Design”

Responsive Web Design ThumbnailResponsive Web Design by Ethan Marcotte is the fourth release in the A Book Apart series aimed at those in the web industry. Like the books before it in the series, the book is small and intensely focused, a tactic to get you oriented on a specific web development strategy in a jiffy.

This book is targeted at front-end developers, and as such, much of the book consists of code examples (CSS, HTML and Javascript). That doesn’t diminish the relevance of the core concept for anyone involved in producing a website (including the client).

Marcotte begins the book by examining how we build websites, and starts off my banishing the practice of using pixels in your stylesheet. He examines a number of different cases for calculating with percentages for position. Getting your layout built without the use of pixels is critical for a successful responsive layout.

The remainder of the book aims to show, by example, how you can take an existing website (built using percentages) and modify the layout to fit a progressively smaller or larger screen. The best way to do this is to find the display resolution “break points”, and change the layout at those intervals.

Once Marcotte has gone through the whole process of fixing a website for multiple display sizes, he drops the bomb. This isn’t the best way to build a responsive website. Rather than building a website for a standard resolution, then figuring out how to scale it down and up, that you instead build your website for the smallest resolution first, and then work your way up.

This is radically different than how most developers currently build their websites, but the strategy has merit in that you optimize for the lightest weight layout first, then bulk up the page if and only if the resolution warrants it. Beyond the technical coding and data weight advantages, Marcotte suggests that it’s a healthier philosophical approach to building a website, as it forces you to determine right up front what the most important content is, and what is extraneous.

These are important lessons to take for your upcoming web projects, and if you can manage to make your future websites built in a responsive manner, it will almost certainly increase their longevity. More and more website traffic is coming from non-desktop devices, and it’s our responsibility to recognize that trend and to prepare ourselves.

Responsive Web Design seems to end on a perfect segue to the 6th book in the A Book Apart seriesMobile First . I’m looking forward to seeing Luke Wroblewski’s take on this web development strategy.

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts highlighting books on the craft of web design. If you know a great book we should review, tell us at

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