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What Is Responsive Web Design? (Definition + Examples)

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This post is part of a series called How to Make Responsive Business Websites (Tutorial Guide).
12 Important Advantages of Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design has been a major trend for a long time -- even before Mashable declared 2013 the year of responsive web design. Pair that with an increased use of mobile devices of various screen sizes and it’s easy to understand why the Internet won’t stop talking about it.

But what does responsive web design mean for small business owners? More importantly, why should you concern yourself with responsive web design?

When it comes to promoting and marketing your business, a well-designed website can be your most valuable asset. But, if you want it to be truly effective, an attractive design alone isn't enough. Your website also needs to be responsive.

The main reason why you’d want a responsive website is the fact that the use of mobile devices to browse the Internet has continually been on the rise for a few years now and shows no signs of slowing down.

From a business standpoint, this means that if your website doesn’t respond well to smaller screens and is hard to read and navigate, your visitors will be more inclined to move on to a competitor’s site instead.

Put simply, responsive web design isn't a luxury, it’s a necessity and now is the perfect time to ensure your website is responsive.

If you’ve been wondering what responsive web design really is and why it matters, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll explain how responsive web design works, why you should consider a responsive website, and show you a few responsive web design examples in real life. Let’s dive in!

What Is Responsive Web Design?

The term responsive web design was coined by Ethan Marcotte in 2010 and refers to the process of designing websites that will respond to the device they’re viewed on in order to provide users with a seamless, optimal user experience.

At its core, responsive web design follows the three main principles: fluid grids, responsive media, and media queries. In some cases, responsive web design also makes use of the media viewport meta tag when a device can't determine the initial width or scale of a website, which causes media queries to not trigger. Here are the basic responsive web design principles explained:

1. Fluid Grids

Fluid grids work like any other design grid - they allow you to arrange elements on a page in a visually attractive way. However, unlike a traditional grid, a fluid grid will resize based on the screen size and can adapt to any width because it uses relative units of measurement such as percentages or em units, instead of fixed units such as pixels.

2. Media Queries

Media queries allow you to get even more specific with your responsive design and adjust it accordingly based on a particular screen size. In layman’s terms, websites use media queries to gather data that helps them determine the size of a screen and then load the appropriate CSS styles.

3. Responsive Media

The third core principle of responsive web design is responsive or flexible media. Given that modern websites use a lot of images, videos, and other media files, it’s imperative that those types of content respond to different screen sizes.

Normally, designers would include the image dimensions in their CSS stylesheet. But, this doesn’t work for responsive design due to fixed units of measurement mentioned above. Instead, you've got to make use of the max-width property for image files, videos, and other media types. To ensure media files don’t go past their container and scale nicely based on the screen size, the max-width property should be set to 100%.

4. Viewport Meta Tag

As mentioned before, the viewport meta tag comes into play when media queries won’t trigger because a device can't determine the initial width of a website. To combat this, Apple came out with the viewport meta tag.

The viewport meta tag usually has an initial scale of height or width value set to 1, which solves the problem of not recognizing the website’s scale by using the ratio between the device height or width and the viewport size.           

How Responsive Web Design Works in the Real World

Now that we’ve covered the core principles of responsive web design, let’s take a look at a few real-world responsive web design examples:

1. Susan Jean Robertson

Being a web developer, it’s no wonder that Susan Jean Robertson’s website follows the best practices when it comes to web design, which includes making sure her website looks great no matter which device visitors are using.

Susan Jean Robertson Susan Jean Robertson Susan Jean Robertson

Although her site is rather simple and minimal, it does have a few images that not only scale nicely based on the screen size but also shift from a two-column layout to a one-column stacked layout on smaller screens. The menu, which often shifts to a hamburger menu on smaller screens, remains the same because it doesn’t have a lot of links so there's no need to hide it.

Susan Jean Robertson Mobile siteSusan Jean Robertson Mobile siteSusan Jean Robertson Mobile site

2. BMW

BMW’s website uses plenty of images and background videos, which can be the most challenging part of responsive web design. 

BMW Web Responsive DesignBMW Web Responsive DesignBMW Web Responsive Design

However, as you can see from the screenshot below, BMW does an excellent job of making sure all the images and videos respond to different screen sizes. You’ll also notice the use of a hamburger menu on mobile devices.

BMW mobile siteBMW mobile siteBMW mobile site

3. Field Notes

Field Notes serves as a nice example of an e-commerce website that looks great on both mobile and desktop devices. 

Field Notes web responsive designField Notes web responsive designField Notes web responsive design

They use the standard hamburger menu on smaller screens and the product rows resize from four-column rows into two-column rows. The calls-to-action remain visible and easily clickable even as the screen size goes down and the product images scale nicely as well.

Field Notes mobile siteField Notes mobile siteField Notes mobile site

4. KlientBoost

An attractive illustrated background is the first thing you’ll notice on KlientBoost’s website and that background looks great no matter how you resize the browser window. 


Aside from using a hamburger menu, KlientBoost also uses a different logo version on smaller screens and the rest of the layout behaves in the usual way: multiple columns stack into a singular column.

KlientBoost mobile siteKlientBoost mobile siteKlientBoost mobile site

5. WillowTree

The last example on our list comes from WillowTree Apps, a digital agency whose website uses a clean layout with plenty of images to showcase their content and portfolio. 

WillowTree WillowTree WillowTree

You’ll notice that the images are fully responsive and follow the standard pattern of getting stacked before the post excerpts in one column, similar to the rest of the content. Here, a hamburger menu is present as well as CTA buttons that remain clearly visible even on smaller screens.

WillowTree mobile siteWillowTree mobile siteWillowTree mobile site

The websites above are just tip of the iceberg when it comes to responsive web design inspiration. You can find a lot more examples in our roundup of 25 best responsive web design examples.

Why You Need Responsive Web Design for Your Business Website

Responsive web design isn’t just about following the latest web design trends. Adopting a responsive layout for your website has many benefits for your business that can impact your traffic, SEO, and revenue. Here are the top five reasons why you should consider responsive web design for your website.

1. Better User Experience and Website Usability

The most important reason to adopt a responsive web design is the fact that you’ll be providing your visitors with a better user experience and improve the usability of your website. If visitors aren’t forced to immediately scroll in all directions, pinch and zoom to read your content, they'll be more inclined to stay on your website for a longer period of time. They'll be able to easily navigate from one page to another as well as have no problems to fill out a form or click your call-to-action button.

2. More Mobile Visitors

As we mentioned earlier, statistics show that more than half of all world web traffic comes from mobile devices, which means that once your website is responsive, you've got much better chances of attracting those visitors. If they land on your website and are met with a website that looks and works great even on smaller screens, they'll have no reason to navigate away so your business is bound to see an increase in leads and customers from mobile devices.

3. Faster Website

Aside from responsive web design, another Internet trend that has become a must is a fast-loading website. And thanks to fluid grids and responsive media, responsive websites have better loading times than unresponsive websites. This leads to visitors spending more time on your site, which leads us to the next point - conversion rates.

4. Improved Conversion Rates

Once visitors spend more time on your website, you've got better chances of converting them from visitors into leads and then into subscribers and buyers. According to research, the average conversion rates for smartphone devices are up by 64% than desktop conversion rates. This is a direct result of improved user experience that comes from having a website that is easy to use across various screen sizes and faster loading times.

5. Better SEO Rank

Lastly, a better SEO rank is definitely one of the top five advantages of responsive web design. After all, if you cannot be found in search engines, then getting organic traffic for your website will be nearly impossible. According to Google, since April 2015, the responsiveness of your website is one of the ranking signals that determine how your website is displayed in the search engines. However, Google isn't the only search engine that recommends it. Bing has clearly stated on its blog that building websites optimized for all platforms is key to a successful SEO strategy.

How to Get Started With Responsive Web Design

Now that we’ve covered the most important advantages of responsive web design, let’s discuss how you can get started.

1. Test If Your Website Is Responsive

The first thing you should do is to test the responsiveness of your website. You can use a tool like Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. All you've got to do is enter your site’s URL and the tool will analyze your site and tell you if it’s responsive or not. You’ll also get suggestions on what to do to ensure your website is mobile-friendly.

2. Get Inspired With Responsive Web Design Examples

Once you know if your site is responsive or not, it’s time to get inspired with examples of responsive websites. You’ll be able to see exactly how those websites make use of the core principles discussed above as well as how they implemented other necessary features.

3. Choose a Responsive Template or a Theme

The next step is to choose a responsive template or a theme for your site. If you've been using HTML templates so far and want to continue using them, there are plenty of responsive HTML templates to choose from. Start with our roundup of the best responsive HTML templates available on our marketplace.

If WordPress is your chosen platform, then you’ll be happy to know that there is no shortage of responsive WordPress themes either, no matter which industry your business belongs to.

4. Take Your Website to the Next Level With These Responsive Web Design Tricks

After you’ve made sure your site is using a responsive template or a theme, it’s time to take it to the next level with extra tips and tricks. Use our guide as a starting point to help you ensure your website delivers the best possible user experience and is fully responsive.

Embrace Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s the way of the future and it does have a number of advantages that have an impact on any business owner’s bottom line.

If you’re ready to take your website to the next level, start by giving it a makeover with one of our responsive HTML templates or WordPress themes and use the tips and tricks from this article to point you in the right direction.

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