Why RWD Looks Like RWD

This morning, Mark Boulton wondered aloud on Twitter about why responsive design “looks” like responsive design:

I wonder if #RWD looks the way it does because so many projects aren’t being run by designers, but by front-end dev teams.

This certainly isn’t the first time that someone has suggested that responsive sites have a “look” to them. In fact, it seems that particular topic has been quite popular over the last few years. And to be fair, a pretty large number of responsive sites do tend to share similar aesthetics.

Before I dig into that, let me state my usual “blame the implementation, not the technique” just in case anyone was considering insinuating that responsive design dictates a specific sort of visual appearance. (To be clear: I don’t think that’s what Mark was doing at all—I’m just preemptively dismissing that line of commentary because it’s almost certainly going to come up.)

There are a few reasons why I think we’re seeing this commonality at the moment.

The web can be trendy

Let’s be honest with ourselves: we web folk can be a little trendy. We do this with specific technologies and tools, and we also do this with visual design. There has long been a tendency for people to mimic whatever the recent definition of “beautiful” online is (grunge, “web 2.0”, “flat design”, etc). Any glance through the once massively popular CSS/design galleries will attest to that.

We’re still getting comfortable

Responsive design is still relatively young. With all the articles and presentations about it, it’s easy to forget that. You don’t have to look far though to find companies that are just starting to dip their toes into it for the first or maybe the second time.

Understandably, people will lean on established patterns (or frameworks like Foundation or Bootstrap) to provide a level of comfort as they’re working things out. Eventually as people get more comfortable with how to approach multi-device projects, their reliance on these patterns will lessen and they’ll start to experiment more.

Silo’s and waterfalls are still the norm

Kevin Tamura responded to Mark’s comment on Twitter suggesting our workflow may be to blame:

@markboulton @Malarkey I think it’s an over reliance on the waterfall methodology for projects.

The more multi-device work you do, the more you discover that the toughest problems to be solved aren’t related to technology. The toughest problems are related to people, process, workflow and politics.

You can see this reflected both in projects led primarily by folks more comfortable with development (which may exhibit many of the traits that Mark was noticing) as well as projects led primarily by folks more comfortable with visual design (which may buck the trend a bit, but often at the cost of performance and reach).

Transitioning from the traditional waterfall/siloed approach to a fluid process where designers and developers are working more closely together can be a very difficult adjustment. Not only do you have to battle the internal politics involved in such a move, but you have to experiment to find the right comfort level. Until organizations make that transition it’s natural for things to be off-balance a little bit.

The good news is that the transition can be made—and a lot of folks are sharing how they’re handling it. Eventually those walls between roles will break down. When they do, that healthier process based on collaboration will lead to more creativity and experimentation in design and that’s when this stuff will get really fun.

Thanks to Dan Mall for giving the article a read-through to ensure I wasn't entirely off-base. (If I am, feel free to blame Dan.)