Design Happens Between Breakpoints

In a traditional web design process, designers create static mockups as their final deliverable. Designers hand the mockups over to developers who are tasked with converting them into HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Traditional web development process starts with planning followed by Static Wireframes then Static Mockups then HTML, CSS, and JS, and finally Launch. Design goes until static mockups at which point there is a handoff to development

The traditional web design process hopes that these static mockups—often representing mobile, tablet, and desktop breakpoints—provide developers with everything they need to know to turn the designs into functional web pages. In reality, design happens between breakpoints.

We recently helped Cloudinary upgrade their blog. Cloudinary’s designers provided static mockups that we converted into responsive web templates. During development, my colleague Paul Hebert noticed a section displaying top categories looked awkward at a screen size in between the breakpoints that we had been given mockups for.

Paul Hebert writes in Slack, 'The mockups for small screens, medium screens, and large screens look great, but as I'm implementing them in the browser, there's an awkward breakpoint in between:'
A portion of a web page listing top categories followed by a photograph of a young, bearded man holding a phone. Towards the bottom of the photo, the page transitions from white to gray background containing a button to subscribe to updates. The column of text, images and buttons take up a third of the screenshot leaving most of the page empty.

Paul suggested that at this viewport width, it might work better if the two sections were side-by-side:

The same web page shown earlier except now the photo and subscribe button are to the right of the top categories list. The change balances the visual weight of the content. The page starts white, but then a grey background color cuts the web page in half in an awkward spot.

Unfortunately, putting the content into two columns caused a new design issue—the background color was cutting into the middle of the top categories list.

So Paul suggested that for this viewport size, it might make sense to keep a solid background behind the two columns:

The same content is now side-by-side on a solid gray background.

Our stakeholders at Cloudinary appreciated that Paul had identified a design problem and approved of his suggested changes. Because of the positive outcome, you might be tempted to consider this a success for the traditional web design process.

But here’s the rub. Paul is unique. He is equally adept at both design and development. He can easily diagnosis and fix design issues.

What happens when your static mockups are in the hands of a developer who doesn’t have Paul’s design skills?

The Best Responsive Design Advice

Paul’s design skills aren’t solely responsible for identifying the problems. Paul was also following the simplest and best responsive design advice I’ve ever heard.

At the Breaking Development Conference in 2012, Stephen Hay described his process of picking breakpoints. He said that he started from the smallest screen and expanded his browser until the page looked like crap, and then BOOM, you need a breakpoint.

Too often we see designers fixate on established breakpoints. Someone at one time decided on a set of breakpoints and from then on, all design changes happen at those viewport widths. It is a breakpoint dogma that Tyler Sticka wrote about a couple years ago. Design problems don’t only show up at the preordained breakpoints.

At Cloud Four, everyone—designer, developer, project manager, it doesn’t matter—is constantly resizing their browsers to make sure experiences continue to work across all viewport sizes. After Paul finished implementing the suggested changes, he shared a video of him resizing his browser to make sure the new behavior worked for everyone.

How do you resize a static mockup?

You can’t. That’s the problem. It’s one of the reasons why breakdowns happen when static mockups are handed off to developers. These mockups leave many design decisions undefined and in the hands of developers who aren’t trained designers.

So how can designers who create static mockups design between the breakpoints? The answer isn’t creating more mockups. They are already creating too many artifacts without trying to create more to address the gaps.

In the short run for those using a traditional web design process, we need to recognize that design doesn’t stop when something is handed off to developers. It continues until launch so designers can be involved in how the design is implemented in code.

And in the same vein, there are development decisions happening before handoff. Developers should be involved throughout as well.

The traditional web development process described earlier but this time there is no handoff. Design and development both go through the entire process.

In the long term, we need design tools to dramatically change. They need to support truly responsive designs—dynamic mockups that can be resized so designers can follow Stephen Hay’s advice, figure out where their mockup looks like crap, and add breakpoints.

Unfortunately, most design tools have been drawing the wrong conclusions from the challenges they see designers facing in the traditional web design process. More on that next time.

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