Responsive Web Design = Web Design. Welcome Back.

RSR recently had the chance to bump shoulders and swap ideas with some really smart folks at the Artifact East Conference in Providence, RI.

While the topics were as varied as today’s responsive design landscape, from image compression and client expectations to what to call a group of unicorns (a “blessing,” it turns out), a few key themes clearly emerged. Now, a few weeks removed from those 48 illuminating hours, here are the three big ideas that have stood out with us:

1. Designing Websites = Designing Systems.

Creating Photoshop comps can easily be targeted as one of those waterfall processes that should be treated with skepticism. But in fact, when used correctly, Photoshop and a host of other “traditional” design tools (I see you, sketchbook) are still incredibly valuable in a web designer’s arsenal. It’s the concept of viewing a site as a series of merely interconnected pages that we need to challenge. Responsive principles force us to recognize that websites are consistent experiences assembled from modular and repeatable building blocks of varying sizes. The approach is described by Brad Frost as “Atomic Design,” which hits the nail on the head, brilliantly.

 Here at Ready Set Rocket, we’ve been diving deep into tools like Content Inventories, Element Collages and UI Kits. They support the Atomic Design approach and solve design problems at a system level. Our time at Artifact revealed an entire industry searching for ways to do the same. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be sharing some of the tools and systems that are working for us (and some that aren’t!).

 2. Design’s Multiple Phases Are Best Executed by People Fluent in a Variety of Tools.

We should no longer think of design as a single step in the process, accomplished by a graphic designer with traditional design tools and approved by the client in a single deliverable. Instead, it’s useful to think of design as having three phases:

  1. Establishing the aesthetic;

  2. Solving the problem, and;

  3. Refining the solution (thanks Ben Callahan).

Understanding design’s multiple facets can help us better understand how teams should work together, and what tools are best used in a given phase of the process. In the problem-solving stage, for example, using the tools that let you think most freely is important, while efficiency becomes top priority in the refining stage. Identifying when a project moves from problem-solving into refinement is key. Identifying and communicating that moment can be a major help in retaining space for creative exploration in a responsive workflow without sacrificing project momentum or threatening deadlines.

 3. The Most Important Ingredient in Any Responsive Project Isn’t a Skill or a Tool. It’s Trust.

Let’s not kid ourselves: The changes we’re talking about are fundamentally shifting the industry and impacting the tools and processes we use every day. The day-to-day for just about every person in an agency — from Project Managers to Copywriters, Developers, Designers and UX gurus — will be nearly unrecognizable a year from now.

In almost every case, this shift is geared toward a more collaborative way of working. The tasks that are now traditionally accomplished by one person will be shared among multiple people with a variety of skill sets.

For this to succeed, every person on the team will have to relinquish some of the control. This will mean trusting one another to complete projects that need to be started and to suggest intelligent improvements from their own unique areas of expertise along the way. This applies not only to designers and developers, but to nearly every relationship in an agency.

The responsive evolution is uncharted, unpredictable and likely to be messy. But with so much room to grow and so many new solutions to imagine, it’s definitely going to be a fun journey. When it comes together, much like a transcendent moment in a great jazz recording, this type of multi-talented group improvisation toward a single vision — in near real-time on a variety of instruments — can be incredibly inspiring. The web as a medium is responsive by default, and now the movement of Responsive Web Design is once again just Web Design. We’ve come full circle. Now let’s go forward. Together.

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