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Responsive Web Design Basics

The use of mobile devices to surf the web is growing at an astronomical pace, but unfortunately much of the web isn't optimized for those mobile devices. Mobile devices are often constrained by display size and require a different approach to how content is laid out on the screen.

A multitude of different screen sizes exist across phones, "phablets," tablets, desktops, game consoles, TVs, and even wearables. Screen sizes are always changing, so it's important that your site can adapt to any screen size, today or in the future.

Responsive web design, originally defined by Ethan Marcotte in A List Apart, responds to the needs of the users and the devices they're using. The layout changes based on the size and capabilities of the device. For example, on a phone users would see content shown in a single column view; a tablet might show the same content in two columns.

Responsive Web Design

In this course you'll learn the fundamentals of responsive web design with Google's Pete LePage! You'll create your own responsive web page that works well on any device - phone, tablet, desktop or anything in between.

You’ll start by exploring what makes a site responsive and how some common responsive design patterns work across different devices. From there, you’ll learn how to create your own responsive layout using the viewport tag and CSS media queries. As you proceed, you’ll experiment with major and minor breakpoints, and optimizing text for reading.

This is a free course offered through Udacity

Take Course

Set the viewport

Pages optimized for a variety of devices must include a meta viewport tag in the head of the document. A meta viewport tag gives the browser instructions on how to control the page's dimensions and scaling.


  • Use the meta viewport tag to control the width and scaling of the browser's viewport.
  • Include width=device-width to match the screen's width in device-independent pixels.
  • Include initial-scale=1 to establish a 1:1 relationship between CSS pixels and device-independent pixels.
  • Ensure your page is accessible by not disabling user scaling.

To attempt to provide the best experience, mobile browsers render the page at a desktop screen width (usually about 980px, though this varies across devices), and then try to make the content look better by increasing font sizes and scaling the content to fit the screen. This means that font sizes may appear inconsistent to users, who may have to double-tap or pinch-to-zoom in order to see and interact with the content.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

Using the meta viewport value width=device-width instructs the page to match the screen's width in device-independent pixels. This allows the page to reflow content to match different screen sizes, whether rendered on a small mobile phone or a large desktop monitor.

Some browsers keep the page's width constant when rotating to landscape mode, and zoom rather than reflow to fill the screen. Adding the attribute initial-scale=1 instructs browsers to establish a 1:1 relationship between CSS pixels and device-independent pixels regardless of device orientation, and allows the page to take advantage of the full landscape width.

Ensure an accessible viewport

In addition to setting an initial-scale, you can also set the following attributes on the viewport:

  • minimum-scale
  • maximum-scale
  • user-scalable

When set, these can disable the user's ability to zoom the viewport, potentially causing accessibility issues.

Size content to the viewport

On both desktop and mobile devices, users are used to scrolling websites vertically but not horizontally; forcing the user to scroll horizontally or to zoom out in order to see the whole page results in a poor user experience.


  • Do not use large fixed width elements.
  • Content should not rely on a particular viewport width to render well.
  • Use CSS media queries to apply different styling for small and large screens.

When developing a mobile site with a meta viewport tag, it's easy to accidentally create page content that doesn't quite fit within the specified viewport. For example, an image that is displayed at a width wider than the viewport can cause the viewport to scroll horizontally. You should adjust this content to fit within the width of the viewport, so that the user does not need to scroll horizontally.

Since screen dimensions and width in CSS pixels vary widely between devices (for example, between phones and tablets, and even between different phones), content should not rely on a particular viewport width to render well.

Setting large absolute CSS widths for page elements (such as the example below), cause the div to be too wide for the viewport on a narrower device (for example, a device with a width of 320 CSS pixels, such as an iPhone). Instead, consider using relative width values, such as width: 100%. Similarly, beware of using large absolute positioning values that may cause the element to fall outside the viewport on small screens.

Use CSS media queries for responsiveness

Media queries are simple filters that can be applied to CSS styles. They make it easy to change styles based on the characteristics of the device rendering the content, including the display type, width, height, orientation, and even resolution.


  • Use media queries to apply styles based on device characteristics.
  • Use min-width over min-device-width to ensure the broadest experience.
  • Use relative sizes for elements to avoid breaking layout.

For example, you could place all styles necessary for printing inside a print media query:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="print.css" media="print">

In addition to using the media attribute in the style sheet link, there are two other ways to apply media queries that can be embedded in a CSS file: @media and @import. For performance reasons, either of the first two methods are recommended over the @import syntax (see Avoid CSS imports).

@media print {
  /* print style sheets go here */

@import url(print.css) print;

The logic that applies to media queries is not mutually exclusive, and for any filter meeting that criteria the resulting CSS block is applied using the standard rules of precedence in CSS.

Apply media queries based on viewport size

Media queries enable us to create a responsive experience where specific styles are applied to small screens, large screens, and anywhere in between. The media query syntax allows for the creation of rules that can be applied depending on device characteristics.

@media (query) {
  /* CSS Rules used when query matches */

While there are several different items we can query on, the ones used most often for responsive web design are min-width, max-width, min-height, and max-height.

min-width Rules applied for any browser width greater than the value defined in the query.
max-width Rules applied for any browser width less than the value defined in the query.
min-height Rules applied for any browser height greater than the value defined in the query.
max-height Rules applied for any browser height less than the value defined in the query.
orientation=portrait Rules applied for any browser where the height is greater than or equal to the width.
orientation=landscape Rules for any browser where the width is greater than the height.

Let's take a look at an example:

Preview of a page using media queries to change properties as it is resized.
Preview of a page using media queries to change properties as it is resized.
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(max-width: 640px)" href="max-640px.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(min-width: 640px)" href="min-640px.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(orientation: portrait)" href="portrait.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(orientation: landscape)" href="landscape.css">
  @media (min-width: 500px) and (max-width: 600px) {
    h1 {
      color: fuchsia;

    .desc:after {
      content:" In fact, it's between 500px and 600px wide.";

Try it

  • When the browser is between 0px and 640px wide, max-640px.css is applied.
  • When the browser is between 500px and 600px wide, styles within the @media is applied.
  • When the browser is 640px or wider, min-640px.css is applied.
  • When the browser width is greater than the height, landscape.css is applied.
  • When the browser height is greater than the width, portrait.css is applied.

A note on min-device-width

It is also possible to create queries based on min-device-width, though this practice is strongly discouraged.

The difference is subtle but very important: min-width is based on the size of the browser window whereas min-device-width is based on the size of the screen. Unfortunately some browsers, including the legacy Android browser, don't report the device width properly; they report the screen size in device pixels instead of the expected viewport width.

In addition, using min-device-width can prevent content from adapting on desktops or other devices that allow windows to be resized because the query is based on the actual device size, not the size of the browser window.

Use any-pointer and any-hover for flexible interactions

Starting with Chrome 39, your style sheets can write selectors that cover multiple pointer types and hover behaviors. The any-pointer and any-hover media features are similar to pointer and hover in that they allow you to query the capabilities of the user's pointer. However, unlike the latter, any-pointer and any-hover operate on the union of all pointer devices rather than just the primary pointer device.

Use relative units

A key concept behind responsive design is fluidity and proportionality as opposed to fixed width layouts. Using relative units for measurements can help simplify layouts and prevent accidental creation of components that are too big for the viewport.

For example, setting width: 100% on a top level div, ensures that it spans the width of the viewport and is never too big or too small for the viewport. The div fits, no matter if it's a 320px wide iPhone, 342px wide Blackberry Z10, or a 360px wide Nexus 5.

In addition, using relative units allows browsers to render the content based on the user's zoom level without the need for adding horizontal scroll bars to the page.

Not recommended—fixed width

div.fullWidth {
  width: 320px;
  margin-left: auto;
  margin-right: auto;

Recommended—responsive width

div.fullWidth {
  width: 100%;

How to choose breakpoints

Don't define breakpoints based on device classes. Defining breakpoints based on specific devices, products, brand names, or operating systems that are in use today can result in a maintenance nightmare. Instead, the content itself should determine how the layout adjusts to its container.


  • Create breakpoints based on content, never on specific devices, products, or brands.
  • Design for the smallest mobile device first; then progressively enhance the experience as more screen real estate becomes available.
  • Keep lines of text to a maximum of around 70 or 80 characters.

Pick major breakpoints by starting small, then working up

Preview of the weather forecast displayed on a small screen.

Design the content to fit on a small screen size first, then expand the screen until a breakpoint becomes necessary. This allows you to optimize breakpoints based on content and maintain the least number of breakpoints possible.

Let's work through the example we saw at the beginning: the weather forecast. The first step is to make the forecast look good on a small screen.

Preview of the weather forecast as the page gets wider.
Preview of the weather forecast as the page gets wider.

Next, resize the browser until there is too much white space between the elements, and the forecast simply doesn't look as good. The decision is somewhat subjective, but above 600px is certainly too wide.

To insert a breakpoint at 600px, create two new style sheets, one to use when the browser is 600px and below, and one for when it is wider than 600px.

<link rel="stylesheet" href="weather.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(max-width:600px)" href="weather-2-small.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" media="(min-width:601px)" href="weather-2-large.css">

Try it

Preview of the weather forecast designed for a wider screen.
Preview of the weather forecast designed for a wider screen.

Finally, refactor the CSS. In this example, we've placed the common styles such as fonts, icons, basic positioning, and colors in weather.css. Specific layouts for the small screen are then placed in weather-small.css, and large screen styles are placed in weather-large.css.

Pick minor breakpoints when necessary

In addition to choosing major breakpoints when layout changes significantly, it is also helpful to adjust for minor changes. For example, between major breakpoints it may be helpful to adjust the margins or padding on an element, or increase the font size to make it feel more natural in the layout.

Let's start by optimizing the small screen layout. In this case, let's boost the font when the viewport width is greater than 360px. Second, when there is enough space, we can separate the high and low temperatures so that they're on the same line instead of on top of each other. And let's also make the weather icons a bit larger.

@media (min-width: 360px) {
  body {
    font-size: 1.0em;

@media (min-width: 500px) {
  .seven-day-fc .temp-low,
  .seven-day-fc .temp-high {
    display: inline-block;
    width: 45%;

  .seven-day-fc .seven-day-temp {
    margin-left: 5%;

  .seven-day-fc .icon {
    width: 64px;
    height: 64px;
Before adding minor breakpoints.
Before adding minor breakpoints.
After adding minor breakpoints.
After adding minor breakpoints.

Similarly, for the large screens it's best to limit to maximum width of the forecast panel so it doesn't consume the whole screen width.

@media (min-width: 700px) {
  .weather-forecast {
    width: 700px;

Optimize text for reading

Classic readability theory suggests that an ideal column should contain 70 to 80 characters per line (about 8 to 10 words in English). Thus, each time the width of a text block grows past about 10 words, consider adding a breakpoint.

Before adding minor breakpoints.
Before adding minor breakpoints.
After adding minor breakpoints.
After adding minor breakpoints.

Let's take a deeper look at the above blog post example. On smaller screens, the Roboto font at 1em works perfectly giving 10 words per line, but larger screens require a breakpoint. In this case, if the browser width is greater than 575px, the ideal content width is 550px.

@media (min-width: 575px) {
  article {
    width: 550px;
    margin-left: auto;
    margin-right: auto;

Try it

Never completely hide content

Be careful when choosing what content to hide or show depending on screen size. Don't simply hide content just because you can't fit it on the screen. Screen size is not a definitive indication of what a user may want. For example, eliminating the pollen count from the weather forecast could be a serious issue for spring-time allergy sufferers who need the information to determine if they can go outside or not.

View media query breakpoints in Chrome DevTools

Once you've got your media query breakpoints set up, you'll want to see how your site looks with them. You could resize your browser window to trigger the breakpoints, but there's a better way: Chrome DevTools. The two screenshots below demonstrate using DevTools to view how a page looks under different breakpoints.

Example of DevTools' media queries feature

To view your page under different breakpoints:

Open DevTools and then turn on Device Mode.

Use the viewport controls to select Responsive, which puts DevTools into responsive mode.

Last, open the Device Mode menu and select Show media queries to display your breakpoints as colored bars above your page.

Click on one of the bars to view your page while that media query is active. Right-click on a bar to jump to the media query's definition. See Media queries for more help.


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