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How to.. get your media queries right for responsive webdesign? Thinking out loud…

Last time we talked about responsive websites, whose layout respond to the device it is being displayed; in short we were saying that physically large screens have a multiple column layout and physically small screens (smartphones) usually have a 1-column layout. Very simply said.

Today I want to dedicate some more words to this subject, because not only is there a very wide diversity of physical screen sizes out there, but we are also dealing with many different screen resolutions (ppi – pixels per inch or dpi – dots per inch). With the introduction of Apple’s retina display (thank you Steve!), resolutions now range from a little bit over 100 ppi to almost 500 ppi! Retina displays have such high resolutions (pixel densities), that the human eye cannot notice pixelation anymore. This means that if we would only use digital pixels to determine the actual physical size (in centimeters) of our site, we end up with a site that displays 5 times as small on a high resolution device than on a lower resolution device. Can you imagine reading a text that´s 5 times as small as the text you´re reading now? That´s just physically impossible.

We are obviously designing for real human beings with physical properties, not for robots that can plug in their usb-stick into a device and translate zeros and ones into information, so we are interested in the physical size of our product. To create a pleasant experience for our visitors, where they can move around easily through our site (read: buttons and links must be big enough to be touched by a human finger), where they don´t get headaches after reading our texts (read: type must be big enough to be read by human eyes from a friendly distance), where they want to come visit us again and again and again, we need to use at least 2 parameters to get that size right: width (in pixels) and resolution (in ppi or dpi).

Now, as I said in my previous post, for my websites I would opt for one fixed layout for the physically large and medium sized screens (and in some occasions an adapted layout for the very big screens), plus one separate (fluid) layout for smartphones that accounts for widths between 320px until 960px. Let´s now also take into account the smartphones with retina display. We do that by creating one separate layout for all smartphones that have a resolution over 225dpi (setting the maximum device width to 640px, to prevent possible physically larger screens to get our smartphone layout).


The css would look something like this:

@media only screen and (min-width:320px) {
/* Layout #1 : Mobile screens and iPads in portrait orientation, a fluid 1-column layout, with images and text-containers resizing according to screen width */
@media only screen and (min-width:960px) {
/* Layout #2 : Large and medium sized screens (desktops, laptops and iPads in landscape orientation), a fixed layout with a 960px width */
@media only screen and (min-width:1824px) {
/* Layout #2b : Very large screens : a fixed layout with slightly bigger images and text-containers than #2, possibly a few extra colums */
/* ———– */
@media only screen and (max-device-width: 640px) and (min-resolution: 225dpi) {
/* Layout #1 : Mobile screens with retina display : a fluid 1-column layout, with images and text-containers resizing according to screen width */

But what happens with the newest iPad Air that has a retina display and a screen width of 2048 pixels? This device in landscape orientation, that also has a resolution higher than 225dpi, would now get the same layout as a smartphone! No thanks. Our website should be displayed with the same layout on this iPad Air as on the iPads without retina. How do we get this to happen? Auuww, my brain really starts to hurt here! Could we add an additional query that states the minimum and maximum device-width? Yes! This one looks a little something like this:

/* iPads (landscape) */
@media only screen
and (min-resolution: 225dpi)
and (min-device-width : 768px)
and (max-device-width : 1024px)
and (orientation : landscape) {
/* Layout #2c : This is Layout #2, but with all sizes (images, fonts, container widths and heights in pixels) doubled */

This should be placed where it says /* ———– */

Of course, every project is unique, and you might want to choose different breaking points, or add more media queries, separating between the large en medium sized screens. Or, if you opt for a fixed layout for smartphones, you might want to think about adding separate queries for large-, medium-, and small-sized mobile devices as well. I think the above list will do for me, since I want to keep things as simple as possible. But, if you think I´m missing out on something very important here, please comment. Feel free to leave a comment anyway!

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