Using Media Queries to Create a Responsive Web Design

Posted in Tutorial, tagged with css, html, media queries 30/06/2011 2:14 pm

One of the development priorities when I redesigned my website was to use media queries to create a layout that was responsive to as many screen sizes as possible. With the rise of mobile, we can no longer rely on 980 pixel wide layouts delivering the best experience for the various devices being used to browse the web.

Media queries are part of the CSS3 W3C recommendation and can be used to completely restyle a web page depending on the media type (such as print or screen) and media feature of the device's screen, such as orientation, resolution and colour support. For my site, I shall only be using the media type and width of the screen.

Responsive and Fluid

Many of the sites that use media queries also employ another technique to create a responsive website. Fluid layouts use relative widths (such as percentages) that only fill a portion of the screen width of the device being used, meaning content will fit to all screen sizes. A limitation of fluid layouts is that content cannot be hidden or the layout changed significantly, such as moving entire columns or changing background images.

Media queries used alongside fluid layouts provide the best of both worlds: a design that can fit to a screen size exactly, and a layout that can be realigned depending on that screen size.

Not mobile specific?

Another tactic for creating a device specific website is using device detection and redirecting to a separate dedicated site, usually on a sub-domain such as Device detection is a great method if the content of your current standard desktop site is incredibly complex, contains large file sizes or would generally be difficult to scale down for a mobile's screen.

A lingering problem with device detection is that it is very difficult to predict and detect every single device before it arrives at your site. Granted, most devices can be predicted, and media queries themselves are not supported perfectly in all browsers, but media queries will at least fit all devices that support them perfectly. For both these cases, the worst case scenario is that the user will see the desktop version of the site.

If you do decide to use device detection, what do you do about tablets? You could create another site specifically for tablets, but tablets have a wide range of screen sizes, so it is imperative that you create a fluid design that will fit to all tablet screen sizes. You will now have created three separate websites! This may be the best tactic for your digital marketing strategy, and you could certainly take steps to reuse the content and media, but this may not be within your budget.

If the content on your site is mainly copy with a small amount of images, which could be downloaded easily on a mobile Internet connection, media queries allow you to serve a design specific to the device, without any redirection or creation of multiple websites. This is the case with my blog, and certainly many other blogs and other types of website.

The Beef

Ok let's finally get down to some code. Firstly, the media queries themselves.

@media screen and (max-width: 940px) {

 /* CSS here creates two-column fluid layout */

@media screen and (max-width: 480px) {

 /* CSS here creates single-column fluid layout, realigns header */

As you can see, only the two. These are positioned right at the bottom of my CSS file.

The first query will apply the CSS for screen sizes (for media types of screen) no larger than 940 pixels. This is the width of the main content of my website; the central column of 900 pixels and padding of 20 pixels at each side.

Without media queries, the layout of my site would result in a horizontal scroll-bar for screens smaller than 940 pixels. With media queries, I have applied widths measured in percentages for the two column's containing the main content and aside, and the central column, leaving a small percentage to create a margin at both vertical edges of the page.

I also have a line of CSS to make the images in the page fluid. The image tags themselves do not have any width or height attributes, and the image files are the same width as the column that they are in. With the following line of CSS, they will become fluid and fit to the column.

.col-a article img
 width: 100%;

Devices with screen widths smaller than 940 pixels wide include the iPad tablet and HTC Desire mobile phone in portrait orientation, among many older desktop monitors and laptops.

The second query creates a single column layout. The aside at the right of the page is moved to below the main content and the header is realigned so that the logo and main navigation are on top of each other and both centrally aligned. The styles from the previous media query mentioned are also still applied, so no need to re-declare styles.

Devices with screen widths smaller than 480 pixels include the iPhone (lower than generation 4) in portrait orientation and the Blackberry Curve in the standard landscape mode.

I wish I could say that was all you had to do, but there are a few more things we must apply before our responsive site works as we want it to for as many devices as possible. Firstly, you must add a few lines of meta data to each page in the head of the document.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, minimum-scale=1.0, maximum-scale=1.0" />
<meta name="HandheldFriendly" content="true" />
<meta name="MobileOptimized" content="width here" />

The viewport meta data tells mobile browsers that the width of the document should be the same width as the device's screen. Without this present, a device may use the width of a title or image as the maximum width, meaning a user would have to scroll horizontally.

The MobileOptimized is only used by some IE browsers, and stops the browser attempting to fit the layout of your site to the screen itself. You must specify a width for this. I chose 320 pixels, as it is a good baseline for most mobile sites. The HandheldFriendly meta data does a similar job a range of other mobile browsers.

Poly-fill for Internet Explorer

CSS3 is not implemented in IE older than version 9, but there is a great JavaScript poly-fill available on Google code that will parse your CSS and apply media queries to your site, even in IE. It works well, but has the disadvantage that your CSS is downloaded twice for anyone using IE to view your site, adding to your server load. You may to choose not to support older IE versions, as again the worst case scenario is that users will see the non-responsive desktop site.

<!--[if lt IE 9]>
<script src=""></script>

Why You Shouldn't Just Design for the iPhone

As a final point about design, I would suggest not to design for just one device. Apple's iPhone is a great way to browse the web, but the strength of media queries is that they are "device agnostic" - they respond to the device's screen size, rather than the device itself. You should test your design, and decide for which widths you should alter the layout, considering elements of your design such as line length, floats and accessibility of content.

Looking at the analytics for my site, I have had hits from devices based on the mobile operating systems of Android, iOS and SymbianOS in the last month. The mobile web is a real consideration for my site, and this trend is set to continue. Media queries are a great device for creating flexible and responsive web page layouts, and with the tips in the tutorial you should have mobile appropriate content in no time.

Sloppily typed by Nick Pyett