On Adaptive vs. Responsive Web Design

In the past few months, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the differences between the “adaptive” and “responsive” web design philosophies. Don’t get me wrong, I love having these discussions, but I felt the need to set the record straight: these two philosophies are not at odds, despite numerous blog posts and tweets to the contrary.

Responsive web design,” as coined by Ethan Marcotte, means “fluid grids, fluid images/media & media queries.” “Adaptive web design,” as I use it, is about creating interfaces that adapt to the user’s capabilities (in terms of both form and function). To me, “adaptive web design” is just another term for “progressive enhancement” of which responsive web design can (an often should) be an integral part, but is a more holistic approach to web design in that it also takes into account varying levels of markup, CSS, JavaScript and assistive technology support.

For the record, I do think it’s important to draw a distinction between “adaptive web design” and “adaptive layouts” because “adaptive layouts” implies only the use of media queries, which may not be done in a progressively enhanced way. Adaptive layouts achieved in a mobile-first manner, however, are very likely progressive enhancement and, thereby, a means of “adaptive web design.

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