By Guy Routledge

AtoZ CSS Quick Tip: Creating Responsive Design with Media Queries

By Guy Routledge

This article is a part of our AtoZ CSS Series. You can find other entries to the series here.
View the full screencast and transcript for Media Queries here.

Welcome to our AtoZ CSS series! In this series, I’ll be exploring different CSS values (and properties) each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. We know that sometimes screencasts are just not enough, so in this article, I’ve added a new quick tip/lesson about media queries for you.


M is for Media Queries

I would venture a guess that the vast majority of web designers and developers are familiar with the concept of responsive design these days. If not, check out the Media Queries screencast.

Since responsive design is so popular, it’s a good place to pick up a couple of tips for improving the way we develop websites and apps for multiple devices. Here are a couple of CSS tips to help you out.

Tip 1: Don’t use device specific breakpoints

Hopefully this goes without saying, but just in case you need a reminder or you haven’t come across this best practice before, I thought it was worth reiterating.

Device specific breakpoints are easily identified in your code with media queries that look like this (comments added for clarity):

/* ipad portrait */
@media screen and (min-width: 768px;) {}

/* ipad landscape */
@media screen and (min-width: 1024px;) {}

/* iphone */
@media screen and (min-width: 320px) and (max-width: 480px;) {}

These breakpoints have been set up for Apple devices and have “magic number” values such as 768px or 1024px.

What if a user’s window is 1025px or 1023px?

The media queries wouldn’t take affect and the styles for that device size would not apply.

Sometimes you may need a very specific value for your breakpoint (more on that in a second) but seeing these device specific breakpoints is a code smell as far as I’m concerned.

So what should you do instead?

Tip 2: Set major breakpoints and minor tweakpoints

When working on a responsive project, I tend to set arbitrary whole-number breakpoints that are approximately the dimensions of the majority of phones, tablets, and desktop/laptop devices.

I would tend to use the following major breakpoints (although sometimes this may be altered on a project by project basis):

/* large phones and small tablets */
@media screen and (min-width: 500px;) {}

/* tablets and small monitors */
@media screen and (min-width: 800px;) {}

/* laptops and desktops */
@media screen and (min-width: 1200px;) {}

Using these breakpoints doesn’t limit the design to only change at these points but gives a good foundation for working with the three major device types.

For content-based tweaking of the design (ie: when the content starts to look broken, unbalanced, or doesn’t quite fit) you can then use tweakpoints to nudge elements around and polish the details of your project.

/* tweak position of share button */
@media screen and (min-width: 1150px;) {
  margin-right: 1em;

Tip 3: Use em or rem as your breakpoint units

Instead of px, use one of these relative units for better scalability if the user zooms the page or increases the size of the text. As an example, my major breakpoints above would look as follows when sized in ems.

/* 500px / 16px = 31.25em */
@media screen and (min-width: 31.25em;) {}

/* 800px / 16px = 50em */
@media screen and (min-width: 50em;) {}

/* 1200px / 16px = 75em */
@media screen and (min-width: 75em;) {}
  • Mike McLin

    I’ve never understood the “don’t use device breakpoints.” The same argument you make for a window being a pixel above or below the breakpoint can be made no matter what breakpoint you choose. If we know that we can optimize our design for a large portion of our visitors, why wouldn’t we? My only caveat would be that it should not influence or deter from the integrity of your design. However, in most cases your 800px wide design can be made to work in 768px, and it’s integrity should not be broken. So, if you’re going to be doing site wide breakpoint styles, why not at least target common sizes, and then shift away from them as it becomes necessary? Also, as more and more web technologies are used to make mobile apps, having your content already optimized for an app platform you are targeting might be an extra benefit.

    • Hey Mike, that’s an interesting angle that I’ve not heard or thought of before. I guess my thinking for avoiding device specific breakpoints is that it makes you think less about devices and more about the content which is what we’re designing/developing for in the first place.

      The major breakpoints (eg. 800px in my case) would be supported by a number of minor tweak points to ensure the content looks its best at all times and I suppose as long as that is your goal then the specific breakpoints you use don’t matter as much.

      Everyone has slightly different approaches and it’s always good to challenge even what might be considered good or best practices to find the right solution for each specific problem and find what’s most suitable for you, your team and your clients. Many thanks for the input.

      • Mike McLin

        To be honest, I don’t use sitewide breakpoints at all actually. Everything from our UI all the way to how we organize our code seems to be based on components/modules (or similar). Components only really care about themselves, and decoupling them from whatever the window size is seems to be the way forward (element queries, etc). I don’t think we are too far away from considering a design that over leverages min/max width media queries to become responsive a “hack”, similar to how we view table based layouts today. I think eventually media queries will fall back to their original intention, which is describing a global state (screen type, orientation, etc). Maybe my outlook is skewed because I primarily develop using a component based JS framework (Angular, Vue, React, etc).

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