“Responsive Design is Misunderstood” – The Karen McGrane Interview

Karen McGrane founded Bond Art + Science in 2006, and has led content strategy and information architecture initiatives for The Atlantic, Fast Company, Franklin Templeton, and Hearst. Karen helped build the User Experience practice at Razorfish, hired as the very first information architect and leaving as the VP and national lead for user experience. She teaches Design Management in the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is the author of Content Strategy For Mobile (A Book Apart, 2012). She took time from her busy schedule to talk with us about the intersection between design and content in 2015.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

My entire career is founded on the fact that I was the only person at my job in the early 90s who knew how to do a mail merge. And I learned how to do it on WordPerfect for DOS. My very first paying job making websites was in 1995, working on a sort of proto-CMS called WebHub. It let you create little macros to fill in text from a database, not unlike a mail merge. If I’m really honest about it, my knowledge of mail merge and my grasp of what was possible with the HTML 1.1 spec is essentially what has fueled my twenty-year web career. That, and I have a Masters degree in technical communication and human-computer interaction from RPI. 1995-97 was a fantastic time to be in an engineering grad school, and I learned a lot. But really: mail merge.

You were part of the web design agency world pretty early. What was it like back then, especially as compared to now?

When I finished grad school in 1997, I moved to NYC and got a job at Razorfish, which was absolute chaos. It was all 25-year-olds running around, advising giant corporations on their websites. Some of my best stories from those years involve being in boardrooms, showing wireframes to CEOs, and trying to explain the web. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you my Michael Eisner stories. I assume agency life is still chaos and still a bunch of 25-year-olds running around, but maybe a bit more separation between them and the CEOs. Much the same as my years in grad school, I’m grateful for what I learned in those agency years and also glad that they are over.

You’ve become a strong advocate for responsive design. What would you say is the most misunderstood thing about responsive design?

I’d say I’m a strong advocate for the web. And responsive design is just the latest skirmish in the battle for openness, web standards, and equal access. People who were really attached to their table-based layouts didn’t want to use CSS, and people who seemingly have Stockholm Syndrome for their desktop website don’t want to embrace responsive design. But eventually, we’re not going to be debating whether responsive design is the right approach anymore. It’s just going to be web design, because it’s the right way to do things. (Do you mind sending this to Ethan? He owes me five bucks. He knows why.)

What’s misunderstood about responsive web design is that it’s not, and was never intended to be, the solution to every problem you might encounter on the multi-device web. I spent five entertaining minutes searching through Mat Marquis’ Twitter history to find this gem:

I see a lot of one-sided arguments against responsive design. My personal favorite right now can be summed up as “Look at this borked responsive site, responsive is terrible, you should use adaptive.” I could spend all day unpacking the flaws in that argument, but as one of the web’s leading advocates for adaptive content, I get twitchy when I hear adaptive presented as some kind of better alternative. One, it’s not an alternative. It’s complementary. Two, it’s not better. You’re just signing up for a different set of problems. If you can solve your problem using responsive design, that should be your first line of defense.

You’re giving a talk at a couple of our Fall events titled “Content in a Zombie Apocalypse.” What will attendees take away from it?

My goal for this talk is to explain why separating content from container is important to our multi-device future. When I talk to an audience of web developers about separating content from presentation, there’s this sense that that means CSS. But separating content from container means so much more than that—it touches the work of everyone involved in creating and maintaining the website. It changes the way that content creators work. It changes the way the CMS is architected.

I’ll be honest. I don’t think we’ll ever achieve complete separation of content from presentation. But we have to do a better job of it, because having content that can work across devices and screen sizes is what will help us survive the zombie apocalypse.

So what is the zombie apocalypse, exactly? Do we need to bunker up?

Scott Jenson back in 2012 described a zombie apocalypse of smart devices coming our way. We’re already in the midst of that apocalypse, with new devices coming on the market every day, each with a different screen size, input mechanism, and other capabilities.

What excites you most these days?

I have a very exciting project I’m working on! I get to work with all my most very favorite people and with a client who is positively dreamy. I know I can speak for everyone involved when I say we cannot wait to start talking about this project. I’m emitting a high-pitched squeal of delight right now; maybe it’s best that you can’t hear it.

I’m also really excited by what the BBC News has done with their responsive design process, and what they’ve been sharing publicly. I’m just genuinely so impressed by everything I see coming out of that team. The interview that Ethan and I did with them is just jam-packed with goodness. I think anyone who read or listened to it would be as excited as I am.

You can see Karen McGrane at An Event Apart Chicago and An Event Apart Austin, where she’ll present “Content in a Zombie Apocalypse” and lead a full-day session on “Responsive Web Design: Content, Code, and Collaboration” with Ethan Marcotte.  For more insight into what AEA is all about, enjoy the numerous free presentation videos on our site. And for your free monthly guide to all things web, design, and developer-y, subscribe to The AEA Digest.