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Designing for iOS: Life Beyond Media Queries

Although not a new phenomenon, media queries seem to be getting a lot attention online recently and for the right reasons too – it’s great to be able to adapt a design with just a few lines of CSS – but many people are relying only on them to create an iPhone-specific version of their website.

I was pleased to hear at FOWD NYC a few weeks ago that both myself and Aral Balkan share the same views on why media queries aren’t always going to be the best solution for mobile. Both of us specialise in iPhone design ourselves and we opt for a different approach to media queries. The trouble is, regardless of what you have carefully selected to be display:none; in your CSS, the iPhone still loads everything in the background; all that large imagery for your full scale website also takes up valuable mobile bandwidth and time.

You can greatly increase the speed of your website by creating a specific site tailored to mobile users with just a few handy pointers – media queries, in some instances, might be perfectly suitable but, in others, here’s what you can do.

Redirect your iPhone/iPod Touch users

To detect whether someone is viewing your site on an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can either use JavaScript or PHP.

The JavaScript

if((navigator.userAgent.match(/iPhone/i)) || (navigator.userAgent.match(/iPod/i))) { 
    if (document.cookie.indexOf("iphone_redirect=false") == -1) window.location = ""; 


if(strstr($_SERVER['HTTP_USER_AGENT'],'iPhone') || strstr($_SERVER['HTTP_USER_AGENT'],'iPod')) 

Both of these methods redirect the user to a site that you have made specifically for the iPhone. At this point, be sure to provide a link to the full version of the website, in case the user wishes to view this and not be thrown into an experience they didn’t want, with no way back.

Tailoring your site

So, now you’ve got 320 × 480 pixels of screen to play with – and to create a style sheet for, just as you would for any other site you build. There are a few other bits and pieces that you can add to your code to create a site that feels more like a fully immersive iPhone app rather than a website.

Retina display

When building your website specifically tailored to the iPhone, you might like to go one step further and create a specific style sheet for iPhone 4’s Retina display. Because there are four times as many pixels on the iPhone 4 (640 × 960 pixels), you’ll find specifics such as text shadows and borders will have to be increased.

<link rel="stylesheet" 
   media="only screen and (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio: 2)" 
   type="text/css" href="../iphone4.css" />

(Credit to Thomas Maier)

Prevent user scaling

This declaration, added into the <head>, stops the user being able to pinch-zoom in and out of your design, which is perfect if you are designing to the exact pixel measurements of the iPhone screen.

<meta name="viewport" 
   content="width=device-width; initial-scale=1.0; maximum-scale=1.0;">

Designing for orientation

As iPhones aren’t static devices, you’ll also need to provide a style sheet for horizontal orientation. We can do this by inserting some JavaScript into the <head> as follows:

<script type="text/javascript">
function orient() {
    switch(window.orientation) {
        case 0: 
            document.getElementById("orient_css").href = "css/iphone_portrait.css";
        case -90: 
            document.getElementById("orient_css").href = "css/iphone_landscape.css";
        case 90: 
            document.getElementById("orient_css").href = "css/iphone_landscape.css";
window.onload = orient();

You can also specify orientation styles using media queries. This is absolutely fine, as by this point you’ll already be working with mobile-specific graphics and have little need to set a lot of things to display:none;

<link rel="stylesheet" 
   media="only screen and (max-device-width: 480px)" href="/iphone.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" 
   media="only screen and (orientation: portrait)" href="/portrait.css">
<link rel="stylesheet" 
   media="only screen and (orientation: landscape)” href="/landscape.css">

Remove the address and status bars, top and bottom

To give you more room on-screen and to make your site feel more like an immersive web app, you can place the following declaration into the <head> of your document’s code to remove the address and status bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

<meta name="apple-mobile-web-app-capable" content="yes" />

Making the most of inbuilt functions

Similar to mailto: e-mail links, the iPhone also supports another two handy URI schemes which are great for enhancing contact details. When tapped, the following links will automatically bring up the appropriate call or text interface:

<a href="tel:01234567890">Call us</a>
<a href="sms:01234567890">Text us</a>

iPhone-specific Web Clip icon

Although I believe them to be fundamentally flawed, since they rely on the user bookmarking your site, iPhone Web Clip icons are still a nice touch. You need just two declarations, again in the <head> of your document:

<link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="icons/regular_icon.png" />
<link rel="apple-touch-icon" sizes="114x114" href="icons/retina_icon.png" />

For iPhone 4 you’ll need to create a 114 × 114 pixels icon; for a non-Retina display, a 57 × 57 pixels icon will do the trick.


Apple adds its standard gloss ‘moon’ over the top of any icon. If you feel this might be too much for your particular icon and would prefer a matte finish, you can add precomposed to the end of the apple-touch-icon declaration to remove the standard gloss.

<link rel="apple-touch-icon-precomposed" href="/images/touch-icon.png" />

Wrapping up

Media queries definitely have their uses. They make it easy to build a custom experience for your visitor, regardless of their browser’s size. For more complex sites, however, or where you have lots of imagery and other content that isn’t necessary on the mobile version, you can now use these other methods to help you out. Remember, they are purely for presentation and not optimisation; for busy people on the go, optimisation and faster-running mobile experiences can only be a good thing.

Have a wonderful Christmas fellow Webbies!

About the author

Sarah Parmenter specialises in User Interface Design for iOS devices and the web, she regularly makes contributions to online web design related websites and written features to various magazines. Sarah also speaks at web design conferences around the world and is lucky to consult, and work for, many companies that we all know and love.

More articles by Sarah