One of the trends in web design generally over the past couple years has been to make websites responsive. That is, to design them in such a way that they automatically reformat themselves for desktops, tablets, or mobile devices. I expect you’ve seen this before when you check out some website on a desktop machine and then look at it later on your cell phone. If you want to check it out right now, we do it here at FreakSugar! Compare how you’re reading this now against a different type of device!
Typically, websites designed for mobile devices tend to be set up more vertically with lots of top-to-bottom scrolling (easy to do with just a flick of your finger) where you can only see one or two main points at a time, but on desktops, you’ll tend to see a more “traditional” web layout with a more horizontal layout and a greater ability to glance over an entire page quickly. Trying to force a desktop layout onto a phone typically results in super small fonts and/or both horizontal and vertical scrolling. It tends not to be a very easy or efficient way to read a web page. Conversely, a mobile-optimized design seen on a desktop often results in overly wide columns that can become difficult to read, not to mention visually just unappealing.
So what designers do is distinguish between the layout and the content. It’s a notion that actually pre-dates smart phones, and was originally a consideration for giving site developers the ability to change design elements quickly without having to rework every page on a site manually. The difference now is that there’s an additional check to see what device you’re using, and it utilizes a different layout structure accordingly, primarily through the use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
As I said, responsive sites tend to stack content vertically on mobile devices and horizontally on desktops. But I have yet to really see that done in webcomics. While for some comics, that certainly wouldn’t be practical, but I’m thinking in particular about gag strips. They’re generally presented in a horizontal format, much like newspaper strips; three or four panels in a row. But taking it to a mobile device… you wind up having to either scroll left to right, or flip your phone sideways in order to read the whole thing. What if, instead, those three or four panels came up stacked on top of one another when you read it on your phone? Horizontal on your desktop, but vertical on your cell. Both experiences would be more suited to the device.
Now, that would require each panel to be uploaded independently as opposed to the single image file format virtually everybody uses today, but it would allow greater flexibility in formatting and make for a better reading experience in a wider range of scenarios. This would also require a fair amount of modifications to existing site designs and templates—something that webcomic artists are not always good at.
That being said, I still find it surprising that I haven’t seen any webcomics attempt a responsive approach to their site yet. That’s not to say nobody has, but I know I certainly haven’t seen anything like that, nor have I heard of anyone attempting it. As more and more people split their time between multiple devices, though, this will likely become an increasingly necessary issue to address.