WPLift is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What are the Key Features that Make a WordPress Theme Responsive?

Last Updated on May 22nd, 2023

It’s 2023, which means that responsive web design is no longer an option but a necessity. 

With 92.3% of Internet users accessing the web via mobile devices and close to 60% of all global web traffic coming from mobile, WordPress themes simply must be fully responsive if they are going to meet the needs of modern users.

So, what exactly constitutes responsive theme design? 

What essential components ensure a theme functions flawlessly on any device, and how exactly do they work?

You’ll find the answers to all of those questions in this guide.

Whether you’re a website owner looking to arm yourself with all the knowledge you need to choose the best responsive WordPress theme, or a novice designer preparing to build your first theme, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about the key features of responsive themes. 

What Makes a WordPress Theme Responsive?

In the most basic sense, a responsive WordPress theme is any theme that alters its design and overall layout to suit whatever device a user views it on. 

This means that if you load your website on three different platforms (for example, a desktop computer, an iPad, and an Android phone), it may look different on each one but will give users the best possible experience on that particular device.

What are the Key Features of a Responsive Theme?

There are three essential features to making a WordPress theme perform in a responsive manner.

These include:

Article Continues Below

1. Flexible Grid Systems

In the early days of the web, designers followed the same layout principles used in print publications, setting fixed, absolute sizes for their page layouts based on pixels.

Once most of us started moving away from our desktops and accessing the web via tablets and smartphones, it soon became apparent that this no longer worked. 

Pages with fixed layouts typically didn’t look great on those devices, and even if there was nothing wrong with the general aesthetic, navigation and site functions could often be too small or simply tricky to use. 

For this reason, designers working on responsive themes began to change their approach and use flexible grid systems.

The cornerstone of any responsive theme, flexible grid layouts provide the framework that enables themes to switch up their layout to suit the device type and screen size.

In a nutshell, these systems comprise a series of grids and columns, with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) language used to control how they adjust on different devices. 

For example, it’s possible to use CSS to determine that a website should be spread across several columns on a desktop monitor but streamlined to a single column on a smaller screen, such as an iPhone. 

Without such a system, theme builders would have no way of ensuring how their pages look on different devices, but that’s not all they do.

Since using a flexible grid with CSS means that all of your styles and layouts are kept together, it’s much easier to tackle updates and ongoing maintenance than if they were placed throughout the theme’s main code.

2. Breakpoints

In simple terms, the Breakpoint of a responsive theme is the point at which the layout of a theme should change. 

Article Continues Below

For example, some designers may decide to set many breakpoints which change the layout of a website when a user makes minimal adjustments to the size of their web browser. In contrast, others may decide that the layout should only change when the change in size is significant, such as from a desktop screen to a smartphone.

These breakpoints are determined by CSS media queries, specific commands which tell the theme when to display a different layout. 

@media (max-width: 480px) {

.container {

Width: 100%;



For example, using the media query above, a theme developer can specify that the layout reduces to a single column when the screen size is 480 pixels or less. 

As a general rule of best practice, it’s a smart idea to have at least three or four breakpoints for each website to ensure it responds to the most commonly used screen sizes.

3. Fluid Images

While the flexible grid systems dictate how the overall layout responds to different screen sizes, fluid images do the same thing with, you guessed it, the pictures on the page. 

Article Continues Below

Like the grid systems, fluid images are handled by CSS, which, in this case, determines image sizes based on a percentage of its container rather than a fixed width. As a result, those images automatically adjust to the optimum size and position for the screen they’re being displayed on. 

This approach benefits both designers and end-users.

With fluid images, theme developers don’t have to go through the laborious process of creating multiple-sized images for different browsers and setting rules for which image should be used on which screen size. Instead, they can use one image and control its responsiveness with CSS. 

Meanwhile, site visitors enjoy a better overall experience, ensuring that pictures don’t get in the way of important information or page functions such as contact forms and Calls to Action.

4. Responsive Typography

Of course, it isn’t just your images that need to adjust to different screen sizes; your text does too.

After all, imagine if you built for mobile-first and used a font size appropriate for Android and iPhone devices. When a user attempts to visit your site on a desktop or laptop computer, chances are that text is going to be too small to read properly.

Conversely, if you used a fixed font size for a desktop, it would be too big for mobile devices and ruin the user experience. 

For this reason, theme designers need to rely on responsive typography, once again harnessing the power of Cascading Style Sheets to specify the most appropriate font face and size for each screen size.

5. Mobile-Friendly Navigation

User-friendly navigation is a quintessential component of any website, allowing visitors to jump between your pages to find the information or service they need.

So, naturally, this is something that responsive theme designers really have to pay attention to. 

The standard navigation menus you see on sites viewed on a desktop can often become challenging to use on smaller screens, often negatively impacting the overall design and layout in the process.

This is why designers typically turn to what’s known as a “hamburger menu.”

You’ve undoubtedly seen “hamburger menus” countless times before, even if you didn’t know that’s what they were called. Essentially, this term refers to three dashes on a mobile site or app which resemble the construction of a hamburger and which, when clicked, reveal access to a navigational menu

These menus are made using a combination of HTML for structure, CSS for style and position, and Javascript to enable essential interaction so the menu opens and closes when tapped.

While website owners can use a variety of top mobile menu plugins such as WP Mega Menu or WP Mobile Menu to improve the style and functionality of their theme’s menu, theme designers will generally find they achieve more success when building fully optimized mobile navigation into their theme in the first place.

6. Optimized Button Design

Buttons are an often overlooked but fundamentally important aspect of good-quality responsive theme design. 

On a desktop computer with a cursor, it’s easy to tap a button with great precision. On a mobile device, users will be clicking using their fingers, which simply doesn’t offer that same level of accuracy.

As such, clickable elements, such as buttons and text links, both need to be big enough. 

Apple’s comprehensive Human Interface Guidelines for developers note that the average finger tap measures 44px x 44px, meaning theme creators should create buttons at least that size.

Putting the Key Features of Responsive Design into Action: Why a Mobile-First Approach Matters

There’s a widely-repeated maxim in the design and development industries that any new product, whether it’s a WordPress theme, software, or a custom website, should be designed using a mobile-first approach.

In other words, rather than building and testing a theme for larger desktop screens and fine-tuning it as you go to ensure it works on a smartphone, it’s better to start with your flexible grid system and breakpoints and make the mobile user experience your top priority.

With 92% of users accessing the web via smart devices, this common-sense approach ensures you satisfy the needs of many of your visitors from the word ‘go.’ 

Not that this is the only reason to prioritize mobile design. 

It’s no secret that designing for smaller screens presents more challenges and usability issues than for larger ones. By focusing on mobile, theme developers give themselves the advantage of preventing most of those issues from the outset, saving the time it would take to go back and fix them later. 

With all that being said, a responsive theme isn’t the only thing that can help improve user experiences on smaller screens. For more helpful tools, see our guide to the best WordPress plugins for a mobile-friendly site.

A team of WordPress experts that love to test out new WordPress related software, WordPress plugins and WordPress themes.