The Ethos of Responsive Design

By Jonah Bailey on 30 12 2013

A lot of what is written and talked about these days in reference to "responsive web design" is technology-focused. We're using new frameworks and grid-systems designed to help us display our designs on a surfeit of new devices. We concentrate on the density and size of our images so we can be sure they are rendered beautifully on retina-caliber screens without clogging up the pipe of bandwidth-constrained mobile devices. Navigation paradigms seem to be a new area of exploration and experimentation that are bringing interesting ideas to the surface. In the midst of engaging with all these new challenges, I think we are in danger of missing the most exciting element of design exposed by responsive web design. What fascinates me about responsive design isn't the "how" or the "what", it's the "why". Why this new push toward responsive design on the web?

Raymond Loewy was the father of modern industrial design. In many respects, he designed much of American life from ~1930 to the early 60s. Loewy's accomplishments are too prolific to list here, but among them are the famous S1 steam locomotive, several different Studebaker automobiles, and the look and feel of Air Force One. His most iconic designs are probably the glass Coca-Cola bottle and the original Harley Davidson knucklehead engine. One of my biggest takeaways from Loewy's design philosophy was that he wasn't overly concerned with specific functions, e.g., how an engine worked or how a bottle kept carbonation. He cared about what these things were like. For him, the priority was the feeling his designs evoked when one experienced them. What did it feel like to hold that cold Coca-Cola bottle and take a drink? What was it like to see a Studebaker slide by on a misty morning in suburban Detroit? Therefore, my question is: What is responsive web design like?

To start with, I'd like to take a step back and look at its parent discipline (web design) as a subset of the general design field. What differentiates web design from other disciplines of design? There are the obvious differences: it's modular, it must be adaptable to different states, interactions, and contexts, and it has a entire technological component that greatly effects execution. But in my experience, web design is really different in the types of people it attracts. Those who successfully make web design their career are a highly consultative and collaborative group. When I look at pioneers of the medium like Jeffrey Zeldman, Christina Wodtke, Derek Powazek, Leanne Waldal, Karen Holtzblatt and Veerle Pieters, I see people who are humble, transparent, open and generous with their knowledge. They value inclusivity and accessibility. This is exactly what initially attracted me to the field: a commitment to openness, inclusivity, and accessibility.

The aforementioned values have a really interesting affinity with current patterns of internet usage. Pew Internet's 2012 survey of Cell Internet Use reveals where a commitment to accessibility on the web ties into why responsive design it is so important. Pew's survey concluded that "...young adults and non-whites are especially likely to use their cell phones for the majority of their online activity:

  • Nearly half of all 18-29 year olds (45%) who use the internet on their cell phones do most of their online browsing on their mobile device.

  • Half (51%) of African-American cell internet users do most of their online browsing on their phone, double the proportion for whites (24%). Two in five Latino cell internet users (42%) also fall into the 'cell-mostly' category.

Additionally, those with an annual household income of less than $50,000 per year and those who have not graduated college are more likely than those with higher levels of income and education to use their phones for most of their online browsing."

I would venture that responsive web design is important not just because it makes business sense going forward, but because it makes the world a better place. We all know that people are increasingly using devices with various screen resolutions to interact online. Engaging with responsive design is hugely important because you're opening up services and content to groups of people that are just beginning to find the Internet relevant. The divide between those that are "cell-mostly" users and those that aren't clearly has socio-economic roots and, thus, disproportionately affects certain populations. Following the lead of our predecessors, we should be using responsive web design to actively create a more just and inclusive digital world.

Responsive Web Design isn't just about making our content and function look good at various screen sizes. It's about entering into a richer understanding of our users' contexts and utilizing our increasing ability to understand their wants and needs through all the different mediums of feedback that these new hand-held supercomputers offer us. As designers and developers of the information age, we have the ability to make this next evolution of the web be about openness, inclusivity, accessibility, and context.