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The responsive web should go beyond design

The responsive web should go beyond design, with adaptive experiences driven by functionality and written communication as well as aesthetics.

Responsive web design (the term popularised by Ethan Marcotte in his essay of the same name) has unarguably improved the mobile web. In a piece on responsive design for Wired magazine, Typecast’s Paul McKeever urges designers to “design for the reader, not the device”. Transposed from traditional graphic design, where they are used to dividing an area of known proportions into smaller units, grids help establish uniformity throughout a design. “But on the web,” says McKeever, “we’re designing for a medium that doesn’t have fixed dimensions. Resizing a layout using an arbitrary grid system no longer makes sense.”

On A List Apart, McKeever’s colleague Chris Armstrong offers an alternative, explaining the web’s built around content, not form. Their campaign calls for responsive designers to adopt an “infinite grid”, thinking aligned to writer and responsive design pioneer Mark Boulton.

McKeever and Armstrong expand upon his thinking, saying that as most content is text, grid proportions for responsive design should be based on type, rather than the size of the space that the content will be presented in.

However, even though the user is still right at the heart of it, the majority of responsive design discussions don’t involve the brands designers are working for, nor the marketers that commission them. The design protocols being debated have major implications for their customers. If responsive web design is about content and context, then messaging and functionality should take an equal importance to aesthetics. If type is to be the foundation of web design, what of words themselves?

In an article for Aeon Magazine, author and digital commentator Tom Chatfield explores how the human population is now more literate than at any time in history, and, thanks to the internet, writing forms an increasingly important means of communication, not just for the educated elite, but for 84% of us. If responsive design is the topic of the moment in design, content marketing is its counterpart in brand comms. Although by no means a new concept (it’s as old as writing itself), thanks to the increase in literacy and connectivity (according to Nielsen, almost 2.5 billion people were online last year), the potential reach and relative inexpensiveness of content marketing, along with the rise of social media and increasingly marketing savvy audiences, has placed it at the forefront of many brands’ public-facing activity.

Like responsive design, content marketing is also all about context, and it is the web that is powering it, yet where is the talk of confluence between the two? Brand strategists and product marketers should be sitting down before embarking on new digital projects with not only their designers and front-end developers, but content producers and back-end devs too. Together they can figure out how to apply the principles of responsive design and its emphasis on context holistically.

Imagine a website that not only adapted aesthetically to a user’s situation, but functionally too. In a recent piece for Brand Perfect, information management expert Aliya Whiteley looked at the untapped potential of geo-tracking and digital maps, and how some innovative brands, such as Mercedes-Benz, are breaking new ground, by beginning to integrate Google Glass — which will surely lead us to the next iteration of our digital lives — into their services. Considering the leaps in advancement being made by other applications such as Siri, audio as well as visual communication is growing in importance to our digital lives. The question is, how do those outside of service design and tech startups prepare themselves for these advances?

We published an earlier version of this article over on Medium

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