How resilient web design can help Syrian refugees

Resilient web designWhen I attended the 2016 An Event Apart (AEA) web design conference in Boston a few months ago, I didn’t expect any of the presenters to touch upon my personal experiences in the Middle East. For those of you who are reading my posts for the first time, I lived and worked in Cairo, Egypt and Amman, Jordan from August 2013 to September 2015 during a period of great turmoil and upheaval in the region.

I witnessed up close as 2015 marked record-high numbers for global displacement. The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide has climbed to over 65.3 million. This includes 21.3 million refugees4.9 million Syrian refugees from the civil war still raging unabated after five years and 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNWRA over 60 years after the conflict first began. But what does this have to do with web design?

Designing for Infinite Human Contexts

To make the connection, I turn to AEA Boston speaker (and fellow Middlebury alumnus) Ethan Marcotte, often regarded as the pioneer of responsive web design. He ended his presentation with a call-to-action to step back from our own experiences and design web platforms for this era of unprecedented global displacement, especially for Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

Marcotte’s thesis is simple: We need to design for an infinite number of devices, screen sizes, browsers, connection speeds, and most importantly, human contexts. Marcotte himself approaches new projects by designing flexible, modular patterns, which dynamically adapt to changes in screen size or browser features. Others have captured this idea by suggesting that web design should be device agnostic.

Code should be clean, light, and functional. And then it can be progressively enhanced by adding layers of complexity through additional code in order to enhance the user’s experience. While the site’s content and services will remain fully functional to all,  nonessential or advanced features may not be supported in every context.

Frameworks for Digital Resilience

Progressive enhancement and device agnostic design also seem like avenues towards digital resilience. As web design frameworks, they guarantee basic site functionality and performance for everyone and, therefore, seem to inherently embrace and advocate for accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. These frameworks can help us overcome systemic divides and inequalities at a time when:

A Way Forward

Simple code doesn’t break. Guaranteeing a level of basic functionality and performance ensures equity, so that anyone anywhere anytime can access the information, data, and services they need. Refugees crossing the Mediterranean with sub-3G mobile connections can have the same web experience as U.S. citizens surfing the web on fiber optic networksIt’s our responsibility to create resilience through web design.

Last year at AEA in Austin, Marcotte told us we may need to cultivate laziness to achieve resilience: “A little less code, a little bit lazier.” The subtext: We’ve worked too hard building complex sites that won’t survive these challenging times of unprecedented variability and uncertainty.

The AEA pioneers and pioneeresses of web design are clear in their values. The web is for everyone, and we need to help build day-to-day resilience into our digital landscape.

Thoughts? Please share in the comments section below or email me at


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