Longing for Innovation: Why Do All Websites Look the Same?
By Lior Yair
Mar 29, 2016
There’s no point in hiding it, the status of web designers and UX professionals has eroded.
Why? Ask yourself, when was the last time that you didn’t go to a website for a marketing agency, startup or new product and see that huge fit-to-width image with large text overlaid and a ghost button CTA?
We have reached a point in the progression of the web where the majority of websites look and act the same, as if they were all created on one single production line. The increase in use of DIY tools for building websites combined with the rise in availability of inexpensive templates, has decimated the market for custom design in the web industry
Wait, Is It Actually That Bad?
Comparing the present-day status of websites to that of 5 years ago, it’s very apparent that the level of design and competency of structure is much greater. But, despite the rise of highly polished, aesthetically-pleasing sites, it’s hard to ignore this growing “sameness” and the worrying lack of creativity or uniqueness in web design.
Ostensibly, there’s a purpose to how a site is designed and structured. Design patterns and conventions exist, having developed over time, taking into account the expectations of users for sites to be navigable, recognizable and familiar.
So, the question becomes: If a site achieves its goals as far as the user is concerned, is it actually that bad if it’s not unique or is a carbon copy of another site?
The answer is simple: If a site achieves its objectives, nothing else matters.
That being said, most designers and UX professionals would demur, noting that one of the goals of creating a website is that desire to push the boundaries of conventional website design; a fact reinforced by competition on sites such as Awwwards and CSS Awards. They would also agree that creating a truly innovative site on this level, is near to impossible using templates, DIY site builders or by adhering to design standards with minimal customization.
Furthermore, we also know that if this trend towards sameness in website design prevails, parallel to the availability of DIY website builders and nearly free templates, the status of design professionals as an essential part of the web design process will depreciate. While it won’t fade into oblivion, salaries will certainly take a plunge and it will be much harder to convince customers to pay for the creation, let alone ongoing management, of websites.
What Got Us to This Point (and How Can We Prevent This From Becoming Our Future)?
In order to break free from this pattern of sameness, we must take a look at how we came to find ourselves in this situation in the first place.
There isn’t one prominent reason driving this phenomenon, but the common denominator seems to be simplicity. While it cannot be pegged to the rise of flat design, it’s an amalgamation of conditions; from the rise in responsive websites to the introduction of HTML5 and the access to free, high-quality images and icons.
Advances in technology enabling a simplified process of design to deployment have also played a large part. You don’t have to hold a computer engineering degree to edit a Bootstrap template and you don’t need to be a design school grad to work with a DIY website builder.
Simplicity is both achievable and accessible. So much so, that it’s not only the designers reaching for a simple solution, it’s the clients asking for this paired down style of design and site structure. A lazy professional, knowing that this formula not only works but is in demand, will keep applying it, repeating the loop and avoiding innovation.
That leaves only the boldest amongst us to take the risk necessary in producing something truly original, to transcend the Catch 22 of simplicity and sameness.
Until then, let’s examine some of the main perpetrators in the “sameness of things” and explore ways to prevent this dull, cookie-cutter future:
DIY Website Builders and the Rise of Templates.
The internet has evolved to a point where a user isn’t just a visitor to a website, they are also creators. From content and images to icons and videos, just about anyone can share their unique point of view on the web. That being said, whether due to cost or expertise, up until five years ago, most users were not able to take their ideas live, independent of the services of a developer, not even designers.
As a result, users - often small and medium sized businesses - sought solutions outside of traditional websites and on other mediums such as online portals (this trend was and still is very prevalent in the restaurant industry).
Nowadays, there are dozens of options for inexpensive tools on which to easily and efficiently build websites that allow anyone to select a theme and fill in the content. In these cases, the design isn’t actually changing in a significant way (and in extreme cases, nor is the content). While this might be a contributing factor to this pervasive uniformity, we are speaking about untrained professionals. Why should the expectations for their level of innovation be the same?
When it comes to designers, though, using these methods to rapidly create websites without changing more than the images or colors, an option for creativity is being squandered, or blatantly ignored.
Unfortunately, this is a newer trend amongst designers and making a large impact in the “sameness of things” and the degradation of our profession.
What Can You Do about This?
If you are using ready-made templates or website builders as a part of your creative process, try to dig into their structure and learn how to customize them enough, while still maintaining flexibility in your design. You’ll be able to get so much more mileage out of your design this way - it will align with the budget of small-medium business clients and produce better end results than simply duplicating and filling in.
There are more designers than ever learning basic code, arguably systemic of a broad movement towards using and customizing templates. For this reason, I’d recommend any designer looking broaden their knowledge and understanding of how a design is translated into code.
Frameworks & Themes.
The proliferation of front-end frameworks such as Bootstrap and Foundation are another contributing factor to sites looking the same.
While these frameworks provide an easy solution to craft modern, fully-loaded, responsive sites and save on the cost of development, we find here, again, that the results look relatively the same from project to project as the framework for each site is the same.
Frameworks handcuff creativity.
You cannot reinvent the wheel in any meaningful way inside of a framework without knowledge of code; this simply isn’t on the design school curriculum.
The market for themes is also problematic. It’s undeniable that websites like Themeforest have revolutionized the industry. But, at the same time, these themes (essentially frameworks that come fully designed, responsive and often with a CMS) have been commodified and homogenized.
But, can innovation really be bought for so little?
Not only do we have the same problem of minimal steps towards customization and mass replication, but also variety. The designers that create these themes tend to mimic the best sellers in an effort to make more money. With most themes running under $50 dollars, this is an overwhelmingly popular option ever for those with more advanced skill sets.
Say what you will, we are still speaking about an impressive solution with a value not to be downplayed. There is a segment of designers that understand how these themes are built and with basic code, they are able to alter a theme’s design while benefiting from the low cost with the appearance of a premium product.
What Can You Do about This?
If you do choose to go this route and aren’t able to change these themes or frameworks through code, again, customization rue the day.
Create your own photos. Don’t rely on stock images or icons. Draw your own materials.
Doing a photoshoot can cost very little and provide materials for much more than just a site. Users feel the difference between “real” and “stock” images, even if the latter is of a high quality. After receiving the photos from a shoot, there are many editors that will help you to polish the photos and add effects accordingly. It may sound like a lot of work but the truth of the matter is that, it isn’t. It gives your photos a unique look and feel (not to mention it’s a part of our job).
Another option is to hire an illustrator that can create custom illustrations or icons. This is really priceless when it comes to creating an iconic language to match a client’s brand (between you and me, it’s not an expensive solution and there are many talented illustrators waiting to do projects like this from around the world).
There’s no reason not to design materials that we rely on as a part of the creative process. It allows us a wider range of professional freedom and the ability to make something replicated, look fresh and innovative.
Using Basic Grids.
I’ll keep this short. Do you recognize any of these grids?
Of course, you do. You can probably design layouts like these in your sleep.
What can you do about this?
First, get to know the basic grids.
Next, avoid them, or at least improve upon them (e.g. video instead of photo, a hero image to break up the monotony, etc.).
Clients Demanding More of the Same, Unwilling to Pay for Originality.
People love to copy success. It makes sense. It’s safer. It’s easier. So, when an innovative site starts trending, it’s more often than not, copied.
This effect gets a substantial boost when clients start asking you to replicate sites.
We, as professionals, first have to ask ourselves whether its right to draw from a site branded “innovative” and then explore the fit of a site to our client’s product or brand.
What Can You Do about This?
Innovative design not only takes more time and requires extra resources, it takes more courage to carry out; not something easily found on your desktop or accessible via download from an app store.
We must remember and remind each other that every exciting website was probably a calculated leap of faith by a designer (and a very trusting client) looking to push the boundaries and explore the unknown.
If you take risks, you will live on the edge. Isn’t that partly why you became a designer in the first place?
The Transition to Responsive Design.
Unfortunately, most responsive sites fall under the same characterization of ‘similar.’ I don’t know whether this is a result of the use of templates in an experiment to cut down development costs or whether this is derived from insufficient knowledge in the field.
There’s no doubt though, that today, a responsive interface is a basic request but, our job is to design despite the restrictions - to design something new and different that still fulfills the requirements of the project.
What Can You Do about This?
Understand that a responsive site does not necessitate the same grid and patterns of content in every situation. There are many other layouts and ways to arrange your design that still meet responsive requirements while exuding originality. Explore the medium with which you are working, be it a website builder, design software, frameworks etc., and look at how you can optimize layouts for responsivity and originality, while still meeting the needs of your clients.
Clear Conventions Create a Uniform Interface.
There was a period in which designers experimented with all sorts of crazy menus (on all sides of the screen), with different behaviors and supported by various technology.
Today, the concept of a top menu has formed into a strong convention on most websites, HTML is the only language in which sites are written and there are large sets of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” when it comes to websites that allegedly restrict innovation in design (and UX).
While conventions have developed over time to help designers craft the best user experience, it would seem that breaking convention is the easiest way to find innovation. No. It is almost always the wrong way.
What Can You Do about This?
Uniformity in web design helps users because they know what to expect and how to operate websites regardless if they have visited them before. Although this is true, it doesn’t mean that we should sacrifice innovation in design. You can easily maintain usability conventions while bringing to the table innovative work.
Us designers should strive for websites that are intriguing and aligned with standards of usability.
If you need evidence that this is possible, head over to Awwwards to see exceptionally creative websites that don’t necessarily break usability conventions.
We Are All Searching for Innovation in the Same Places.
This is a well-known problem to which the solution is a constant struggle, intransigent in nature.
To stay relevant, we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s new and interesting in the world of design and technology. This is something that we signed up for when joining the field of design (and for those that didn’t know, sorry, but it’s true).
In reality, most of us get inspired from the same sources, whether it is well-known sites such as Awwwards, mailing lists including Sidebar, DesignerNews, etc., or extensions like Muzli. We are all updated at the same time, which means that at best, we can be at the forefront of the next big trend to flood one another's screens.
What Can You Do about This?
Well, I don’t have a simple answer for you. The truth is, that a large portion of our job is to reinvent (not copy) these sources of inspiration. In the end, this is what distinguishes designers that are simply replicating from those that are leading our industry.
I can tell you one method that personally helps me: I like to look at other mediums.
Today there are multiple platforms that support designs, ranging from mobile and tablets to watches and television screens. Take inspiration from these formats.
For example: Examining the new interfaces of Apple and Google TV can help us find inspiration for animation, new grids and menus, that I am sure will seep over into the interfaces of other platforms, especially tablets. This is a great source of inspiration that won’t necessarily be found in a newsletter or on an inspiration site.
To highlight this point, many might not remember, but the trend of using large images originated from some of the first tablets designed with huge pictures and buttons for a “touch-first” user experience. These design characteristics crept onto desktop screens not long after.
Lack of Knowledge or Understanding around the Technologies That Exist on the Market Today.
This point probably causes the most damage to our ability to create innovative websites. Not being able to understand technological developments and by extension, the capabilities at our disposal as designers is making us fall behind.
If we are always relying on solutions only after they flood the market, we’ll never be able to foster the advanced capabilities needed to craft innovative interfaces and experiences.
What Can You Do about This?
Take, for example, Codrops. Just about any designer can learn how to use basic code to create a better user experience. You can also find examples of animations that will help resolve interface issues, new and interesting ways to present information and inspiration for innovative interfaces or impressive effects.
I’ll offer you a real-life example: There was a project uploaded to Codrops explaining the use of interactive maps in storytelling. While it was enough for me to simply see this ability and put it in the proverbial drawer for future projects, in this case, I thought of a way to incorporate this capability into a design I was working on and achieved amazing results
The Bottom Line: You'll Pay with Sweat, but It's worth It.
In order to innovate, you have to invest.
That means spending more time and effort on projects (even when a client isn’t ready to pay for that time and effort).
We may be in a period where everything is looking and acting the same but this doesn’t have to be our future. We must find the time necessary to create original, impactful sites. We can also choose to innovate carefully, in specific areas of a project; it’s our responsibility to find these places in each new project in which to bring in an aspect of originality to the sea of similarity.
There are essentially two kinds of designers - those that know how to inspire and those that are inspired by others.
We have the power to choose which designer we will be for each new project that we set out to do.
Lior Yair is the founder of Create - a digital user experience academy. One of the pioneers of UX in Israel, he enjoys teaching and the transfer of knowledge. Lior was previously the CEO of Netcraft and founded Netcraft Academy along with UX on Beer. He is also the proud owner of two crazy cats.
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