Are we all starting to look the same?

By Danielle Stone

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User Experience Opinion

Everyone says they want to stand out from the crowd but do we really mean it? In the case of web design, it seems that we don’t. Instead, each organisation ends up sitting very comfortably in the accepted style of their sector. It’s true that standing out for the sake of it is never a good thing, and that there are benefits of adopting a successful approach that have worked for others, however, we seem to be becoming less and less creatively brave in design in the digital arena. In an era when we are offered more online than ever before, there must be an argument for stepping out of the norm and out of our comfort zones; being the trend setters rather than following the crowd.

As designers we are always looking for inspiration from a multitude of sources on and offline. For web design, showcase websites gather the best in the industry to share as inspiration. Most of these sites are chosen to be featured because they are innovative, that’s why designers continuously come back to see fresh ideas. However, I’ve noticed a change in these sites in the last year or so, which is that originality is on the decline. See these sites below, it took me just a few minutes to find these sites, and many like them, on a popular showcase site. They look very nice, but they’re pretty formulaic: great big image with punchy line of text overlaid, and often a few boxes underneath.

A screenshot of the Geckoboard website
screenshot of karma mobility website
A photo of the Litmus website

Now let’s hop in the time machine back to the beginning of 2012 (you can actually do this: it’s called the wayback machine at looking at the same ‘showcase’ website. Now look at the uniqueness of the sites featured. So why is this the case and why are we in the design community failing to innovate as much as we used to?

A screenshot of the M.A.P website
screen shot of shelton fleming site

Answer A: It’s all Apple’s fault

Let’s use the same time machine to go back to 2010 at Look what’s there: big dominating image, punchy one-liner, row of boxes underneath. They invented the formula and it stuck.

A screenshot of the Apple website

They’ve stuck to their own formula for five years now, (see the 2015 screenshot below) and the rest of the world has followed suit: who can resist what’s worked for the world’s most valuable brand?

Screenshot of Apple website

Answer B: Because the formula works

Sometimes fitting in with the crowd can be absolutely right, a website after all should be about communicating the right message, that alone is the most important thing. Styling a law website like an avant-garde art gallery website for the sake of it is never a good thing (I’ve seen it done). There’s also something about a huge image dominating the home page that can work wonders to evoke a feeling or show off a product. The three or four boxes underneath work well to target different audiences or to signpost users to different services, however we don’t want to get to the point where every site looks like a template off the shelf. Believe me, we really don’t want to get to that point as I’d be out of a job.

There’s another reason that copycat behavior might occur; we’re putting more and more research into the way users tick and this is influencing our design. If company A have the budget to make sure their design works brilliantly for their customers, then company B, with the same target audience, may rightly feel that copying them will get results for them too. It might pay off by chance, but nothing beats doing your own research for your own business.

Being influenced by the way a site works is not the same thing as literally copying how it looks. Unfortunately this does seem to be happening more and more. A recent example is the launch of Tidal, a music-sharing service and rival of established service Spotify. Spotify has been hugely successful, with over 10million active users around the world, so you can understand why a new music service would take cues from the way the Spotify app works, no point in reinventing the wheel. What Tidal have done, however, is to replicate the Spotify design exactly and use it for their own service. How disappointing that an organisation that’s very remit is showcasing creativity can be so focused on success that they resort to copying without batting an eyelid. See below, they are Spotify and Tital interfaces respectively – take you a while to spot the difference?

A screenshot of the Spotify website
A screenshot of the tidal website

Answer C: Because people are more aware of web design

You wonder what conversations happened behind closed doors during the development of Tidal. Did the designers choose to ‘borrow’ from their rival’s design or did the design direction come from the managerial team? Regardless of the answer and the ethics, it is true to say that organisations commissioning the design of their sites are much more aware of what’s out there and what looks good.

The positive of this is that the standard of design is being raised across the board, which is a great thing for web users. However an organisation that knows what looks good can be both positive and negative for designers. Our clients understand the trends and know what’s in fashion, but we can also be under pressure to produce something that looks like everything else. Sounds like a good argument to blame our clients, but wait, there’s a flaw in the argument, because we’re doing it ourselves. Creative agency websites are also starting to look very similar, the Apple aesthetic reigns across the board. So if we can’t even innovate in our own sector then that’s a very worrying thing indeed.

Answer D: It’s responsive design’s fault

Since smartphones and tablet devices have been available, the method of responsive development has been widely adopted to ensure great experiences for users across devices without designing for each individual item. It’s a fantastic method and it’s been a steep learning curve for designers and developers alike. Each element on the page has to flow and stack up on itself at each different device size. This aspect means that it is easier to make some designs responsive than others. There is a school of thought that the challenges this brings have pushed us into adopting safe ground when it comes to web design, or simply that its newness means we haven’t yet figured out how to diversify in this new way of working.

So what do we do about it?

Design by its very nature is influenced by other designs, however it does seem that, for some of the reasons above, we are less brave in our approach. There are some valid reasons for taking note of what works well, however there is also a danger of beginning to conform to a set of template designs.

I’d love to see digital designers look for some space in a project to do something surprising or unique, rattle the status quo, even just a little, and when appropriate. So here’s a challenge for designers out there – let’s start today and make the online design landscape beautiful and diverse, after all, isn’t that what we as people are all about?

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