Why You Should Improve Your Artistic Skills, If You Want To Keep Your Design Job

Are you sad about the lack of creative looking websites? Do you think too many websites look the same? Do you know how to turn your desire for more creative and unique aesthetics into a selling point for your business?


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Last week I continued a discussion about the the state of creativity or lack of it in the industry. I offered four reasons for why the web currently looks like it does, and why none of them are bad things.

Today I want to look ahead and, despite it not being necessary for most sites, I want talk about why you should be sharpening your creative pencils so to speak. I’ll do it through the same four basic ideas I talked about last week.

I want to talk about more creative aesthetics as a business advantage, what the ever changing technology means, why the art and creativity will come back as they always do, and finally where the next trends and the near future of aesthetics on the web are likely to come from.

One thing to keep in mind throughout, while design is how it works as well as how it looks, this conversation is about how it looks.

Aesthetics as a Business Advantage

I think the choice to have creative aesthetics that wow visitors or not is one of pros and cons and choosing the right balance for you, your site, and your business.

We can complain all we want about one site looking like the next but if the site is successful and its visitors are happy why does it need to be more beautiful?

A beautiful site while nice, is just one thing among many to have a successful business. It is one thing though, and that means you can use your skills creating beautiful websites as a differentiator in your business.

Part of what makes for a successful website is the attention it can attract to itself. Beautiful and creative sites tend to get noticed and talked about so it’s one way to gain general attention.

Studies show you have a few milliseconds to convince a visitor to stay a few seconds longer, long enough to direct them through your content. An artistically and creatively designed website can do that. Human beings like to look at things we find beautiful.

A creative site can hold attention beyond a few milliseconds, where you can then direct people to important content, which is ultimately what keeps them there and brings them back.

If your site looks like everyone else’s site there’s not much to distinguish you from the next search result. If on the other hand the first time someone lands on your site, your aesthetics wow that person, it’s more likely they’ll stick around, remember you, and come back again.

That doesn’t guarantee a sale, but it makes getting over the initial hurdle of keeping someone on your site more than a few milliseconds more likely.

Your site still needs to be well designed so visitors can navigate it and find what they’re looking for and it needs to be easy to contact you and pay you, etc. A creative and beautiful site can help you get to those things, which is much harder to do than we like to think.

There are plenty of studies to show that people will spend more time with a site they consider aesthetically pleasing, keeping them more engaged and more likely to learn the interface. They think the interface is easier to use when they like how it looks. A more beautiful site can lead to improved usability.

Early in the year I talked about the smiling curve and how we need to move to either end of the curve to retain clients. At one end was scale and productivity and at the other was scarcity and creativity.

Designing more unique and creative websites is one way you can stay in business as the market changes. All the things being blamed for lacking soul help you stay in business at the other end of the curve.

Time to Specialize

Industries mature over time. Web design is still a new industry. For much of the last 20 years, web design has been the wild west where anything goes. The industry is starting to grow up, though.

People have been and will continue to specialize in different aspects of web design. I think everyone who works on a website should understand the general basics of things like performance, usability testing and any other web design topic.

We should all know the basics of everything that touches the creation of a site. Every day though, it’s harder and harder for a lone individual or even a small team to do everything well in the creation of a website.

I’d bet that the majority of websites that are built today are built by a lone designer or developer who finds tools to help with the parts of the site he or she has difficulty with. If we’re all using the same handful of tools our sites are going to look similar.

We’re at a point where you’re going to see more and more specialization. If you’re someone who’s interested in how websites look, you should probably start specializing in designing sites that look better.

If it will be a business advantage then people are going to look for designers who can deliver beautiful and creative aesthetics. Why not make it your specialty? I think there will be more SquareSpace and DIY sites that look the same and if your site is different it will stand out. People will look for that advantage.

The best part is the people who will appreciate your aesthetics for their aesthetic quality are usually the same people who are willing to spend more money for the greater value they place on those aesthetics.

It’s a good niche to serve in any market. See Apple. Not everyone prefers Apple’s products, but those who do are generally willing to spend more to get them, even if they are minimalist designs that seem to equal a lack of creativity in the eyes of some in our industry.

Art and Creativity are Part of Being Human

I mentioned last week that it’s human nature to copy the success of others. It’s also human nature to desire creative, beautiful and artistic things. We’ve been creating art for at least 40,000 years, which I think is the age of first cave painting. We’ve probably been creating art longer than that.

Human beings communicate visually, through symbol and icon. We read each other’s facial expressions and body language. Certainly not all, but most people probably trust what they see over any other sense.

We also like beautiful things. Regardless of the medium, it’s in our nature to want whatever goes into that medium to be beautiful. To deny that human beings like art is to deny being human.

We can talk all we want about beautiful aesthetics not being necessary and costing too much. We can talk about the web being more in favor of better development and functionality, but as a species we seem to keep coming back to this art thing no matter how often the medium changes.

A more creative aesthetic will become an ingredient of web design again, because it’s an ingredient in human beings designing in every medium that’s ever been.

People have added art to designed objects for a long time. Go to a museum and look at all the vases, tableware, pottery, etc. These are designed objects and not art.

They weren’t created to be art. They’re products that have been given an artistic treatment. They weren’t created to sit in the corner and be looked at and admired. They were created to be used, but since they were being created why not make them as beautiful as possible.

And now several thousand years, they’re still around.

Art and creativity exist for reasons beyond the success or failure of a website. Art is among the most important things for any society as it often leads where society goes. More art and more creativity everywhere are good things in my opinion.

Where Will the New Aesthetic Come From?

Like I said last week the current trend will change. Something will replace flat design. I don’t think we’ve found the general aesthetic for the web yet. We’ve borrowed aesthetics from print, but the web isn’t print.

It made sense to borrow from the past when starting, but we’ve reached a point where we’re ready to do what comes next. I think the future web aesthetic will play to the strengths and weaknesses of the web. It will play to the fundamental truths of the medium.

The strength of the web is the dynamic and flexible nature of the medium. That’s also its weakness. You don’t know how your site will perform for any particular visitor or what size the window that the visitor will peer through to see it.

Like it or not we need to create on top of systems that are flexible and dynamic, because the web is both. We don’t get to control that. We have to ensure things work before anything else.

I keep looking to apps and mobile devices for where we’re heading. I wish websites in browsers could do more of what apps in mobile operating systems can do. I’d like to see more and better use of gestures. I’d like to see haptic technology work its way into websites. Perhaps we’ll feel the depth in the future instead of seeing it. But those aren’t really about visual aesthetics.

The flexible and dynamic nature of the web suggest we should be looking to SVG and light animation. I’ve been thinking that creative uses of SVG will be what breaks us out of our so called “boring design doldrums.”

One reason for the lack of creativity is that it can downgrade performance. It typically means more images and more http requests. We’ve elevated performance to a higher priority, which means less images and less http requests.

SVG is code so it improves performance by replacing the need for some http requests. It works well, especially in this performance hungry time. It’s a good next step. I can see designers working with basic shapes and lines and other fundamental elements of graphic design, through the use of scalable vector graphics. I’m sure we’ll start by copying from print, but we’ll do things differently in time.

Combine SVG with CSS like masking and blending and before long we’re going to be able to do with code what we’ve relied on graphic editors to do.

Part of the sameness we have is a result of having to design inside rectangles. That will change. Things like css shapes and exclusions will break us out of having to design with rectangles. We’ll be able to design inside any shape we want.

A lot of creative possibilities are going to open up as the technology improves and these possibilities will work with the fundamental nature of the web as opposed to working against it.

I also expect more movement in the web’s aesthetic. Movement is a huge advantage the web has over print. A moving picture can communicate more than a static one.

I don’t mean to suggest that every site will have animated characters moving across the screen. No one needs another Microsoft Clippy. However, instead of menu items changing color instantly on hover, the changes will take place over a few milliseconds. We’re already seeing this happen. Elements slide in and fade out, and we make all sorts of changes over a time as opposed to instantly.

I also expect to design more with proportion than absolute size. Stop using px and use more relative measurements. It’s less important that A = 1 and B = 2 and more important that B is twice A. What’s important is that A can change from 1 to 2 to 3 and back to 1 again while B remains twice A.

We should be measuring in relative sizes like percents, viewport width and height, and ems. I think for many it will be challenging to make this change. It took me a few sites to wrap my head around it, but I think it will also open up more creative possibilities in how one part of a web page relates to another and where each part is located as the page reconfigures.

Hopefully the future sees more progressive enhancement. We have no idea what devices and conditions will exist when someone visits a site we design. We’ll have to determine the minimum for which we’ll build and then build a system of layers from that minimum to the latest and greatest.

We’ll create layers of progressive aesthetics. Flat design or something like it will likely remain one of the layers closer to the minimum. Flat design for sites that can’t handle animation and SVG.

We tend to think of mobile as least common denominator while we work on our laptops and widescreen desktops, but is it? In many ways we can already do more on mobile devices than on some older browsers still in use.

Regardless of what the next trend is, I’m sure it won’t come about because we’re talking about it and deciding what it should be while we criticize what we have and what has come before.

The next trend will evolve like most do. One designer will create something new, others will see and build on it, and as a group they’ll create something others will copy en masse.

Then it will become a trend. Some will like the new trend and some will dislike it. Then the pattern will continue and another trend will emerge and then another. Each trend will leave behind something permanent that becomes part of a general web aesthetic.

I also know each trend and each permanence left behind will be criticized for not being something else. Each will be hailed as the greatest thing since fire, sliced bread, and the wheel at the exact same time it’s being panned for not being the same as it’s always been.

Closing Thoughts

I personally want to see more creative sites that look beautiful and force my mouth to open with an emphatic wow. At the same time I know that’s not necessary to do business on the web and like it or not our job is usually to help someone sell more of something.

However, just because it isn’t necessary, it doesn’t mean there aren’t advantages to creating beautiful and awe inspiring sites. You want your business to stand out from the competition and creative aesthetics are one way to do that.

Given the business advantage, I expect the ability will become a specialization for those who are the creative leaders in our industry.

Art and creativity are good things that human beings desire. They will come back because some of us will want to put them back for their own sake. If you got into web design in part because you enjoy being creative, it stands to reason you’ll want to add more creativity to you work at some point. A desire for artistic, creative, and beautiful things is part of being human after all.

One last thought is for everyone to have some perspective. Web design trends probably won’t change as often as trends in the fashion industry, which has a new look every year, but compare it to a movement in art like impressionism which was probably the dominant trend in the painting for about 20 or 30 years.

We’re talking about things that have been with us two or three years and acting like it’s been 100. Give the industry a break. Give it some time to figure a few things out.

In the end I know discussions like this one aren’t going to be what leads to the aesthetic we find. That will come from working designers. For those people who are complaining about how the web looks and are talking about what it should look like, stop talking and start designing.

If you put more creative and more soul into your own designs and you’re successful with them, people will copy you while will lead to more creative and more soul to more sites. That’s how you’ll end up with more creative websites. Just design more creative websites.

Still if a conversation like this one helps convince one designer to be more creative, it will be worth it. That’s why I’m having the conversation and why I hope others are as well.

I do think art for the sake of art, creativity for the sake of creativity, and beauty for the sake of beauty, have always been and always will be worthwhile pursuits.

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