Web Design Has As Much Soul Now As It Did Before

Have you been following all the talk about the lack of creativity and the lack interesting aesthetics that the web design and development industry has producing the last few years?


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A couple of months ago I recorded two podcasts about art direction and how important it and aesthetics in general are to the success of a website. By the time I published them, which was a little more than a month ago, I had come across quite a few articles, podcasts, and presentations elsewhere talking about the general subject. For a change I think I might have timed a topic well.

The general conversation is about the sameness in looks from one site to the next and often this lack of originality is pinned on a lack of creativity in the industry. You hear things like:

  • Web designers lack creativity or aren’t utilizing the creativity they have
  • Web design has lost it’s soul
  • Flat design is killing web design because it allows too many non-designers to design mediocre sites
  • It’s the fault of responsive design, frameworks, modern workflows, having to use the wrong graphic editing tools or not being able to use the ones you want

If those complaining are doing so from a desire to inject more creativity into the design of websites, I’m all for that. We should all express more creativity in our work. However, I think the things being criticized as the cause of this lack of creativity are generally good things.

The web looks a hell of a lot better than it did 15 years ago when I first got online. I think it looks a lot better than it did 5 years ago. Better is certainly a subjective word, but in my opinion the web looks better today than it did in the past.

I want to offer some reasons for the current state of design on the web and why nothing is really wrong. Despite my thinking that things are in better shape than some would suggest, next week I’ll offer some thoughts on why you should be improving your artistic and aesthetic skills and where the next trends will likely come from .

I realize I may repeat myself talking about this again so soon, but I think this is an important topic and one that potentially determines whether you and I will be working designers in a few years

While design is both how a thing works and how it looks, in this post I’m mainly concerned with how websites look and not so much how they function, which is a separate conversation for another time.

My Context

Let me start with how I feel personally about this. I like art and art direction. I like to see beautiful, creative aesthetics when I visit a website. I think making websites beautiful is worthwhile for no other reason than to make them beautiful.

In some ways this is a difficult topic for me. What I want is more creative, beautiful aesthetics, but I know the reasons the web might not appear creative today are generally good things and they aren’t likely to change back.

I want to offer four reasons for the state of design on the web

  1. It’s good for business
  2. The medium and technology are changing quickly
  3. The current trend of flat design does play a role though not the one people think
  4. It’s human nature

Business Before Aesthetics

As much as I might want every website to be as beautiful as it can be I know most websites don’t need to be beautiful or creative to succeed.

The look of a site contributes to the success of that site, but it’s not the only thing that does nor is it the most important thing that does. The look is one layer on top of other layers that contain things like content, performance, information architecture, etc. The look is one of those things, but it’s just one of them.

There are plenty of examples of very successful websites that look awful and many more examples of generic looking sites that are successful.

Business comes first. Despite wanting to be creative when designing websites, you and I first have to stay in business which means solving the problems of real clients. More and more of my clients just want something that works, doesn’t look bad, and doesn’t cost much.

Serving those clients means using more frameworks, component libraries, and a simpler design aesthetic that looks good enough and works well. It also means not doing some things that you know might be better for a site, but exceed the client’s budget and so can’t be included.

As a business owner my goal is to create and build the best site I can for my clients within constraints they set. Their budget is usually the constraint that constrains the most. If you want to stay in business then you need to continue to find more cost effective ways to deliver your services to your clients. If that means using a framework or customizing a theme, so be it.

At the start of this year I talked about how I see the market for freelance design and development work changing. DIY tools and services like SquareSpace can’t do what we do, but they’ve become good enough for many people wanting websites.

If our clients are no longer willing to pay what they have been for our services, we can either find new clients, figure out how to offer our services for less money, or change businesses or careers. Most of us will probably look to reducing our costs to serve the same clients.

Again that means more frameworks, customizing ready made themes, and using component libraries that are shared from project to project. Yes, there’s a sameness across many sites, but it’s because that’s what the market is willing to pay for.

Let me clarify that I mean certain segments of the market, but the ones with the majority of our clients.

Web designers might not like it, but tough. Suck it up. The internet and technology in general has been disrupting every industry for the last 20 years. Guess what? Now it’s disrupting our industry through low cost, good enough solutions.

It seems weird since our industry only exists because of the web. For last 20 years people have been building web design careers and still will in the future. The industry is getting disrupted by it’s own technology, though.

While I may think a creative, beautiful, custom site is the better option, it’s not a requirement for the success of most websites. Most people will make their choice about design based on a subjective opinion of what looks good enough to them and an objective opinion about what costs less.

The Changing Technology and a New Medium

I’d bet most people currently working as web designers had little to no graphic design background when they started. I know I didn’t. That might seem like an argument in favor of those who say the creativity is missing, but it isn’t.

Web design does not equal graphic design. They’re similar in many ways. They both create 2-dimensional designs that appears on a flat surface and the look of the design is what most of us notice first.

But screens are not paper. Each has its own challenges, strengths and weaknesses. Our industry has tried to force the web to act like connected sheets of paper for years. It didn’t work. It doesn’t work. It won’t work in the future.

Trying to make the new resemble the past is typical of how new industries start, but in time they change and play to the strengths and weaknesses of the new. As a new industry matures it leaves it’s origins and aligns itself with the the pros and cons of the new things it deals with.

In a few years we went from designing everything inside of 1024×768 or 1200×800 to having to design for a seemingly infinite variety of sizes and resolutions and capabilities. It’s a lot more than we would have had to deal with pre-internet.

Lets give the industry a break. There have been and will continue to be a lot of technical things to figure out about the medium in which we work. The web of the future is not going to look like a print magazine from 50 or 75 years ago.

Our print ancestors didn’t figure things out overnight and they had arguably less things to think about when designing, given the medium. Why do we forget that?

Responsive design is five years old and most of the industry didn’t even notice it in the first year before they started panning it in it’s second year. It takes time to figure these things out and while people are working on technical issues because they have to, they aren’t focusing on the creative side of things as much.

The Flat Design Trend

Speaking of the last few years there’s the flat design trend. I know it’s a trend because it’s there in the name. The thing with trends is they get replaced with new trends in time. That might be next month and it might be 10 years from now, but there will be a new trend to replace flat design. It’s how trends work.

Flat design as a trend is two or three years old. Why do we sometimes act like it’s the only way a website has ever looked?

Flat design is a reaction to the previous trend of skeuomorphism. I think of flat design as a return to the fundamentals of type, color, and layout, and images.

The previous trend, skeuomorphism was good at first, but it grew way over the top and the trend that replaced it stripped everything away but the basics.

That gives us a chance to build on top of the fundamentals in a way that’s in harmony with how the web works and not force it to look like print. The back to basics is also good education for a large part of the industry, myself included, that didn’t go to school to learn graphic design.

Flat design favors minimal and simple. We live in a complicated world that seems to grow more complicated and complex all the time. Is it any wonder we crave simplicity and minimalism in our aesthetics?

Would you rather return to how the web looked in the late nineties and early oughts when it wasn’t so minimal. Look up some sites on archive.org if you weren’t around or don’t remember 15–20 years ago.

It isn’t just web design. Minimal photography is a thing as is minimalism in product design. Look around, most creative endeavors have a minimalist aesthetic practiced by some.

One more complaint I hear about flat design is that it features low information density. I don’t know about your clients, but my clients don’t hand me a lot of dense information. I once had to design a site around less content than you’ll find in this sentence. I usually have to solve the problem of designing around too little content than too much content.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I think the biggest reason for the sameness across sites is that designers copy one another. People now like to point to the last trend of skeuomorphism as something with more creativity and soul, but seriously did you think the last site you visited with a textured paper background and grunge brush strokes was creative or a copy of the thousand paper background sites with grunge brush strokes you’d seen before?

Maybe it’s just me, but all those “creative” sites looked very much the same. I wasn’t seeing any soul, magic, or creativity in those designs. Just a lot of people copying the existing trend the same way they are now.

Maybe it’s not so much the trend as it is an industry that can’t stop copying each other. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s not our industry. It’s human nature. Human beings copy what’s been shown to be successful. We’ve been doing it forever and we’ll probably continue to do it forever.

Creativity is hard work. It requires effort that most people aren’t willing to put in to achieve the results they want. Copying and tweaking is a lot easier.

I guarantee that if a few sites add more of the creative back in and receive favorable reviews for their work, everyone else will copy what they did.

The current state of web design has just as much soul as any other current state of anything involving human beings. A few people create and share their soulful, creative work. Everyone else copies them.

Things look more the same now, because of the back to fundamentals trend. We’re only working with the fundamentals so there’s less to work with and so less to differentiate one site from another. But it’s really no different than what’s gone on throughout human history. Some create, more copy.

Why is Any of This a Bad Thing?

One complaint about the current state of web design is that non-designers can just slap a coat of flat design trend on it and keep working. Yeah, so what?

That’s not a bad thing. It might be bad for the designer who previously designed that site, but it’s good for everyone else. It’s good because it makes design more accessible to more people.

It’s no different than you or me using WordPress or whatever content management system you prefer. I chose WordPress because I’m not a developer. I chose a tool that would let me do my thing while letting the tool take care of the things I couldn’t do well.

A better solution for me would be to build a custom content management system tailored to my specific needs or hire someone to build it. I also know if I had to develop it myself or pay someone else to, I never would have been in business.

Matt Mullenweg often talks about the goal of WordPress. He wants it to democratize publishing and I think that’s a very worthy goal to aspire to.

All the good enough DIY design tools and services, the frameworks, component libraries, and even a trend that can be slapped on, help democratize design.

They may not be good for the bank accounts of web designers, but they are good for most people and quite honestly they improve the overall look of the web. The typical website today looks far nicer and is generally easier to use than the typical website from few years ago and certainly a decade ago.

Closing Thoughts

My apologies if I repeated myself too much. I tried not to, but it was inevitable that I would to some degree.

I’ve been designing and developing websites for about a dozen years. There has never been a moment during the last 12 years where something in this industry wasn’t being criticized.

In some ways that’s good. If we have discussions like these, they hopefully get people thinking about how to make things better.

In a lot of ways though, it’s just complaining. I’m sure that sometime in the not too distant future the look of the web will change again. Sites won’t look like they do now and more designers will be experimenting and putting the creativity back.

Then people will talk about how the industry isn’t adhering to conventions and standards and how websites everywhere have become unusable messes. It’s the natural cycle of things.

Next week I want to argue more for the other side about why you should improve your artistic and aesthetic skills so you can create more beautiful sites.

I want to offer reasons why you should push the creative envelope. I also want talk about how despite the seeming lack of creativity on the web, the art and creativity isn’t going away for long no matter what we do or say.

I’ll finish with some thoughts about where I think the future of web aesthetics and the next trends will likely come from.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

4 comments

  1. Steven! This is one of the most truthful blog I’ve read about web designing. i couldn’t agree more on designing being flat. I too come from the same industry.

    Nowadays aesthetic design has become secondary. There are more important KPI to a website, conversion, CTR, etc. That is why web design become flatter. It’s been a long while I’ve seen a different web design.

    Many “Web Designers” just use a proven template and design the website. Cons and Pros but I would prefer my web design to be built from scratch base on client’s needs and wants.

    It is inevitable that web design is getting flat. We just need to strike a balance between aesthetic design and KPIs.

    Great article!! I would love to read more of your articles.

    • Thanks rain tan. I think for now the industry is focused on the more technical aspects of web design, but I think the focus on aesthetics will come back. In fact I think it already is. There have definitely been more discussions about aesthetics in the last six months or so.

      But there are other thing to designing a website besides how it will look and for the moment, the industry is focused more on some of those other things.

  2. It is very important to have a web designer who is not only creative, but will be inspired by their client to create a website that will enhance and bring life to the web page itself. Great read. Thanks.

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