Do Web Designers Need To Innovate More?

“As an artist you are only a link in a chain, and whatever you find or whatever you do not find, you can find comfort in it.”
— Vincent Van Gogh

On May 3, 1889 Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo. At the time Van Gogh was in between stays at the mental hospital in Saint Rémy. He had already completed some of his most famous works such as his Sunflower series, The Bedroom, and The Café Terrace, with even more famous works such as Starry Night to come.

We would certainly consider him an innovative and creative person and, personal problems aside, the kind of artist many of us would aspire to be. On that same day in that very letter, Vincent also wrote the quote above about being a link in a chain.

As creatives are we truly original and unique or do we simply copy what came before so others will copy us after? Do web designers need to innovate more? Has the profession become wholly unoriginal?

Creativity, Copying, and Innovation

Two recent posts caught my attention on the topics of creativity, copying, and innovation. In the first, a From the Couch video, David Peralt makes the point that too many websites copy the same few techniques over and over and he says:

“We need to stop looking at our computer screens in order to gain inspiration.”

You can watch the video in it’s entirety below (The part on design inspiration begins about 1:30 in) and I’d also suggest watching some of the other videos from the site. David and Mark usually have interesting and helpful thoughts to share.

In the second post, How To Be Creative, Kayla from Webitect, walks us through the process of copying others only to get back to discovering yourself in order to find your unique style.

I agree with both David and Kayla. We do need to look beyond the computer screen for inspiration and we do need to find uniqueness from within. But I think there’s more to the story.

Why Do Web Designers Copy?

Copying from the work of others is part of the creative process. We see what we like, attempt to imitate, and then add something of ourselves to the mix. We combine parts from other works in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Let’s face it, creative people copy and, as Pablo Picasso said, the best of them steal.

  • In any industry and in any generation a few people innovate and the rest copy. Web design is no different.
  • Customer gets what customer wants – If people want grunge or web 2.0, designers will continue to create grunge and web 2.0 designs. Design is not art. Design is about solving problems. Innovation isn’t always the solution.
  • There are limitations of the media – Regardless of what we may want to do we still need to make it work on a computer screen – There are some great technologies in CSS3, but until browsers become compliant they can’t be used widely.
  • The majority of web designers are not formally trained – Just a hunch on my part, but I suspect the majority of web designers have no formal schooling in the principles of design. I put myself in that group as one who is self-taught. Many in that group will have little or no knowledge of design theory and so rely more on copying others as a way to learn the craft.

Ultimately a website exists so people can do something. They might be buying a product or reading information or filling out a form, but in some way people interact with websites. You don’t need to have a unique or beautiful design in order for them to interact with the site effectively.

Usability and Findability are more important than aesthetic design for a successful website. Design innovation can sometimes get in the way of usability if it deviates from convention.

Again I agree we should all be seeking inspiration in a variety of sources in order to not always do more of the same. But remember some of that sameness exists, because it works at solving the problem we are trying to solve.

Creativity’s Place in Web Design

The above might make it seem like I don’t believe there’s a place for creativity in web design. Nothing could be further from the truth. All else being equal, give me the more creative solution.

Still I’m pulled back to Van Gogh’s quote at the top of this post:

“As an artist you are only a link in a chain, and whatever you find or whatever you do not find, you can find comfort in it.”

Should we strive to create an entirely new form of website or rather add creative touches on top of what we’ve found to work. The artist in me pulls for the former, while the designer in me would argue for the latter.

How to Become a More Creative Web Designer

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

You’ve probably heard the above joke before. Take it to heart. It you want to be a more creative web designer you have to practice your craft and develop your chops. That’s where copying comes in. Imitate designs you like in order to develop new skills, but remember that you are copying not to copy, but to learn.

I think Kayla has it right when she suggests becoming yourself again. Take inspiration from others, but in the end the only way for you to be creative is to add something of yourself into the mix. All of us are unique. We all have something to bring to the table that no one else can bring.

Copy others not by recipe, but by adding something of your own. Be spontaneous. Try to get at their results in your own way. When you see a tutorial deviate from it a little. See what you can come up with by going in your own direction. You’ll develop your own techniques for reaching the same end point and in so doing discover all sorts of things along the way.

Creativity is an act of discovery. It’s an act of seeing something new in the same old thing. It’s combing the familiar in a different way.


To the last point on combining the familiar I’d like to recommend The Medici Effect. The image to the left will take you to the book at Amazon via an affiliate link, though you can also get the book free as a PDF (opens directly to the PDF).

The idea behind the book is that by stepping into the intersection of different fields and cultures you can better see connections between the seemingly dissimilar and combine existing concepts into new ideas.

Most creative ideas are not wholly original. They often come from combining or recombining existing ideas.

If you want to become a more creative web designer step outside of web design and seek inspiration from as many sources as possible. Take from print design, and music, and poetry and any other creative discipline you want.

Even more, find inspiration from non artistic expression. Learn to see creativity in the ordinary. Find it in those things you enjoy, those things that make you uniquely you. In so doing you’ll combine ideas and concepts and make connections in ways only you can make. You’ll develop your own voice and style.

David is right when he says we lean too heavily on existing web design for inspiration in our own designs. But keep in mind that you don’t always need to break barriers to create an effective design and serve your clients.

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Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


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