Why Do So Many Responsive Sites Look The Same?

Do you think too many responsive sites look the same? It seems to be a very common perception. If you do think they look alike, have you thought about why? Is it something inherent in responsive web design or are there other reasons?

I think there are a handful of reasons, though none specific to RWD. They might be specific in their details, but the details arise from a more general rule that extends far beyond responsive design.

One glowing blue sphere in a sea of dull gray spheres

This isn’t the first time this topic’s come up or the first time I’ve written about it. I suspect it won’t be the last. I want to offer six reasons why responsive sites might look alike and why it doesn’t really matter. It’s just us humans being human. Here are the reasons.

  • People copy success
  • People copy to learn
  • Designers need to be productive
  • The industry is still learning responsive design
  • Originality doesn’t stand out as responsive design
  • Change can be difficult

Let’s consider each in a bit more detail.

People Copy Success

Success isn’t easy and many people seek shortcuts to it. If something works for someone else they copy it in the hopes it’ll bring them the same success. It’s hardly limited to design. It exists in every industry.

Responsive design hasn’t matured to the point where we can shift focus away from the underlying structure and back to aesthetics and originality

Anything that’s been proven to work will be copied. It happens in business, in art, in the auto industry, in fashion, in sports. It happens everywhere. Self-help books are built on the idea of copying what worked for someone else.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Copying each other is part of who we are as a species. It’s one reason trends emerge. It’s so ingrained in all of us, it’s hard to think otherwise.

It’s not as though websites looked very different from each other before there was responsive design. In the dozen or so years since I’ve been paying attention to the design of websites I’ve seen the same familiar pattern.

  • Someone does something different that people like
  • Most everyone else rushes to copy it
  • Someone does something different that people like
  • Most everyone else rushes to copy it

The internet makes it more acceptable to copy. It’s too easy to copy digital goods wholesale with small probability of repercussion. People across the internet live under different copyright laws making it impossible in many cases to prevent. Right or wrong as copying becomes more common, it becomes more accepted.

One reason responsive sites look like other responsive sites is simply because copying occurs everywhere. If anything it would be strange if responsive sites didn’t share a significant amount in common.

People Copy to Learn

Copying the work of others is often a starting point for learning. One way we learn is through the example of others. We see how someone else did something, copy their work as exact as possible.

As we gain experience and confidence we adapt what we learned from imitation. We mix in something of ourselves and others who’s work we’ve also copied. It all combines to form something new and uniquely us, but it often begins by copying those who inspire us.

Many designers learn to design by imitating designs they like or specific parts of those designs. Maybe they peek at the source code to understand how something was built or they attempt to recreate a color scheme they enjoy.

Copying others is part of how we learn. Responsive design is still relatively new. The industry is still learning how to best apply responsive techniques and we’re mainly learning from a handful of original sources.

If we’re learning from and copying the ideas of a few people, is it any wonder the sites we build look similar?

Designers Need to be Productive

Design is a business. You might do a lot of design work on personal projects, but the odds are the majority of work you or any designer does is for someone else and you do it to earn a living. Businesses strive to be more productive to make them more successful.

By its very nature, productivity will lead to sameness. We’re more productive when we do the same things in the same way over and over. It allows us to reuse work, saving on future time and costs.

In the name of productivity designers rely on frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation and grid systems like Skeleton or Gumby. If enough people are starting with the same few popular frameworks and system should we be surprised the resulting sites look similar?

Awhile ago I suggested that responsive design is easier than you think. I meant that the bare minimum you need to do to create a responsive site is relatively easy and doing only that minimum is still better than developing a fixed-width site.

To do responsive as well as you can requires far more work, which increases your costs and subsequent price to your client. Not every client is willing to pay that increase. Many just want a site that’s good enough.

Even those clients willing to pay might keep you from exploring more original solutions. There have been many things I’ve wanted to try on a client’s site that I thought would work well, but the final decision wasn’t mine to make. If the client wants something that looks like something else, you usually have to make it look a little like that something else to get paid.

Most clients don’t need/want a truly unique and custom site. They just want a site that works and doesn’t cost much. Responsive or not many of those sites will end up looking the same all in the name of productivity.

The Industry is Still Learning Responsive Design

I think this is a big reason for the sameness in responsive sites. Like I said above we copy to learn and where RWD is concerned, most of us are still learning. We’re learning the techniques of RWD and a we’re learning a host of other recent changes to html and css. Most of all responsive design is pushing us think in a new way about web design.

The last change close in magnitude was the move from table-based to css-based layouts. It was a few years before the change reached the majority of the industry and the same critiques of RWD now were present with css-based design then.

Like css-based design, the techniques of responsive design are mainly about layout. RWD is about developing layouts that work across different devices and under different circumstances. The focus is on layout. We’re figuring out how to build new html and css structures. Those structures will only differ so much. For the most part they’re going to look the same.

Give the industry more time. We’ll figure out the structure well enough and move toward the aesthetic layer where more originality will be introduced. Give it time. A lot has changed and is currently changing. As an industry we need to sort some of the new out. We will and when we do, we’ll be able to move on to other things.

This more than anything is why so many responsive websites look alike. RWD is about the underlying structure and while we’re all focusing on that structure, it’s inevitable much of our output will look similar.

Originality Doesn’t Stand Out as Responsive Design

I suspect that because we see some responsive designs looking very much like other responsive designs, we start to think of that look as responsive design and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Any site that looks like a Bootstrap or Foundation site must be responsive and everything that doesn’t must be something else. Unless you’re resizing every site you come across or checking them all on different devices, how do you really know which site is and isn’t responsive?

I think we sometimes make assumptions we shouldn’t make and put conclusions before investigation. Something tells me a certain amount of the talk about RWD sites looking the same arises from having already drawn that conclusion. I saw the same thing with the switch to css-driven sites.

Change Can be Difficult

It’s also possible some of this is about people dealing with change. Most of us don’t care for change that’s forced on us. When an industry shifts as dramatically as web design has been shifting, changes will feel forced to some.

Those people who aren’t yet ready to embrace the new, but feel pressured into changing now, will often criticize the new in an effort to hang on to the old. It’s a rather human thing to do.

I don’t think there are many designers consciously trying hard to belittle RWD for the sake of belittling it, but it’s not too difficult to see how not being ready change could push people toward disliking something that’s pushing them to change.

Closing Thoughts

I do think it’s fair to say a lot of responsive sites lack creativity and look alike. However, websites have always looked like each other. From trend to trend and paradigm to paradigm designers copy each other. Keep in mind while the industry is shifting to responsive design, it’s also following a flat design trend, which focuses on fundamental principles over originality for the sake of originality.

Responsive design hasn’t matured to the point where we can shift focus away from the underlying structure and back to aesthetics and originality. This more than anything explains the similar looks across responsive sites. Remember we’re all fundamentally building the same thing with the same limited set of rectangular building blocks.

Give it more time. If a few years from now every responsive site still looks like every other responsive site, then maybe we have a problem. At the moment I don’t think we’re seeing anything we haven’t seen before or anything unexpected of human beings.

One last thought is to not to get too caught up in what others say. Before people were criticizing RWD sites as looking the same, they were criticizing sites for being too focused on style and aesthetics over functionality. Whatever it is, if it gains enough traction you’ll find people railing against it. Today it’s responsive websites look too much alike. Tomorrow it’ll be something else.

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  1. good points in this article. the same thing can be said about the print side of things as well. if you look back 100 years or more, pretty much every book looked the same, mostly due to the same points you mention in this post (like limited printing press technology). today, just look at the way books and other forms of printed media have pushed the limits of what was never even dreamed of when we first started.

    • Thanks Tommy,

      Now that you mention it, I guess a lot of print work can look alike too. I suspect the biggest reason things end up looking the same is because most of us would sooner copy something that works than put in the time to create something original or as close to original as you can ever get.

      Maybe all we really need to do is wait. We’re still in the phase where site will look the same, but as the technology advances and there are more things we can do, you’ll see designers going down different paths more often and not all do the same thing over and over.

  2. Within every phase of new technology there lies a limit of visual and functional diversity. Each new technological advancement brings with it an expansion of creative opportunities. In theory, creativeness may be an endless journey, but in practice, the journey is bound by rules and limits. As creatives, all we can do is work within a new set of parameters until the next marvel of technology arrives in our toolbox. No matter the environment, the goals of creative communications remain the same.

    • Thanks Mike,

      That’s a good way to think about it and I think it fits with what I’m saying. The tools, the technology can establish certain constraints by their rules and limits, but we’re all free to creatively explore those rules and limits.

      Your result of your creativity might be different in a different tool, but it doesn’t mean your creativity in general is limited.

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