Interactive design is a complex and poorly understood industry – after all, it is only decades old. What to an outsider seems a simple, albeit technical process ('make a website'), is actually a complex combination of dozens of disciplines intertwining over an entire spectrum.
Countless of factors influence this process: project owners coming in with varying levels of knowledge, business strategies determining the achievable goals, the analysis of client behaviour, and so on. A good web design should take weeks of preparation before a single pixel is drawn on the screen. And by 'good' I mean 'effective': one that helps the project owner (ipso facto the client) do their business better.
Fast food recipe
Something rather unsettling is happening. For a while now I have been having a hard time telling websites apart. It happens with sites I come across via producthunt.com, or every so often a recommendation over Twitter. I get this uncanny feeling I've seen it all before.
Imagine this: a simple white tagline set in geometric white letters, superimposed over a stunning full-screen photo of the sun setting over a lush mountain range mirrored in a lake. A one-syllable word set in white bold letters in the top left corner, and a coy 'Sign up' in a hairline pill-shaped button in the top right.
You've never seen this website before, because I just made it up. But you recognised it. And that's precisely the problem. Are designers getting lazy, or have we reached design singularity? Why are things beginning to look the same?
The internet as we know it has now been around for about 20 years. Web design has grown out of the experimental period, much like a college student who has left behind their adolescent punk-goth phase. Now that the internet is accessible by all, it has become an absolute first priority for any self-respecting business, product, hobbyist, cat-owner or startup to own a website.
It's like the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush: everyone can have a website! Similar to the event in Klondike, when the web became open to all, businesses opened up to service those looking for help. Content management systems such as WordPress run on templates without too much hassle, and so the template industry was kickstarted. Promises of luscious colour schemes, modern typography and flexible navigation solutions available after a one-click installation lured in the uneducated business owners. Only after the transaction (and nights of frustrated fiddling) did the realisation kick in that their site would never look as good as advertised.
Incidentally, around this same time, web service startups billowed out of the wet soil like mushrooms, and they had a very special reason to cultivate their online presence: to gain traction, so to improve chances of earning explosive revenue and/or a multimillion- dollar buyout. The best way of doing that was to garner masses of users, and that meant calibrating the website to make the discovery and onboarding process as painless as possible.
A homogenous soup
All this resulted in the recipe I described earlier: compelling full-screen key visual, brutally simple payoff, and a clear sign-up call to action. Airbnb became amazingly successful with it; it worked for Path, Snapchat and Square. And nowadays, we're seeing that strategy everywhere. Clients often request a similar look and feel, hoping this look will rub off its successes. A quick glance on Producthunt.com and land-book.com confirms exactly this: it's a homogenous soup of non-committal texts set in geometric fonts over large images with a button underneath. Just try this: check out five random sites, and afterwards try to remember which one was which.
In the words of Emmet Connolly, the director of product design at Intercom, "It's a world where your credit card provider and sock subscription service look like exactly the same company". It's almost as if everything's done as an after-thought.
This brings me to the core of the problem: digital design yields passable results remarkably quickly, as long as you know how to mix the fast food ingredients. But much like fast food, this kind of design is disastrous to the health of your business. Rather than imbuing your company with any nurturing properties, it simply satiates your immediate craving to have a professional-looking website.
A professional website for a payment provider shouldn't just look the part: it knows who you are, that you were coming, and has set the table for you. It answers your deepest concerns, holds you by the hand and shows you how to continue on after you've made your decision. There is a very good reason Squarespace is so affordable: it does none of the legwork for you. It won't care about your business model, or what your visitors are like. All it does is give you the tools to place your content in passable website interfaces.
The design process
The design process makes or breaks any site design. It always begins with understanding, or exploration. No matter how designers refer to this step: it's plain old desk research. We Google your business, we analyse your competitors, trying to understand the forces in your market and what makes your desired customers tick.
A designer will ask you a lot of questions, some of which may make you uncomfortable because you have no idea how to answer them. That's good: we all need to reflect on our business every so often. A redesign is often a strategic wake-up call. To paraphrase Mike Monteiro, what begins with a web design often ends in a restructuring of the company.
Only after having true understanding of the context of your business is it appropriate to roll out a design strategy: These are the people you're targeting. That is how you'll be selling your product. And this is the set of achievable goals by which we'll measure whether your site is on the right track.
And after that, we can finally worry about the design you can see: the web design structure, colour schemes, typefaces and so on. If after all this your designer is convinced that the fast food recipe is still a valid outcome, then good for you: at least you've done your research to back it up, and hung up some stringent goals to ensure you're all working towards the same outcome.
There's nothing harmful about following trends: they're the zeitgeist of our industry, and will come and go. Trends like this are everywhere; in editorial design, architecture and fashion. The difference between those industries and our interactive design industry is the overabundant availability of resources and tools accessible for non-designers, with their singular intent of making things appear passable or professional when they really aren't. Similar to a Mona Lisa colour-by-numbers: you can recreate what the masterpiece looked like, but it'll display none of the brilliance or insight of the master.
Words: David Wieland
David Wieland is the design lead at Grayscale. This article was originally published in issue 174 of net magazine.
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