These types of articles have had a lot of criticism from other web designers. And on first reflection, yes, websites are starting to look similar. As a creative who has watched the web grow over the last 15 years, I tend to agree with these statements. However, I think it is a good thing that we are finally hitting a ‘singularity’.
To explain why, let’s go back to the earliest form of information sharing technology, the printing press.
In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in Europe. His major work, the Gutenberg Bible, has been acclaimed for its high aesthetic and technical quality. Just take a look at the layout, the style and the architecture.
This book is almost 600 years old and you can still use it! It’s legible, informative, accessible, and portable. It’s a true piece of technology that has reshaped the world and it still works. Not just the book itself but the design and format of the content. I wonder how many websites will still be around in 600 years’ time?
Think about this. With all of our technology today, why are books both printed and digital still produced in a similar format? In theory, we could produce books in a single continuous line of text, on one huge ream of paper (or one long continuous scroll). But we don’t. Can you imagine reading one continuous line of text for hours on end? The human brain likes bite size chunks of information and blocks of content.
This is to do with cognitive load.
Your brain can only process so much information at a time. The amount of words on a line hasn’t changed format for decades. Newspapers and mass media outlets work in columns and grid systems so your brain can process the information quickly and understand it.
Let’s jump forward a few hundred years to the birth of the computer and those early days of the Internet.
The World Wide Web and the ‘information super highway’ were phrases used to describe the sharing of information. Back then it was just information, shared between early adopters and enthusiasts.
Websites soon became a way to express creativity, experiment and try different things. Space Jam website anyone?
Early web designers were sometimes so consumed by the capabilities of the emerging technology that they would sacrifice design principles to achieve their goals. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, ‘they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ This still applies to web design today.
Creating a website that can stand the test of time is difficult (hence the typical website redesign cycle every two-three years). You need to understand your product inside and out and understand your user inside and out. Be clear on what you want from your website and what your user wants from your website. Then you can start build the foundations of a great website.
Take one of my favourite websites of all time (warning: adult language).
It is, of course, a satirical look at the state of web design today. But a lot of the principles are true. It could be 20 years old or it might have launched this year. I have no idea, but it will look the same in 20 years as it does today.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘form follows function’.
It is a principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.
This phrase is even more relevant today in the digital age. When information architecture is key and ‘content is king’.
There are only a handful of true pioneers that have created great websites that have stood the test of time. Amazon, Ebay, Facebook, Wikipedia have all implemented a great framework, layout, grid structure, hierarchy and architecture which is fundamental to building a timeless website.
They now refine this architecture with optimisation programmes and continual growth development. They’re not ripping up the rulebook or breaking down creative walls, instead they’re using tried and tested methods – some of which are hundreds of years old.
These are simple black and white websites that have good architecture and good grid systems. This is easier for the user to see blocks of content, leading to better user experience and ultimately better conversion rates.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet would look very boring if every site was black and white and looked the same. In contrast, billblass.com (a New York Fashion house) breaks the mould by losing the grid system and making its products stand out. But fundamentally, their layout still uses hierarchy and information architecture to inform the user of critical information.
Creative websites are out there, but they are rare. They are high-end fashionistas, not meant for the mass market. Designers and developers can look at them in awe, admire their beauty and take inspiration from them for future projects. These ‘on-trend’ websites have a different market segment to the likes of Amazon and ASOS and can literally afford to experiment with creative techniques. For mass market websites to adopt these cutting edge techniques could result in huge losses. That’s where structured experimentation would come in and a measured split testing programme could see profits soar.
If we are nearing a state of uniformity within website design, I’m all for it. It will separate the wheat from the chaff. If you load a website in the future and it gives you a negative experience, there will be a similar website just a few clicks away giving you exactly what you want with a better experience.
As Albert Einstein once said…
‘Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.’