How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

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Near the end of 2009 and on into the first months of the new year I have seen a number of articles and blog posts discussing web design trends, with reviews, discussions about the good and the bad, and predictions for what will happen in 2010. As technologies advance, new languages develop, and limitations decrease, the possibilities of what can be done in web design expand to amazing proportions, opening the door for innovation and inspiration beyond anything we have seen to date.

prisoner of trends How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

The prospect causes me to begin wondering if web designers will actually walk through that door and begin to create web sites that shatter the previous accepted methodologies, limitations and standards, or if the majority will continue to look to a few innovators and safely follow suit. This post aims to challenge the modern day web designer to break out of the box – both literally and metaphorically – to begin creating genuinely unique and ground-breaking designs.

Inspired To Create or to Duplicate?

duplicate How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Sometimes when starting a new web design project, I will wander through different design galleries or showcase roundups to see what others are doing and to hopefully generate some inspiration for the design I will be creating. While I truly don’t believe there is anything wrong with this, I recognize that it has the potential to put ideas in my head that with even the best intent could come out as a thinly-veiled copy of the same site that “inspired” its creation.

In contrast, recently I worked on a web site for an artist who had a very specific vision for what she wanted in her website’s design. Because she worked in a completely different medium, her concept of a website was entirely void of the limitations of HTML, CSS, screen resolutions and the like. In the midst of trying to explain to her that certain things simply could not be done in web design, I realized the actual truth was not that they couldn’t be done, but that they hadn’t been done (at least not that I was aware of.) Her concept, while not completely “out of bounds”, was different enough that it challenged my own ideas of what could or could not be done within the confines of trends and standards. I actually had to figure out how to do some things I’ve never done before, and the end result had some refreshingly unique features.

This wakeup call made me realize how so many “new” web designs, including my own, utilize so many of the same elements and follow so many of the same “rules”. Obviously, there are very good reasons for a lot of this, such as the common use of a 960 grid or focusing on accessibility and usability, but who says that just because you’re building a WordPress site it must have oversized headers and footers, a horizontal navigation menu, and a right column stuffed with advertisements?

One of the recent ways that web designers began breaking out of the box was with horizontal scrolling and single-page sites, but once again so many jumped on the bandwagon of innovation that it too became a trend. Charles C. Colton was obviously correct when he said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but since when is flattery a goal in innovative web design? Are we as web designers satisfied with designing within the confines of what others have determined is acceptable, both in trends and in design standards? At some point, someone stepped outside of the box to give horizontal scrolling a try, and then it caught on and became a trend. Same with grunge, big headlines, minimalism and the rest. These are all great ideas and styles, and in no way do I intend to belittle them, but isn’t creativity in its rawest form about creating, not duplicating?

Are You A Leader or A Follower?

sheep How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

“There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.” – Martha Graham

Web designers are in abundance these days, and new websites are published every day. Unfortunately, so few reveal the uniqueness of the designer behind them. Whether pushed by deadlines, financial necessity to mass-produce, or one of countless other motivators, the majority of web designers continue to crank out whatever seems to be working at the time. Sure, we make adjustments and tweaks to our designs to keep them from being exact duplications and ensure that they fit the context of their purpose, but the common elements are all there and very seldom do we take risks. It is much easier (and safer) to incorporate proven standards and fundamentals than it is to unleash the unique artistic expression within and open the door to possible failure. Who wants to spend time building an entire website that flops when it is finally launched?

“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.” – Albert Camus

True leaders – those that actually create the first designs that then become the trends the rest of us follow – are those that push fear of failure aside and race recklessly into the unknown, often ending up with far more ideas in the wastebasket than in the final results. One could argue that we can’t all be leaders, but I strongly believe the potential for leadership and true innovation is within every single human being. The problem is that so few actually realize their full potential, settling for falling in line behind the lead of others and emptying the world – and their personal lives – of their own solitary and unique contribution to society.

Most trend-setters do not set out to be one. What sets them apart is their ability and desire to look inside themselves and discover their uniqueness. The next step after that discovery – releasing that uniqueness in the context of their creation – is what breeds innovation.

Can you imagine what websites would look like if every single follower suddenly recognized their individual creative contribution and potential for leadership? It boggles the mind to consider. At the very least I would guess that we would no longer see a few trends but instead the internet would become something like a museum of unique creations, every web design a masterpiece of its own.

Blessed Be The Trends That Bind

bound How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

image credit: D-is-for-Duck

So what are some of the current and upcoming trends in web design that we can choose to conform to or break out of? It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of sifting through web design galleries, designers’ portfolios and web design blogs to see the common elements and ideas that permeate the web design landscape. Here are some of the more pervasive trends and the limitations they could impose should a designer allow them to dictate their design.

Grunge

grunge1 How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Timberland UK

This style has come and gone a few times, although I’m not sure why. It seems to be spawned by other advertising mediums and the trend rotations they go through. The main limitation I see with the grunge style is that, just like its musical counterpart, it is not timeless. It is a very trendy style that comes and goes, which means probably a regular redesign of whatever site is using it.

Minimalism

minimalist1 How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Thematic

This is actually a personal favorite of mine and not one I would like to find fault with. But the limitation I can see is the attempts a minimalist design must make to stay minimal, keeping it from taking chances, having interesting or different design elements and artwork, and possibly restraining experiments in color.

Oversized Headers and Footers

footers How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Design Informer

All of a sudden we started seeing huge headers and footers, sometimes worthy of their own page. There are great and perfectly viable uses of this trend, but must we all now try to come up with enough content or advertising or widgets to justify having one? How about just sizing the header or footer based on the context and the content of the website?

Image or Featured Post Sliders

sliders How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Backyard Burgers

Another element that I personally enjoy and incorporate into a lot of site designs. Its functionality and visual magnetism is undeniable. But if every website has a featured content box, the emphasis can get lost and the visitors could just scroll on by. What might be some innovative ways to capture the attention and focus of a visitor?

Advertising

advertising How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Smashing Magazine

Especially in your typical design blog, there is usually an entire column, if not more, devoted to advertising. Suddenly valuable real estate that could be used for content has disappeared, and the visitor has to convince his eyes to either ignore that right column as they attempt to peruse the content, or else click away with wild abandon on advertisement after advertisement and forget why they came to the site in the first place. I realize websites rely on advertising as a primary source of revenue, but I have to believe that there is a dormant innovator out there who can come up with a better way to do this.

Trends That Free Us

freedom How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

While submitting to some of the latest trends can confine the web designer to mechanically produce a generic design that could fit any context, there are also those trends that can open our creative minds and birth wonderfully magnificent web design conceptions. Here are a few of the trends that I believe have the potential to be a catalyst to the self-discovery of the new leaders.

Typography

typography How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

The Design Cubicle

You can’t go wrong with good typography. As it has come into focus lately within the web design context, we have seen it birth simple but interesting new “sub-trends” as well as increased legibility and ease of use. Focusing on innovative use of typography in web design could continue to unlock some ideas in web designers and breed new thought processes and designs.

Outside-The-Box Layouts

nobox How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

Oddo Design

While most web designs strive to fit inside the 960-pixel wide box, a number of new sites are coming up with innovative ways to organize and display content. Although it may seem there are only “so many ways” that one can design a layout, this trend suggests that we must drop our pre-conceived notions of what is allowed or possible and create new and different possibilities.

Minimalism

minimalism How Much Do Standards And Trends Dictate Your Web Design?

ImJustCreative.com

Yes, I know I included this in the list of trends that bind, but minimalism, if used properly, has the potential for all kinds of innovation. Yet to be seen are uses of minimalism with creative color palettes, innovative use of whitespace and more. I may be biased on this particular topic because I love minimalist sites so much, but I do believe there is still a lot of potential for what can be done with this trend.

One Final Trend That Will Free Us

This space is reserved for your unique idea(s). There is something inside you, the web designer, that is yet to be discovered. That new trend is inconspicuously absent from the internet landscape, and it is waiting on you to put it into place. The unleashed leader inside you is beginning to stir and it is your responsibility – your destiny even – to awaken this leader and let the world see what you have to offer. Web design is still a relatively new medium. It is a playground for innovation and new ideas. Will you contribute that which is inside you alone to a revolution of innovative web designs and the shattering of restrictive trends? Or will you succumb to your fears of failure and allow others to set the pace, falling in line like a lamb to the slaughter?

We would love to hear your ideas and thoughts in the comments below. Please be sure to share with us and contribute to the discussion.

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There are 32 comments for this article
  1. Melody at 4:14 pm

    I think that old saying is true, don’t remember it verbatim, but the one about reinventing the wheel..
    Everyone holds on to trends at some point, it’s a natural part of design and marketing, I think we’re just tired of regurgitated design..

    • Brian McDaniel at 4:44 pm

      Yes, in many ways we have to fall prey to the fact that “there is nothing new under the sun”, but the idealist and artist in me believes there is much originality that remains untapped and part of the problem is our tendency to look to others for leadership and trends. I guess I just would like to see more leaders and less followers. Do you think it’s possible?

  2. Rob at 4:54 pm

    Just because you see the design more frequently doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing or bad for the clients needs. There’s a balance in everything to be strived for. I think you almost put down the “copying” and devalue what designers do for a living. I don’t think innovation or creativity results in things that are usable, readable, or make great sense ALL the time. It’s a dangerous road to devalue yours or someones work because of this.

    Certainly it’s important to push the limits and try new things search for new inspiration and avoid close minded thinking but you must ask yourself… are you getting paid to do that? I think if a client comes to asking for something outside the box that costs go outside the box… not as a penalty but everyone should be compensated for their effort and this is no different.

    I agree with you calling out designers, asking them to break the mold but at the same time creativity exists at many levels and many people still value and appreciate what we designers may “regurgitate”.

    • Brian McDaniel at 8:35 pm

      Rob,

      I too, am a designer, and, as I said, I am one of the ‘culprits’ at falling into line and cranking out the ‘usual’. Maybe you missed that or I didn’t express it clear enough.

      Is an original creation, unlike any other, of more value than a multitude of look-alikes? I would have to answer, “Most definitely!” But does it mean the others have no worth or are wrong? My answer would be “Absolutely not!” There are so many factors to weigh in web design, including the client’s needs, which you pointed out. In the end, the client’s needs combined with the designer’s expertise and input should provide the best possible results for the context.

      We quite possibly come from two different camps, since you imply that getting paid is a top priority. I have the same priority, but maybe a little lower on the list, as I would like to strive to produce high quality, original and creative work regardless of the payment. Some of my best work has been pro bono, and some of what I might consider more of a copycat style has paid extremely well. I am not a freelance designer to get rich. I do it because I love it, and it so happens I do a good enough job to provide for my family – bonus! This attitude doesn’t make me ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anyone else – it’s just my personal value system. We may be different from each other, but that doesn’t make either one of us wrong.

      This whole post is written from an idealist point of view. Do I honestly believe every single web designer could drop what they’re currently working on and change the face of the internet by delving deep within themselves to produce inspired and original work? Yes, I believe it’s possible. Do I think they will? Probably not, unfortunately. But I’m an idealist, and I like to dream. Perhaps I could have framed this post a little better so that could be understood.

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I assure you, I am not attempting to devalue anything anyone is doing. Just trying to get us all to look at things from different points of view.

  3. Christian at 6:33 pm

    Great article. Touched on all angles.

    I have to say, I am greatly impressed by any design I come across that is new to my eyes – whether I think it works or does not… whether its my taste or I think its ugly. Originality is an art in itself.

    I have been designing websites for years and will be the first to admit I am the type that is inspired by anothers great works, not copying but more just a spark to get the wheels spinning. Anyone who can create something from nothing has God-like abilities.

    • Brian McDaniel at 8:19 pm

      I agree, Christian. I am just as ‘guilty’ as the next designer for putting out web designs that are not entirely original. And I marvel at those who can. I guess I wrote this as more of a ‘thinking out loud’ kind of thing, wondering what would happen if we all put in that extra effort to delve within rather than looking around as much. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Dietmar at 9:19 pm

    The only think that dictates my web design is the seo and usability aspect. All those nice ajax empowered navigations, those nice rockwell headings done with images… I think, webdesign is more than design. It’s the combination of design, usability, clean & valide code, and, of course, seo.

    • Brian McDaniel at 12:22 pm

      I agree, Dietmar. The combination of so many different aspects needed for a successful website sets web design apart as a unique beast. So I guess these are elements that must dictate our web design. It makes me wonder how much we might allow them to dictate and limit us beyond what is the reality, perhaps using them as an excuse? Food for thought…

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  6. Elena at 8:36 pm

    It’s really interesting article. Thanks for good information.

  7. Sumiyo Amano at 2:25 am

    Great article and choices of websites. It’s refreshing to read a topic like this. I agree that we sometimes get caught up in creating sites that are “safe”. But deep down in our creative hearts, we want to spend more time exploring and having fun with the canvas we are given. Taking that extra step sometimes is not possible due to project budgets and timelines. But, I think we can always have a pet project or two that we get to play and act/design outside the box :) Thanks again for the great post!

    • Brian McDaniel at 12:25 pm

      Good point! Having at least one “pet project” that allows the creative and experimental juices to flow would be a great way to delve into the unusual. It would likely influence other projects with your discoveries as well!

  8. Cape Cod Web Design at 2:49 am

    Minimal standards compliant sites are the future! Very good read, thank you.

    • Brian McDaniel at 12:26 pm

      Haha! That should be a bumper sticker or an inspirational framed poster for the design office: “Minimal standards compliant sites are the future!” That’s great – thanks for the chuckle. :)

  9. Mitch McLeod at 4:09 am

    I agree with @Dietmar.

    A lot of websites look awesome, but are crowded with ads and things that aren’t relevant. They simply try to do too much on the one page.

    Websites need to be as user friendly as possible regardless of what style the site is. If it takes more then a few seconds to work the site out the user will close the site and move on.

    • Brian McDaniel at 12:28 pm

      That’s probably another reason we stay “within the boundaries” of what we understand that visitors to websites are willing to do and experience. I wonder if users would not be so quick to give up and move on if less websites looked the same and they became accustomed to a new experience every time?

  10. John Paul de Guzman at 4:43 am

    I think, to move forward to the future, we need to integrate these trends and available technology and explore what are the possibilities. You can never blame other of following trends and be stuck with it, because sometimes it makes things acceptable not only in a marketing perspective but also it makes them “cool and up to date.”

    We can never build 21st century technology using 1900 tools. As a designer, we should be exploring things and risking our comfort levels to go beyond what is there.

    Trends are signs that we all change and grow. It shows possibilities and great creativity. But we need to succumb the bandwagon to unlock greater creative potentials.

    But the question is, who doesn’t follow the trend? We are all guilty as charge. It makes us look good and on the top of our game.

  11. Chris at 10:43 pm

    I think you bring up a lot of good points in the article. But it would be very difficult to listen to someone who has done such a great job taking all of their “inspiration” from Smashing Magazine’s blog. Maybe you can free yourself of these standards and trends next time you create a re-design.

    • Brian McDaniel at 10:23 am

      Just to clarify, Chris: I am a guest author on Pelfusion, so your thinly-veiled (and not surprisingly anonymous) attack is just plain wrong. But thank you for taking time to read the good points.

  12. Amber at 11:21 pm

    I think a great way to break-on-through, is to look outside of web design for inspiration. My most recent client wanted something DIFFERENT. BIG. NEW. Well, I actually went went somewhere very tradtional to find inspiration…the museum! I got great ideas about color, composition and layout, without being influenced by other web designs. Finding inspiration from other web designers is great, but sometimes we can’t forget where we came from, you know…we first started getting inspiration from a tangible world, not a digital one. Great article though! Thanks

  13. Dylan at 2:19 pm

    Brian, this is actually the first article of yours that I’ve ever read, but I’d like to express my “2 cents”. First of all, I doubt you will even “approve” this post, and I assume it will be quickly deleted (or “edited”) if you do. Anyway, your writing style comes across as very “pompous” and “arrogant”. I understand that you have industry experience, but constantly citing yourself and your accomplishments (you being a web designer, blog author, guest author on Pelfusion, astronaut, cowboy, former NFL runningback, etc) especially while belittling anyone who doesn’t agree with you (See the post by the “Chris” gentleman, and “Rob” to a certain extent), just isn’t professional. Your site does, “by the way”, slightly resemble the original design of the “Smashing” Blog, but I’m sure you already knew that.

    Aside from that, the article “is” well-written and informative. However, since I am a professional copywriter, I’d like to inform you that “quoting” non significant words in your posts and comments doesn’t help the reader. I really just imagine you constantly “air-quoting” with your fingers during normal conversation. Also, when you quote “words”, it should be to imply a different connotation of the word, rather than its normal usage. You should probably “cut that out” in future posts. Although you likely know this already, as you are also currently a Copywriter, English Grammar Professor, Quantum Physics & Thermonuclear Engineer, and ominous deity. Keep up the great posts. Food for thought…

    • Brian McDaniel at 2:43 pm

      Dylan,

      Thanks for your input. As I mentioned to Chris (above) this is not my site, so it is not my design. I am a guest author so I am unable to edit, delete or do anything else with comments, nor would I if I could because I believe a true discussion should be wide open for anyone to express their opinion, even if it’s something I disagree with or is an attack on me personally. As far as I’m concerned, you are more than welcome to express yourself however you choose.

      I’m not sure how my comments are “belittling” Chris or Rob. I think if someone disagrees with me or attempts to insult me, I should be allowed to respond, don’t you? I admit, it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine when people leave insulting or belittling comments but avoid identifying themselves with a legitimate email or website link. It just seems cowardly – as though they want to say their piece and disappear, rather than have a constructive discussion.

      I would love to hear more of the details of how you have formed your opinion of me, but I imagine that if you took the time to get to know me you would probably change your tune, since I am most definitely not the person you have perceived. Still, you have helped me to see myself from another viewpoint that I have never been challenged with before, and for that I am grateful. I hope I can learn from it and become a better writer and person through the process.

      Thanks again.

    • Ferman at 2:56 pm

      i would like to say only about design….the resemblance you see in design is due to navigation bar only. I have to mention here before the navigation of SM was different, but mine is same for last 12 months, and they changed to the current one…i am not saying they copied my navigation style what i am saying is they just followed the new trend of WordPress navigation…rest there is nothing similar in design

      thanks for you comment Dylan i take everything positively :), just dont’ be anonymous when you comment…it fakes you

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  15. Sahan at 2:46 pm

    Yes, it’s true that it’s hard to do a masterpiece from scratch and people go and look for inspirations, and not only you 95% of designers change the designs he sees, actually he redesign the inspiration (sometimes). But what will happen if something like this happened, you get an idea from others. some other guy also get an idea from yours and so on, wow what will be the outcome if the original inspiration goes in 20 hands ? . The thing I’m trying to tell is, if few people create a one design it’ll be a good one, if one person create it by him self… you get the idea

    Also what’s the design you created.. :) ?

    (Sorry for my english)

    • Brian McDaniel at 3:06 pm

      Good points, Sahan. I have not personally designed any websites that I would say break out from the typical trends. I have created a few with elements I haven’t seen before but I would not be so bold as to think I originated them. That is one of the reasons I wrote this piece – to challenge our thinking (including my own) and to get us all to consider trying some new things.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  17. Tom at 7:00 pm

    I agree, people should think outside the box, use their own inspirations to guide them (depending on the project of course). On one hand, businesses tend to like the standard, they don’t feel they have to push the boundaries.

    Secondly though, if someone did something completely original one day and no-one copied or used some form of inspiration from it, then by definition wouldn’t it become a design failure? Otherwise, how do we define it as a success.

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  19. elizabeth at 4:57 am

    This is my first time reading this blog. Definitely won’t be my last though, really enjoyed it.Can’t recommend this blog highly enough. Yet another great post.