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Cognition

And They All Look Just the Same

The article’s title is borrowed from Malvina Reynolds’ song, “Little Boxes.” No doubt, many of you have heard the lyrics, though sung by a different artist than the original songwriter. Malvina wrote the song to protest the mass conformity of home development taking place in a suburb of San Francisco in the early 1960s. If you have ever driven through the area, you can still see all the ticky-tacky, little boxes dotting the hillsides and throughout the area. Though Daly City provided the inspiration for the song, Suburbs of Sameness are prevalent throughout the country.

Today, ticky-tacky seems to have crept into another area of our society: the World Wide Web. Big advances in technology built upon shared standards have allowed web designers to create incredible websites that would have been seen as science fiction 20 years ago. It is amazing what the combination of HTML, CSS, and Javascript can do today.

Before his current gig as CEO for Basecamp, Jason Fried was a talented web designer (still is); his client services company 37signals was a smashing success, because of his insightfulness and business acumen. Needless to say, I have high regard for Jason’s opinion and insight into web design.

He recently wrote about redesigning his company’s website and what he’s seeing as a trend that’s not for the better. And not just for designers, but businesses too:

When I look at what’s hot in Web design these days, I’m turned off. It’s all a bit too slick, a little overdesigned. I’m sick of slick.

Most of these designs can be described like this: First, you see a huge photo with some text over it. Then, as you scroll down, the background slides away and another big photo with more text on it pops up. And so on…. Maybe you’ve seen this style—it’s starting to crop up everywhere. To a designer’s eye, it looks good, and it’s technically impressive, but I’m not sure it says anything meaningful about the companies using it. Worse (for those companies), it’s created a new kind of clutter: Too many companies look the same—all style and not enough substance.

Let me reiterate that Jason’s business savvy is keen. Business owners, marketing managers, creative directors, and designers should all consider this statement regarding their own digital properties or the ones they are in care of:

“Too many companies look the same—all style and not enough substance.”

As our toolset continues to evolve and our technology enables more and more Flash-like experiences, we need to define the best, most straightforward way to reach our customers and our users. Do they want/need long, scrolling narrative with fly-ins, carousels, and quiet video gifs, or are they just looking for the soup of the day? Dan Cederholm made a really good point about this a year ago:

This is my favorite website. I visit it almost every day. It’s not responsive. It’s not optimized for iPhone. It looks blurry on a Retina display. It doesn’t use the latest HTML5/CSS3 framework. It doesn’t have a thoughtful vertical rhythm. The fonts are nothing special. It is neither skeuomorphic nor flat. It doesn’t have its own favicon. It doesn’t have a native app or Twitter or Instagram. It doesn’t use AJAX or SCRUM or node.js or Sinatra. It doesn’t have an API or an RSS feed or VC funding. It hasn’t been featured on a prominent tech blog or won an award.

It tells me the soups of the day. That’s web design.”

Dan’s post reminds me of the website for Berkshire Hathaway, one of the most successful capital management and investment companies in the world. It is also the owner of one of the most outdated-looking sites on the web today.

If it wanted to, Berkshire Hathaway could hire or buy any design studio of its choosing to work on nothing but its website fulltime, in perpetuity. It could have done this at any time since 1996 (when its site first appeared), but it doesn’t, because the company is notoriously frugal—and to act otherwise would be out of step for both the business and its customers. Its site, by design, is all substance and little, if any, style. And for that reason, it’s wonderful.

I would love, love, love if Happy Cog had the opportunity to work with Berkshire Hathaway. We could do a lot to make the site more compatible with all devices, ensure that it meets accessibility requirements, and help update its appearance and usability through better typography (Holy Toledo, would that be cool!), but I would never, not in a million years, ever try to sell the business on modernizing its look simply to keep up with the times.

That would be ticky-tacky.

While our new post-Internet Explorer 6 world enables an amazing array of browser effects, the one tool we all need is constraint. Though the people we serve—managers, stakeholders, and clients—come to us with parallax envy, we must be mindful of who we are all really working for: their customers, the users.

Happy Cog founder and chairman Jeffrey Zeldman addressed this problem during his presentation, Understanding Web Design, at An Event Apart Seattle (he’ll be giving this presentation at all the AEA conferences this year; go see it yourself). Jeffrey argues that as part of defining what we do as web designers, we must continue focus on creating experiences for the user, not just on what technology enables us to do:

We don’t design for browsers. We design for people. Layout is always the servant of purpose. We naturally get excited about technology. It’s great to think about what we can do with the new tech. But we don’t make our content accessible to get a gold star, we do it for people.

To an extent, this subject is not new. At the turn of the century, when content management systems became amazingly affordable and accessible to everyone, we celebrated the democratization of the web. At SXSW in 2002, an entire track of panels was created and branded Independents Day to celebrate how “.com” had lost, and we, the people, had got some of our counter culture back. (Our founder, with Carole Guevin and Sooz Kaup, was responsible for the concept, the name, and the track.)

A few years later, as more sites transitioned to content management systems or were created fresh from a choice of five “designs,” we lamented the demise of our beloved, bohemian World Wide Web. Seemingly overnight, we lost our curiosity toward a blank page in favor of tools that made our sites easy to manage. Before we knew it, every site looked the same. Then came Responsive Web Design (created by ex-Cog Ethan Marcotte while working on a design project for the W3C), which moved our medium and our industry forward, but with similar consequences. Now, here we are in a Sass-, Github-, device-powered world, and the sites we make? They continue to all look the same.

Rather than just add to the voices pointing out the problems of mass conformity in web design, I’d like to offer a few closing thoughts:

Keep pushing the limits of what we currently know web design to be. As I said earlier, there is a lot of circa-1995 science fiction going on today, and it’s wonderful. So push on what seems like alien technology in 2014, but not at the expense of the user or the business. Does this mean “wearables”? I don’t know, but no. Please, dear God, no.

Don’t let “X Best of Y” linkbait articles on design be your guide. If an article has the number-of-subject-formula for a title, move on. As an industry, we’re never going to really break free of molds if we’re borrowing design patterns and styles from everything that is already out there. Learn how designers, architects, typographers, and composers broke the mold in their day. Study the works of Helmut Krone, Olt Aicher (read Otl Aicher), Adrian Frutiger, Jan Tschichold, Bruce Mau, Aaron Copland, and Chip Kidd. Be open to inspiration, learn from their trials, triumphs, and failures. History repeats itself, and that applies to web design.

While we’re learning from others, keep viewing source. While effects like parallax are now being thrown under the bus, they have helped us think differently about how the web can work. And then somehow the loop button got stuck, and we’ve been cranking out the same site over and over again. Don’t borrow code and sit on your ass. Keep trying new things. Share with the community. And move on.

As Greg Hoy writes, “differentiate or die.” When I see my business partner and Jason Fried come to similar conclusions on their own, my ears perk up like a cat detecting a bird’s chirp. It does nobody any good to have a web that all looks the same. Be mindful of the user’s needs and business requirements, but for the sake of success, go a different route. Take inspiration from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Now go, and make all the difference.

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