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Giving New Life to Web Design

Posted on February 4, 2016

Talk on the internet lately is that Web Design is dead and that the internet is killing creativity. The people stating this claim cite the maturity of certain design patterns. For example, the hamburger menu, mobile side-drawer navigation, frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation, as well as templates which all tend to look pretty similar.

When you take all of those design patterns and add it to the pile of UX research data and thought leaders chiming in on what to do and what not to do, it seems like there really isn’t much room for creativity on the digital landscape.

These types of thoughts are very reductionist in that they only really focus on singular pieces rather than design as a whole, either in it’s artform or the process which conceives the actual design itself. It doesn’t take very much time to search the web and find similar articles about print and graphic design, but nonetheless these posts have a lot of people worried.

While web design definitely isn’t dead (and we will talk about why it isn’t), there is still a certain amount of truth behind why people are making the argument. You’ve probably seen a lot of sites that look similar either because they all use the same type of layout, the color palettes don’t feel unique, or they actually are the same minus a few differences.

Web Design Has Become Very Broad

There are a lot of new technologies out that allow all sorts of amazing things from cool animations to single page apps (SPAs). That means designers have to account for a lot more than just the way the design will look on tablets, phones, and desktops. They now have to consider far more complex interactions, while also understanding their implications for SEO and accessibility.

The typical design process is a very broken model because it rarely takes into consideration the technical limitations or possibilities of what can be done. Either we design too ambitiously or we create something safe. I’d argue that most of the time we play it safe either because we don’t want to burden the developers, or because our budgets are limited and we want to make sure we design something that can be implemented within scope.

When you couple those restraints on top of a CMS like WordPress, the necessity for having user editing capabilities makes the mere mention of a custom interactive page sound daunting.  How many times have we gone over the top in creating a page using custom fields to allow our clients to edit their sites, only to have them sit and stagnate?

As designers and developers, we have the skills to quickly implement very unique changes to a site, sometimes faster than what a CMS can allow and beyond what they are typically capable of doing without extensive programming. Ease of use is a great thing, and is very important, but it isn’t as important as delivering a unique experience to users to keep them engaged.

Design Tooling Is Still Behind

As the design process has become more broad, designers are themselves left behind because the tools we use are either not designed for creating on the web or they are still limited in what they can do. Photoshop is the go to tool for many people but let’s face the reality: it is a tool designed for editing photos, not websites. Along with the bloat, creating multiple layouts (even using artboards) poses a challenge as well as creating extremely large documents.

There is hope though as more and more tools like Sketch and Macaw are coming out that are far more open and are tailored for web and app design. Adobe is catching up, though, and is currently working on Project Comet which is supposedly going to be a direct competitor to those previously mentioned apps.

When our tools aren’t designed to do the work we need to do, it is like hammering nails with a wrench. It works, but it isn’t pleasant. Combining that inefficiency with limited budgets, we lose a lot of time we could be spending on crafting unique designs. It is no wonder why we almost always take the easy way out.

I encourage everyone to go outside their comfort zone and try some of the new and more focused design apps. You might be surprised how much easier they make certain tasks and how much time you’ll save.

We’re Addicted to Data

Data is a cornerstone in our industry. We use it on a daily basis to back up our design decisions, determine the best course of actions, and to (hopefully) keep us from making bad choices. The problem with data is that sometimes it can lead us down the wrong path or we can misinterpret the meaning behind the data we mine.

For example: Let’s say we have a site with a page that has a high bounce rate. If we change the content on it, the bounce rate may improve. But it leaves a lot of questions. Was it the content itself, or the length of it? Were there any external forces at the time that caused our numbers to drop? This is why data alone isn’t enough sometimes. It requires extensive research, testing, and verification.

Scientific laws are put under immense scrutiny and it can take a long time before something becomes a law. Even then, a law can always be disputed. For that reason, we must be very careful in what we tell people and how strictly we adhere to these rules.

What may have been shown to not work in one design may, in fact, work in another. There’s a multitude of design principles that can help lead us down the path about how to best use an element. Sometimes all it takes is making it larger or using a different color to make it more effective.

Priorities Have Changed

As we have developed solutions to many design problems, we’ve started diverting our attention to other (more important) matters. Now, instead of worrying about designing a menu that looks different from every other menu, we can focus on making it accessible for everyone. Instead of figuring out how to structure our homepage, we can use a grid layout to provide a simple hero image with a call to action and worry more about the performance of the landing page.

This is good for the end user because we can now focus more on making sure our websites are fast and accessible. Everybody wins when we take the time to performance budget and test to make sure no one is left behind.

We can even tailor the flow of a website to better direct a user’s experience and ensure they get to the information they need. You see, we’re still designing, but what we are designing is different. Though there is still a certain level of branding and aesthetic styling that we add to a site (all of which still matters immensely), we have more freedom to build better interactions. As a result, our websites can come to life.

Microinteractions are an excellent example of how we can take a generic element and make it suit our needs. If you use Facebook, you might have noticed the tiny little animation that happens when you scroll past an article and it displays your friends’ comments. Or maybe you’ve visited a site and had a personal greeting appear with your name in it. These are all tiny interactions that can really change how users perceive a site or service.

Break the Damn Rules!

So how can we escape the “rut” we have created and really do something noteworthy? We can start by breaking the rules. No one can really truly know anything until they step outside their comfort zone and defy those laws which govern what we make.

Now, I know what you may be thinking: “Aren’t those rules there because there are just certain things you shouldn’t do?” It depends on what rules we are talking about.

I’ll use our beloved (or hated) hamburger menu icon as an example. There have been many articles written about not using it because users won’t understand what it is. Most people don’t realize that the hamburger icon was in use in the physical world before it came into use on the web. TV remotes had it and, at one point, some older Apple programs even used it. It might be abstract, but at the same time, our persistent usage of it has given it meaning and context. I wonder if anyone who is against using that icon also stands against the save icon which is a floppy disk. The last time I used a floppy disk was in school almost 15 years ago. So even though no one today uses them, we still recognize that icon and understand exactly what it means.

Art itself has always been about pushing boundaries and questioning the world that we live in. Web design shouldn’t be any different. Use your research data as a stepping stone, but don’t let it be the bridge to the other side of your creations. Websites aren’t static. They can be changed. And multi-variance testing allows us to try more than one solution to a design problem.

If we never question what we are told, how can we discover anything new? We may think that our scientific innovations happen because there are brilliant people scheming in a lab. And while there are plenty of those types, many scientific breakthroughs were the result of ideas generated (or inspired) by science fiction. When we dare to dream and do something new, we might be paving the way for new technologies or techniques to be discovered.

There are a few rules, though, that we should never consider breaking.  Accessibility is always the highest priority – anyone should be able to use a website that you build. Since your site is still a business directive, SEO shouldn’t take a back seat. Semantic and performance optimized content should also be a priority as well. The web is already bloated and complex. So as long as you ensure that you are considering all audiences, hack away.

Changes Are Coming, They Aren’t Bad Though

There’s no doubt that things are changing. More and more people than ever are relying on the internet to do business. But this is a good thing. Our field hardly stagnates, if ever.  Virtual and augmented reality systems are currently being developed and will eventually make it to the masses. More and more internet embedded devices (like the Nest Smart Thermostat) require well-designed user interfaces. And there is a growing shift to focus more on user experience design and interaction design.

While the basis of what a website is might not be innovated upon as much as it has in the past 15 years, the technology stack and the way in which we interact has been growing exponentially. Design for any medium never dies, it simply evolves and changes over time. Our ability to understand and accept this change is what will allow us to not only embrace the future of web design but to make it even better.

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