The Next Level of Design: Being Unique

In a world filled with CSS galleries and showcase websites, everything starts to look the same.

Gradients, rounded corners, drop shadows, it’s extremely hard to get away from the strongest of trends in our industry.

Each year however, some people manage to set themselves totally apart from everyone else and produce stunning designs with inspiration seemingly flowing directly out of their fingers and into their work.

In this post, we’ll take a look at a few of those people and some of the things which they do to be unique from everyone else.


What Constitutes Being Unique?

It’s all well and good suggesting that you should be unique and different from the competition, but what does that really mean? There are so many websites and great designers out there, what individual elements constitute being unique?

Well, in simple terms being unique just means doing something differently. You don’t have to create a design with the navigation in the footer and the copyright information up where the logo would normally be just for the sake of standing out. It’s about not just following what everyone else is doing and coming up with your very own way of displaying the information and the message which you are trying to get across to the user.

How many sites have you seen with a full width header (with a gradient), followed by a full width navigation bar, then a content section and a sidebar, then a full width footer? Hundreds? Thousands? If your focus is going to be being unique, then this is probably a design recipe which you should steer clear of. It’s too easy to create yet another site like that. Don’t get me wrong, they are popular because they are effective and easy to create… but they don’t stand out.

Being unique is largely about doing small things differently to everyone else rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Of course you also have to accept that the time period for which it remains unique will be limited. If you do a great job, then unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) it’s going to be copied by many, many people. That being said, innovation is almost always remembered.


Using Details To Stand Out

Details are a fantastic way to set yourself apart from everyone else and the best part is that the word “details” encompasses a fairly wide array of possibilities. Adding detail to something just gives it that little edge, or that little bit of “pop” as a client might call it. You’re adding something small that isn’t essential to the design but that really impacts it in a positive way.


Jason Santa Maria


Jason Santa Maria‘s focus on detail often largely surrounds his attention to typography and textual layout. He goes the extra mile to make the words he’s written look really good. Regardless of the design surrounding them it’s instantly apparently how much thought and effort has gone into styling the body text. How much time and effort do you usually put into styling your bog-standard page content?


Jesse Bennett Chamberlain


Jesse Bennett is a master of light sources. Looking at his designs you’ll rarely find a flat surface that hasn’t had lighting considered in some way. Now we to be clear here, he’s not just using pretty gradients because they’re…. pretty. He’s applying lighting effects using gradients. All the light-to-dark effects flow in the same direction and he’ll frequently create abstract background images to offset this even more. This clean and consistent attention to detail really stands out.


Having a Signature Style

A signature style is perhaps what we all long for. In the same way that people are able to identify a Picasso when viewing it for the first time, we all have a little ego inside us that would love to have a style so strong and recognizable that others would immediately be able to pick it out without being prompted.


Elliot Jay Stocks


Elliot Jay Stocks is usually the first name that comes to mind when thinking about signature styles. His uses of grungy textured backgrounds and typography are unmistakable. Significantly, he doesn’t over use them. You don’t get the impression that all of his sites look the same in any way, but more often than not you can tell if you’ve just arrived at a site which has been designed by him because all the signature elements are right there, subtly woven into the whole design.


Mike Kus


Mike Kus is another classic case study for having a signature style. With both Elliot and Mike having roots in Carsonified one has to wonder whether this is the type of designer which Ryan Carson looks for, or whether he fosters and encourages it amongst all of his employees? Mike’s style is bold and very heavily print influenced. Strong, solid colors, a lot over overlapping elements and clever uses of opacity are what make Mike’s designs instantly identifiable.


Illustration To Blow Away The Competition

Illustration is one of the most stunning but also perhaps one of the most difficult ways of standing out from the crowd. Very few designers are also great illustrators. Illustration is (for the most part) very artistic whereas design is (for the most part) very analytical. To find these two qualities mixed in a single person is somewhat rare though definitely not unheard of.

For many of us though, seeing stunning illustrations in website designs is a point of the utmost jealousy. Not being an illustrator doesn’t mean that you can’t use illustrations in your designs though, as well as the many stock websites dealing in illustrations there is also always the option to partner with a great illustrator in a collaborative effort from both parties.


Nick La


Nick La has got to be the epitome of using illustrations to create unique websites. Over the years he has churned out site after site with the most gorgeous illustrations grabbing you by the eyeballs and refusing to let go. The key thing about Nick’s work is that not only are his illustrations immaculate but they are also woven flawlessly into the very fabric of the design which they sit on top of. Such a seamless approach forces users to consider the beauty of the design as well as its effectiveness.


Veerle Pieters


Veerle Pieters is another example of a designer who makes fantastic use of illustrations within her designs and has become well known for it as a result. Rightfully so, her illustrations in particular make her designs stand out a mile and half from everything else. Veerle’s designs by themselves are excellent but browsing through her portfolio of work you can’t help but noticing how it’s the illustrated characters in each one that really take it to the next level.


Putting Time & Effort Into Extras

What else is there? Well aside from just details, there are also extras. You know, little things that you just don’t expect to be meticulously designed because they’re so small. Surprising users (or even customers, in the physical world) is a fantastic way to set yourself apart from everyone else because you’re giving them something they weren’t expecting. Their expectations are based on what everyone else is doing, so if you exceed those expectations… you win.




It’s hard to pinpoint a single name at ClearLeft in the UK to single out for this achievement (though former staffer Paul Annett would be high on the list) but they seem to have a knack for producing websites which do really interesting things when hovered over or re-sized. The Silverback website is of course the main one which everyone thinks of here but they’ve done similar things on both client sites and the multitude of sites produced for the dConstruct conference each year.


Liam McKay


Liam McKay is the final name which comes to mind when discussing putting that extra bit of effort into things which most people take for granted. Liam has a knack for seeing something simple and turning it into something beautiful. Whether that be with one of his bespoke icons (which are used throughout the entire Envato network), or by adding an incredibly subtle texture or enhancement that’s only visible to a few users, he’s constantly going the extra mile to design things which most people don’t bother with.


In Closing

Being unique isn’t about trying to turn the world on its head, it isn’t about massive typography, it isn’t about rounded corners.

Truly standing out from everyone else is about adding a personal touch to your designs, one which only you can create. Truly standing out is about going above and beyond the call of duty and not stopping until you hit that eureka moment.


What do you think? Are there any other particular factors that make designs really unique? What techniques have you used in order to stand out from the crowd?

  • inspirationfeed

    I love Nick La’s work, especially icondock!

  • Hitesh Mehta

    Yes, it’s a new article but most of the examples used here are seen multiple times before….

    • JohnONolan

      Hi Hitesh, there’s a reason for that ;)
      Though I’m sure you’re right and there are many more unkown examples out there!

  • Ben Stokes

    Nice inspiration – I totally agree, we do need some fresh new ideas! And Liam seems to be pulling out all the stops:

    “Liam has a knack for seeing something simple and turning it into something beautiful”

    Thanks guys :)

  • Thierry Ruiz

    Brilliant article

  • jonathan

    Your post is very interresant. All the new website follow the trend ( rounded, sidebar ect… ). Maybe because it s’a good way to navigate. We used at a other factor to be unique. The colors. We used the purple to make our website like no other one.

  • Marcell Purham | Webdevtuts

    This is a great article. I think being unique is a good thing and is a great way from telling yourself apart from others.

  • tripdragon

    always the saaame people. It’s like you all built clubs(websites) to cross-promote the same club members.

    Does anyone go past page two in google searches anymore?

    • Mark


      • Anon


        Yeah, great designs but for goodness sake; it’s all so freakin’ inbred! More showcases from “unknowns” please.

        (anon – aware my head might get shot off otherwise!)

    • JohnONolan

      For the record, the only person in the list who I know personally is Liam… there’s no inside trading here ;)

      • tripdragon

        cool to place a record. But I am sure you visit the other “list” sites often, or you should just to make sure you don’t eventually repost the same people. As is the case here and EVERYwhere.

        We are just trying to find new people to witness.

  • Michael Trang

    good advice.


    This was a really, really good article. Lately I’ve been trusting my own skills and instincts far more than just copying and modifying a design I’ve found in a showcase. Usually, when you know enough about the topic, goals and content of a web project, an architecture and subsequently a design sort of forms itself.

  • Matthew Johnson

    Love seeing these types of posts, makes it really easy to bookmark for future inspiration. Thanks for sharing! :D

  • Web Designers

    I totally agree that being unique is about simply adding a personal touch to your designs… great post! thanks

  • Bob

    I agree… how many times can you showcase the same 8 people for the same 3 websites. Not to mention half the people either run most of the tutorial websites and/or jock each others stuff.

    • Lisa

      Couldnt agree more with you. I wouldn’t call these examples unique – there is very little creatively that hasn’t already been thought of or done and been done to death. These people are very fortunate to have made a name for themselves – with the exception of but you most certainly could not pick their work out in a crowd without prompting. As for Picasso – well he is mainly known for a key art movement that has withstood the test of time – and even he quite rightly isn’t solely credited for founding Cubism. He has to share credi twith Georges Braque,.

      Not one of these people is a Picasso by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Rob T

    All these design examples are awesome. It seems like the most unique designs to me are ones that keep the same theme and elements from top to bottom. Websites with flashy headers and the rest plain only go so far. Having continuous style on every box and element makes a site look awesome. A great example of this is the header for this site, it gets involved with the rest of the page. Simple idea but I feel like it goes a long way.

  • the read shoe factory

    The irony in showing unique designs on a popular site to promote individuality in a industry that is saturated with copy-cats does not escape me. You?

  • Luke

    Brilliant article :-)

  • Shawn Johnston

    Thanks for the round up, these guys are all super inspiring, and there’s even some new names I haven’t encountered. Keep up the great posts!

  • Lime Web Design

    Great advice along with some brilliant examples. This was a great read. Thanks

  • Paul Lloyd

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your kind comments regarding Clearleft. I think our knack of creating nice delighters stems a little from the freedom and encouragement within the company to experiment with new ideas. Not just in terms of design, but also in terms of user experience, front-end development and even how we work with clients, continually evolving our processes, adapting them to meet new or different challenges.

    One slight correction to your article; it was Paul Annett who was responsible for some of our most popular easter eggs (such as the vines on the Silverback website). Thankfully Rich is still with us!


    • JohnONolan

      Hey Paul – I did actually know that, so I have no idea what I was thinking! What a fail, thanks for setting me straight :D

  • David Lewis

    Interestingly enough, the first three designers you feature showcase designs that all use a full width header, horizontal navigation bar and content area with (or without) sidebar. That is not a criticism. It’s just to say that there are a million ways to do the same basic structure. The structure isn’t necessarily the issue. The issue is often the details, as you point out. I mean, how many ways are there to design a car or a toaster? And yet there’s an astounding array of unique car and toaster designs.

    The uninspired thing is the stylistic copying. The rounded corners, ribbon headers, gradients, shadows, etc. And what is so bothersome is not the style itself. These touches do look pleasing. What is bothersome is their indiscriminate use. They are used just because. There’s no design rationale. The client could be a bank or a flower shop and you will still see rounded corners and ribbon headers. That’s not design. That’s cake decorating. Good design is a thoughtful response to a particular client’s needs and audience.

    But I’m preaching to the choir.

    As a side note, I’ve been designing and building websites since 1994, and while there was a lot of really ugly stuff created back then, I think we were actually much more creative at that time. There were no rules. There were no open source CMS tools begging for a sidebar and widgets. There was no social media, no WordPress, no Amazon… no conventions of any kind. Although were were very limited in some ways, creatively, we had no limits. We had a total ‘beginners mind’. I’m not suggesting we go back to imagemaps and splash pages and crazy navigation schemes and what have you, but I do think we should try to approach every design as an opportunity to do something great.

    • JohnONolan

      Really insightful comment and food for thought, thanks so much for taking the time to write it up!

  • Eko

    Amazing post, opened my eyes about being unique…

  • Gaurav Mishra

    Blow away the competition
    nice line!
    worth thinking and to be act upon

  • Alf Catadman

    This article is just BRILLIANT! All the inspiration I need is right here

  • Eigil Hoeyrup

    Hehe makes me think of a friend who next to his messenger name posted – “the only one who isn’t unique”. I think there were some nice examples, but as other people has said before me why always promote the same five people whom everyone is already copying as it is.

  • Nikunj

    Great article John, Even I like your website its very well designed, clean & user friendly.

    I think sometime more design into website make it more complex for user to get in & out of the website.

  • adikahorvath

    Its not easy to be unique :)

  • Daniel

    Great work from Mike Kus & Veerle!

  • Kanwaljit Singh Nagra

    Really nice article. True uniqueness is very rare. It’s the combination of subtle differences that produce a unique design.

  • djavupixel


    I like you article but I am more an adept on minimalism with some stuff that stands out. So the user is not disturb by all the stuff around. Charging a website with a multicolor background is nice but does it add something to the usability?

  • Massimo Nastasi

    fantastic list, thank you

  • Dennis

    Great article, and inspirations. In a world where almost everything is copied in some way from one source or another, and with so many people coming up with similar idea’s and concept’s, it’s great to see such a long list of original idea’s to keep the juices flowing.

  • Michelle

    Websites are definitely starting to look all the same to me. I keep reading “content is king, content is king” blah blah blah. But it’s starting to feel boring when u see a site with the two standard columns with the same ish styles, category and tags sections… I miss design back in 2001-2005… Things felt more experimental, more artistic, more fun. Yes perhaps the functionality wasn’t the best, and iphone viewing could be a bit dodgy, but i personally would rather experience that than more of the same wordpress feel. But overall i guess it depends on the content i’m looking at. If i’m shopping for something on a site, it shouldn’t be at all complicated and hard to read. However, blogs, design sites, portfolios… I want the site to be an experience. Like it used to be. Or maybe i’m just getting old and cranky about change…

  • Alex

    Great work. But no designer is really ‘unique’ (well, no successful designer anyway), as we all draw influence from elsewhere. The designs which have been showcased here are no different. They are fantastic and show ingenious talent, but all can be herded into particular style movements that are very popular all around the world.

  • Wade Hill

    I think one essential element not discussed frequently enough is that willingness to take a little risk. Give your clients what they want, but if you had a fun thought that you know would take that project to the next level (and if you’ve got the time), go ahead and mock it up and present it. Just remember the worst they could say is no and no isn’t as bad as it sounds. Just keep in mind clients know what they like and not what is truly great design. Don’t let their opinion stop you from creating something brilliant. If they choose the design that’s blah (which is almost always the case – usually they are afraid to step out on a limb with their business) that doesn’t mean you can’t use the better/unused work in your portfolio.

  • Madan Patil

    I like it. Thank you for this useful article. I would like to see more examples of unique design styles.

  • Delia

    I am web designer – someone who designs for the web and who also implements the designs of others. I’m running into more and more folks designing websites who have no earthly idea of the notion of functionality.

    Websites tend to be standardized in many ways due to the importance of:

    visual clarity

    Since I get to implement those “stand out” designs, I can tell you what is important for website to stand out:

    1) content
    2) load time
    3) that clarity thing

    Busy design and fancy images complicate execution, frequently require whole page backgrounds to implement and increase load time by ridiculous amounts. (Note: css divisions can only be in blocks and that does limit what’s possible and effective. This ain’t paper, folks.)

    And then there’s clarity. The more elements or the busier the elements on a page, the harder it is for the visitor to be able to focus on what’s important.

    Ease of use and visual clarity needs to drive designing for the web – not creating fancy graphic designs.

    Some of the examples here do follow those rules and other do not. Please give thought to these issues – most designs I work with from graphic designers do not.

  • Trevor Conno

    To John O’Nolan, most of these are the exact same people you were ranting about in your article “The World’s Best Designers are Unknown

    I’m sure you can come up with better names then these as we all assume you know who the unknown and underrated designers are?

    You are like Nick La. Nick La mentioned on Best Web Gallery that you can only submit the same design once even if the second submission is a redesign of the first. But look closely how Elliot Jay Stocks has TWO entries of his website on Best Web Gallery. What hypocrites you are.

  • Tyler Herman

    Liked the post.

    What it always comes down to is design skill but even for bad designers Detail, Time, & Effort can really improve any site.

    As far as trends go, things become trends because they are easily duplicated/mass produced. We all use trendy design techniques out of either laziness, familiarity, lack of time or simple lack of skill.

    A lot of the examples you show here are not just great homepage design, but everything is designed well. You don’t see a lot of static pages with a wall of text in the center. Every page is unique. Great designers + lots of time.

  • John

    This is so true. The wordpress community is growing leaps and bounds, and likewise has online resources for templates. I know that the average web designer would like to shoot me for this but opportunities to both be unique and be efficient in design grow with the wordpress community :)

    Great article!

  • Brendon Minnich

    This is an absolutely awesome article. Nicely written. I hate seeing the same old design, and I try to stray away from that trend as often as possible. I designed my portfolio site to be a complete breakaway from the average web design standard.

    Check it out!!

  • Web Design Nottingham

    some wicked examples of unique designs, love the ones from Nick La!!