Every website looks the same, and that’s ok

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October 01, 2015
Every website looks the same, and that’s ok.
Surely you’ve noticed by now that most websites for design agencies, designers, startups, or even products, and personal blogs all look a bit... similar. Even if you haven’t noticed, you’ve probably read about it. So how worrying is it that every website now seems to be a carbon copy of another? I can already hear the screams and the flaming torches of the angry Internet mob raging towards me as I say this: it’s OK. For the last couple of years, a common visual trend has started to be noticeable online. You’ve seen it before; a full-width website, with a full-width photo or video background, centered H1 text overlaid on the hero header, logo on the left, and hamburger button on the right (revealing a full-screen overlay menu). [pullquote]This is…a reflection of what users expect from a website[/pullquote] I might’ve just described Airbnb, your website, or even my own. This is also, in a way, a reflection of what users expect from a website. Design patterns exist to give an interface a proven and recommended layout for its function and controls, while bearing in mind the expectations of its users. The user is now very used to this kind of layout. Being recognizable and familiar, it feels comfortable to use. A designer, knowing that this formula works, keeps applying it, repeating the loop and avoiding innovation. Sticking too much to the same patterns over and over again ends up limiting creativity, and we’d all like to avoid it where possible. However, user expectations are something that have always to be considered when designing a website, because in the end, they are the ones who matter.

How did we come to this?

There isn’t just one reason, but several. The sudden boom of interest in flat design online — due to its simplicity — the evolution of responsive websites, and native video with HTML5, were all things that helped this visual trend become mainstream. All these technologies grouped together made it easier than ever to create more interactive, creative and appealing websites; and the biggest irony is that it also helped to create this standardized look. With the technological evolution that our devices and computers have gone through over the last couple of years, more and more designers want to make the best use possible of those devices. Responsive websites allow us to design incredibly flexible experiences that make the best use of our screens, from a small mobile phone up to our living room TV screen. CSS transitions, JavaScript and better and more frequently updated and standards compliant browsers, allow us to create an even more interactive experience that works great across devices.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Another point that helped with this common look are the proliferation of front-end frameworks. To simplify the creation and development of websites, several front-end frameworks have been created in the last couple of years. They come with prebuilt layouts and styles for forms, text and buttons, grid systems, and media queries to make it easier for developers to create a responsive website. Frameworks such as Boostrap from Twitter and Foundation from Zurb are used by developers and designers all around the world for their commercial and personal projects. This makes for quicker development, and lower budgets for their clients, all while avoiding the trouble of reinventing the wheel for common website needs. Themes and templates are being built, sold, bought, and used more now than ever. Nowadays, you can find really good, well developed and flexible templates that you can use and adapt to a variety of different designs and purposes, allowing designers (or even non-designers) to build websites without having an in-depth knowledge of web development. In a way, frameworks and templates are just helping to skip a step in the process of building a website. Think of it just like using a packet sauce for pasta: it won’t be as good as handmade, but it’s still delicious.

An Internet for everyone, by everyone

Almost everyone uses the Internet. It has evolved to the point where it’s almost considered a necessity comparable to electricity and water, because the Internet is knowledge, and knowledge is power. It is evolving in such a way that a “user” isn’t just a “visitor” anymore. They are creators as well, creating content and sharing their own ideas and points of view, be it through text, video or sound. And while everyone can create and share content, not everyone knows how to design or develop a website. So it’s for those people that resources like themes and templates are especially useful. Self-hosted solutions such as Squarespace are also allowing anyone to create a website on a visual editor and publishing it with just a couple of clicks.

Creativity is not dead

It is true, a lot of websites nowadays look really similar, but that doesn’t mean that creativity is dead. On the contrary, these are very exciting times for designers and developers, web technology has never been so powerful as it is today, and so native. [pullquote]these are very exciting times for designers and developers, web technology has never been so powerful as it is today[/pullquote] Browser support for WebGL, video, and audio on a webpage without plugins allows for even more creative uses. Plus there’s virtual reality, augmented reality, geo-location, built-in phone sensors, and Web Sockets to allow multi-device realtime interactive experiences. All of these technologies can come together to create great experiences and amazingly creative designs. It’s not about the fullscreen background video, it’s about the concept and content, and the creativity behind an experience. Focus on the capabilities of the devices, focus on the reach and potential of these technologies to create different and engaging experiences. Don’t do what everyone else is doing, and don’t follow the trend just for the sake of following the trend. Be creative and unleash that creativity through fullscreen and responsive websites, using 3D and video and audio, to create experiences, not just websites.

It’s OK

So no, I'm not worried that so many websites look alike. It’s simply a symptom of the common resources we have, and I believe it's a good thing that designers have more tools online to create their own content and to express themselves more easily. There’s actually a lot of great work being done everyday. Just keep an eye open for the award winning work on websites such as Awwwards; you'll be surprised by how much creativity is not being lost in a world of centered <H1> texts and video backgrounds.

Antonio Pratas

Antonio Pratas is a Digital Designer and Art Director, who also writes code for the web. You can follow him on twitter at @antoniopratas

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