Does startup efficiency kill design originality?

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August 09, 2016
Does startup efficiency kill design originality?.

Once upon a time, the web was full of crazy ideas. And no, I’m talking about the wide array of conspiracy theorists and the like (they’re still everywhere, watching as you read this). The subject I’m actually referring to is design.

Back in the day, the web was a bit more of an experimental playground for both professional and aspiring designers. You saw it in the use of different navigation styles, color schemes and typography. It also led to sometimes outlandish layouts, use of multimedia and graphics.

The results weren’t always pretty (or even professional), but you can’t say that designers weren’t trying to make the most out of the medium.

Do the evolution

These days, the web isn’t so much of a playground. It’s grown up, put on a sensible business suit and tends to lean more towards quiet consistency than bombast. The old Wild West, it seems, has developed into a sprawling suburb. You can practically smell the Starbucks from here.

The old Wild West, it seems, has developed into a sprawling suburb. You can practically smell the Starbucks from here

While it may sound like I’m a little nostalgic, I actually like the way things have evolved, for the most part. As designers, we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and have done a much better job at following standard practices. We’re doing more to ensure usability and accessibility. They are all wonderful byproducts of a more mature industry. We’ve never had it so good.

What’s changed the most, of course, is the array of tools we have at our disposal. They help us publish content more easily and design modern, functional websites in a fraction of the time. The tools have changed how we work. So, it would seem that they have also changed the way we design a website. The question is: how has that affected our creativity?

Rapid development

A lot of designers these days use frameworks in the design and development of projects. Whether it’s a front-end framework like Bootstrap or Foundation, a theme framework like Divi (or the whole WordPress commercial theme industry, for that matter)—there are great reasons to use these tools.

When used properly, they take some of the pain away from the design and development process. With pre-made layouts and UI elements built-in, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. That can both save designers time and save clients money.

The race for efficiency

Sometimes, though, maybe we lean on tools a little too much. For example, I tend to use FontAwesome on just about every new project. I think it adds a nice aesthetic, along with helping draw a user’s attention to specific items my clients want to promote. And, while I don’t use any front-end frameworks at the moment, I can certainly see why you’d want to. You can use them again and again to create an attractive site.

[pullquote]If you’ve got a busy career…then you’re all about doing quality work as efficiently as possible[/pullquote]

There’s the rub. We tend to use these items over and over because that’s what they were designed for. If you’ve got a busy career and are working on multiple projects simultaneously, then you’re all about doing quality work as efficiently as possible.

We’re busy and on a tight schedule to get things done. Therefore, it’s easy to fall into the trap of repeatedly using ready-made elements the same way every time. Maybe we change a color or add a border, but it’s essentially the same element used in the same way.

It’s certainly not a crime or a sin. But, in a way, it sort of takes the fun out of the design process. Some might think it’s a bit of a bummer. Others may look at it as the industry maturing to the point where mass-production simply leads to a little less variation in style.

In some ways, you could compare it to the auto industry. Honda makes a whole lot of Accords, but they are all essentially built on the same chassis. They only come in a certain few colors and have a limited number of options. Well, web design certainly hasn’t become that regimented… but you get the point.

Does originality still matter?

Make no mistake, there are designers out there creating some original (and beautiful) work. And there always will be those who forge their own unique style on the web.

But as we look more at the mainstream, things can feel a little ho-hum on that front. Perhaps that is to be expected, seeing as how the web has become such a necessity in our daily lives. After all, most designers and clients don’t have much incentive to break the mold. There’s too much at stake to take what may be seen as an unnecessary design risk.

[pullquote]The job of a website these days is to simply look good and simply work as expected[/pullquote]

In that way, maybe it’s not as cool to make something original as it used to be. As mentioned earlier, we’re now at a point where user experience is such an important part of a designer’s job. Thus, the job of a website these days is to simply look good and simply work as expected.

If all that means a more homogenized web, then maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

You can’t go back

While I miss that feeling of stepping into uncharted territory from the web of the past, I also understand that it just doesn’t mesh with the realities of today. So, maybe we can’t go full-on crazy with our designs anymore. So what? On the bright side that means we may not cringe at our past work five or ten years from now.

Still, I’m going to challenge myself to see how many smaller, less drastic elements of originality I can put (or sneak) into my work. While I’m sure that they won’t all make the cut into the final product, maybe a few go in unnoticed.

The city of Austin, Texas has a famous slogan of “Keep Austin Weird”. Maybe we can do a little bit of the same for the web, just to keep a small piece of the legacy alive.

Eric Karkovack

Eric Karkovack is a web designer with over 20 years of experience. You can visit his business site here. In 2013 he released his first eBook: Your Guide to Becoming a Freelance Web Designer. He also has an opinion on just about every subject. You can follow his rants on Twitter @karks88.

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