The Decline of Web Design, Pt 1

Warning: If you're an easily offended designer, don't read this :).

The web has grown boring. UI designers and web designers have spent too long curating instead of creating. We get swept up in every new trend that comes along, only to find there's no substance it, so we jump on the next trend, and the next, and the next...

Don't believe me? Just give a designer a problem to solve and watch. The first thing we do is look around for nice examples of the problem being solved before. If we find what we're looking for, it's likely the applicable parts of the find will end up making it into our project.

Immitation comes natural to humans. Even when we used to paint on cave walls we imitated each other. Its in our nature to appropriate ideas in combination with our own. The concept of "standing on the shoulders of giants" is how our civilisation progresses.

There's a special problem that affects UI designers that puts them in a unique position compared to other creatives: we have too much design porn available to us. When I unlock my iPhone in the morning and I'm greeted by a new feature in an app, my brain will be inspired by it. It might think of a way to appropriate the idea in one of my own projects. This happens over and over all day. Is it any surprise we have a hard time with originality?

Through the massive catalogue of design porn we have access to, we're training ourselves to think as a homogenous entity. We don't invent ideas, we use ideas others had before us. We protect ourselves from original ideas by hiding behind third party design systems, where 90% of the creative work is done for us.

This is not to say that design systems are bad, because they aren't. Design systems are a tool for makers to think abstractly about software. For users, design systems make experiences more predictable, and fundamentally, design systems make interfaces better. Unfortunately working with design systems exercises the creative muscles about as much as a jigsaw puzzle.

The problem with design systems isn't with design systems. The problem is with designers. Our minds are so filled with design methodologies that we've forgotten there's more to creating... like actually creating!

We should get off the beaten track when it comes to ideas; leave the safety of what's been done before. When the majority of us seek exclusive inspiration from the web, there's not enough randomness being injected into the system to stop things from stagnating. Inspiration can be found anywhere. Across mediums, art forms, even from an emotion or a feeling.

When he was on the Indie Hackers podcast recently, Pieter Levels said something I found interesting about how he approaches the design of his products:

I was a musician before this if you make a song that everybody likes, sorry, that's a really shitty song, generally, but maybe not, Justin Bieber's got kind of good songs but in general I want to be the indie artist. I want to make Radiohead's kind of music, that's weird, and ahead of the curve, and it's edgy. I want to make a Radiohead type website where it's just like, why's this site so weird but it works?

[Indie Hackers #043](]

This quote demonstrates that it is indeed possible to make successful products that aren't glorified jigsaw puzzles. Instead of mirroring another successful web company – which feels like the natural thing to do – Pieter has the balls to design in his own way. Now others copy him.

As it usually is with writing about a subject you're passionate about, I ended up having a lot more to say about the state of web design than I had originally expected. So, to avoid turning this post into a wall of text, I've decided to publish it in two parts.

Part two will be published on the Monday the 12th Feb. I'll look at examples of when designers are brave enough to explore, and what we can learn learn from people outside the web industry.