The Decline of Web Design, Pt 2

The culture of tech today is all about speed speed speed. What's the shortest amount of time you can find a market, develop a product, iterate on it, and sell it?

The fast paced culture in tech is an inevitable side effect of technology its self – a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. When a product or tool comes along that can automate part of the product development process, it will be adopted.

In a post I published last week I made the argument that the desire for tech to automate everything is eating into the quality of visual design, and thus the effectiveness of software.

A few examples of Google's visual design appropriated for third party web applications
A few examples of Google's visual design appropriated for third party web applications

How to make boring software

In the olden days people made software by locking themselves away in a dark room and pounding away at it until it worked perfectly. Then, after they got it to work as perfectly as they could, they released the "golden master" version to the world. Once it was out of their hands, all they could do was hope that people would use it.

Today, making software is a highly iterative, artful process that involves the customer from the start. By involving the customer the software goes through evolutionary stages. As makers learn from customers, the product is gradually adapted to fit the context.

Every iteration in the development cycle must take as little time as possible, so tools and processes are employed to allow developers to narrow their focus.

The design of the software adds a lot of extra time to each iteration, so a design system like "material design" is used to make the iteration time more predictable. This indeed reduces the iteration time by an order of magnitude.

After the design system is implemented the whole team is happy with it. Developers are happy because they didn't have to think about visual design, and managers are happy because the product now looks like a Google product.

Here's the problem: your product looks like a Google product. You now live in Google's shadow. By proxy, Google designers now dictate your product's aesthetic.

More important than that, your users aren't blind. They won't share your rationale for using Google's aesthetic, so they'll see your product as imitating Google. Sure, most software out there today relies on third party code and components, but those aren't visually identifiable, at least not on the surface.

How to cheat properly

The giant car corporations like GM and VAG make chassis, engines, and countless other parts that are used by the global car industry. But most people wouldn't know it. Not because they're blind to it, but because the automotive industry understands the importance of unique visual design.

A 30,000ft view of the automotive industry
A 30,000ft view of the automotive industry

Cars are an interesting category of product to examine because underneath the shiny packaging they're engineering problems, just like software.

A third of new car buyers won’t even consider a specific model if they don’t like the exterior styling. Car manufacturers understand this well, which is why they pour money into making their line look good.

Car companies know how to cheat properly. They present their products as being unique on the surface, concealing parts that they share with other manufacturers. The consequence is that cars aren't unique at all, but we think they are, and that's enough.

An analogy to bring this back to software: If you want your product to be seen as unique, then use community libraries, frameworks, grid systems, and anything that's hidden from users to build it. Take the time to create your own aesthetic though, because users value unique products and disdain imitations.