Look around you. Everything looks the same. Houses: Four walls and a roof. Cars: four wheels and a shiny chassis. The Internet. It all looks the same – but why?
Throughout history we have constructed, invented and and documented some pretty weird and wonderful things. I mean, think about the The Eiffel tower: 7,300 metric tonnes of steel (not to mention 60 tonnes of paint) towering above Paris. Or the Pyramids: a shitload of stones, each pushed, dragged and lifted by tiny humans and stacked on top of another. And those are just a couple of the big ones. We also have the Hitler teapot, the kneeling chair, or those plastic things with holes in them that we stick on the end of our legs.
But here’s the thing. Those things, the things we remember for their obscurity or wonder, are rare. Even Crocs, compared to the vast majority of footwear, are rare. Most things we surround ourselves with look more or less the same. Desks look the same. Computers look the same. Web sites look the same.
I reckon – and this is just a reckoning, by the way – that the reason why things tend to look the same can be broken up into five major points:
3. Market consensus
Or PCMTF, for short. I like to keep my acronyms snappy.
Let’s start with the obvious one. It’s fairly obvious why most cars, for example, have four wheels: gravity. A two wheeled car (also called a bike) tends to fall over. A fifth wheel seems – and is – unnecessary, and three wheels just don’t have the same stability as four.
Web designers, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about gravity. Instead we have other practical considerations, such as navigation and legibility. It is often impractical to put all a web site’s content on a single page, so we split the pages up and construct a means of navigating them. Our text needs to be legible, so we use fonts and an alphabet recognised by our audience. You get the picture.
Back to the car analogy. Why do all cars have a circular steering wheel with signalling lights and windscreen wiper bars attached to either side? Is it because there is no conceivably better way of steering a car? No. It’s because having to learn how to steer a car every time you got into a new one would not only be a bloody nuisance, but downright dangerous.
Convention also plays a part online. The way we interpret links, for example, is a learned behaviour. Most web sites use colour or underlined text to highlight a link. Not following this convention, let’s say by using uppercase letters to indicate links, would not only look aggressive, it would also force users to re-learn this pattern.
This is a funny one. Whilst somewhat similar to conventions, market consensus has more to do with prevailing emotions in the market rather than learned behaviour. Consider the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Designed in 2000 to evoke the street rods of the 1930’s, it completely bucked the trends of contemporary car design. Practically and conventionally, it was like any other car, but stylistically it stood out. And it failed commercially. Not because it had the steering wheel in the wrong place, but because people don’t generally like to stand out as much as they think.
We, as web designers, also suffer from this constraint. Anything that stands out too much will be a tough sell to all but the boldest of clients. A button has to ‘feel’ like a button, whatever that means. A top bar navigation and a sidebar epitomises a web site, not only in terms of practical and conventional terms (usability) but in terms of what people ‘feel’ it should look like.
Different ideas do, of course, emerge out of any hegemony. The ones that stand the test of time (we’re talking a few weeks or months) and gain enough popularity become trends. In car design, we may talk about curved vs sharp edges, or the popularity of certain colours (and brands), but personally I think car design moves at such a slow pace that market consensus is a stronger drive than the more ephemeral trends.
Online, on the other hand, trends are rife. Shiny, retro, flat (not a trend, but more on that another time), hand made, intro pages, circular photos, torn edges… You know what I’m talking about. On the web, things move a lot quicker, and we have a really high turnaround of trends. The difficulty as a designer is that whilst trends will, by nature, go out of fashion and make our designs dated, being the first one to step out of line and try something new is daunting.
Out of all the five points on this list, fear is the most important to be aware of, and the one point we have the biggest ability – and responsibility – to affect. Practical issues and conventions can be unsound or dangerous to ignore, and I have sympathy for designers who are blissfully unaware of their work’s adherence to market consensus and trends. But fear? Fear is no good reason, nor excuse, for making design decisions.
If you want to propose a radical new design, but you don’t because you’re afraid it will stand out too much, the onus is on you. If you willingly follow trends to reap the short term benefits, you’re the only one to blame for your work looking dated. If you don’t dare to try something different, you’ll never create the Eiffel tower, the Pyramids, or even the Hitler teapot. I mean, a teapot that looks like Hitler! If that doesn’t take guts I don’t know what does.