There’s a common notion in the industry these days that web designers are stuck in a pit of uncreativity. The open canvas we once had as web professionals feels considerably more constrained these days by the growing collection of best practices, new technology trends and the use of automated tools.
So what happened to the rare breed of creative web designers – did they really all disappear without a trace or is the more to the story behind a web that feels eerily familiar wherever you go?
The same old templates argument
This is where the notion of web design becoming uncreative all stems from. Once platforms like WordPress and Shopify started publishing themes and templates the web gradually started to look more formulaic. Not only were designers creating these templates within the confines of their chosen platform but people were buying these templates in mass numbers.
Shopify’s themes all have a distinctive look and feel about them
The same layouts, headers, fonts and countless other design factors cropped up all over the web and this trend has continued ever since.
There’s also the fact that WordPress and other platforms make it possible for non-developers and non-designers to build websites. But these guys won’t be writing unique code or creating unique design elements. Instead, they’ll be relying on the exact same resources as thousands – perhaps millions – of others.
A culture of best practices
Once upon a time, there was very little in the way of web design rules or best practices. We took what we knew from print and layout design, but that was about the only guidance a creative web designer’s mind had – the rest was an open playground.
Things are very different now, though. The design community is built around a collection of best practices for just about every situation where a designer needs to make any kinds of decision.
This is a good thing in many ways, of course. Not least because best practices are created with the end user in mind and they come from a culture of trying to make the best design choices at every step of the way. These best practices are also a kind of safety net for designers to fall back on or critique their own work and make smarter choices. While they also make it easier for new designers to learn the ropes much faster than many had the privilege of ten years ago.
The downside to best practices is we often end up relying on them too much. Instead of seeking out new and improved solutions it’s easier and faster to fall back on the best practices we already know. After all, they work, don’t they? That’s why they’re best practices in the first place.
This approach will get you pretty far as a designer, too. But best practices are only meant to be a guideline, not a restriction. And when you have designers, themes and tools all built around the same best practices creativity is often the first victim.
The rise of designer tools
Web design has always been demanding but the nature of any industry is for things to get done faster and for cheaper while maintaining a consistent level of quality. The problem is something has to give in this kind of environment, otherwise designers are working harder, for less, until there’s no point in any of us doing this anymore.
So your typical designer relies on more tools than ever, many of which automate very small (or sometimes much larger) parts of the design process. It could be something innocuous like a tool that comes with layout templates or a list of fonts included. Likewise, it could be something more substantial like a visual website builder that automates all the code for everything you design. For many designers it’s a combination of these tools used to create a quicker workflow.
Elegant Themes’ Divi builder has become the go-to tool for many designers
Either way, each of these features take a certain amount of work out of the designer’s hand, often removing the need for creative thinking or limiting it to a selective list of options. Suddenly, your font choice can go from almost ad infinitum to a small list of twenty. But who cares when it’s easier and faster to select from the same few fonts?
The influence of technology trends
Last week, Ben Moss published this article on Web Designer Depot asking whether responsive design is killing your creativity. I won’t lie; his article prompted me to write this one. Firstly, because he asks a valid question but also because he’s only talking about one small part of the much bigger picture (hence the other points we’re covering today).
As Ben says, our best solution to a web accessed by multiple devices has both liberated and confined us. Designers are now instantly restricted to the concept of responsive, mobile-first or whatever subsequent design principle they feel most suitable.
This is why most modern websites basically look the same. Start with a hero section, chuk in some scrolling effects and create a section for almost every page on your site so users can scroll their way through the whole “story”.
The fact we have to build designs that function on mobile and much larger devices limits our options. Which are limited further by the fact we only really have responsive design as a solution for now. And this pattern only becomes more extreme as more people turn to templates and other tools that offer a limited set of options.
We’re only really talking about mobile here, too. However, the fact is designers are bound to much wider technology trends than the devices we use. Now, the main concern for designers is which platforms are people using, or – more to the point – which ones they aren’t. Not long ago, I wrote an article asking whether it’s time for more designers to move into chatbot design. Not because they’re the sparkly new toy in town but because people are using them in growing numbers and websites less.
Are websites still the priority?
Let’s be brutally honest about this: how many people really need a web designer these days? Well, right now there’s still enough demand for most, but what about in the next 10 years? I’m not really talking about artificial intelligence or other tools replacing designers but rather whether serious brands will really need a website in a decade’s time.
All you have to do is look at what Google, Facebook, Amazon and the other usual suspects are up to and you’ll see the nature of online browsing is drastically changing. Google and Facebook are constantly introducing features that mean users never need to leave their platforms to access content or perform tasks. You can book flights to New York and find the best restaurants in town without ever leaving Google. You can buy clothes from your favourite retailers via Facebook Messenger and get recommendations for local business on your Timeline.
Now we have Amazon’s Echo, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Facebook M and countless other personal assistant platforms hitting the scene – each one designed to be our point of access to the entire web. Each of these tech giants will be reliant on the ad revenue their platforms generate and that means keeping users locked in rather than sending them to websites or other external destinations. Not only so they can continue to show users their own ads but also prevent them from moving to a rival platform and seeing their ads instead.
It’s the only logical business model to take.
So why send users to an external website and risk them landing on your rival’s ads when you can simply embed content from other sites in your own app? Kind of like how Google already does with answer boxes, weather feeds, knowledge panels and other results types that save people needing to click results and visit websites.
Who said Google wants people to visit websites?
So, let’s say this continues. Why bother designing a website when you can simply create the HTML content, format your rich snippets and let Google, Facebook and the others pull it out as they need to? If they’re not going to send people to your site then why have one designed in the first place?
Are creative web designers a thing of the past?
No, of course not. There are still plenty of creative web designers out there and these are the ones who will enjoy the best gigs as things continue to get more difficult. That said, there’s a definite shift in what in what it means to be a web designer – not because designers are becoming extinct but because the nature of how we interact with the web is changing.
The creative and most talented web designers will spot new opportunities first and create the next wave of solutions for online users. The risk for those stuck in their groove is that the work might dry up sooner rather than later. Then again, there’ll probably be a whole new bunch of design tools to automate the process of designing for the next web anyway – so maybe we’ll still be having this same debate in ten years’ time.