Near the end of 2009 and on into the first months of the new year I have seen a number of articles and blog posts discussing web design trends, with reviews, discussions about the good and the bad, and predictions for what will happen in 2010. As technologies advance, new languages develop, and limitations decrease, the possibilities of what can be done in web design expand to amazing proportions, opening the door for innovation and inspiration beyond anything we have seen to date.
The prospect causes me to begin wondering if web designers will actually walk through that door and begin to create web sites that shatter the previous accepted methodologies, limitations and standards, or if the majority will continue to look to a few innovators and safely follow suit. This post aims to challenge the modern day web designer to break out of the box – both literally and metaphorically – to begin creating genuinely unique and ground-breaking designs.
Inspired To Create or to Duplicate?
Sometimes when starting a new web design project, I will wander through different design galleries or showcase roundups to see what others are doing and to hopefully generate some inspiration for the design I will be creating. While I truly don’t believe there is anything wrong with this, I recognize that it has the potential to put ideas in my head that with even the best intent could come out as a thinly-veiled copy of the same site that “inspired” its creation.
In contrast, recently I worked on a web site for an artist who had a very specific vision for what she wanted in her website’s design. Because she worked in a completely different medium, her concept of a website was entirely void of the limitations of HTML, CSS, screen resolutions and the like. In the midst of trying to explain to her that certain things simply could not be done in web design, I realized the actual truth was not that they couldn’t be done, but that they hadn’t been done (at least not that I was aware of.) Her concept, while not completely “out of bounds”, was different enough that it challenged my own ideas of what could or could not be done within the confines of trends and standards. I actually had to figure out how to do some things I’ve never done before, and the end result had some refreshingly unique features.
This wakeup call made me realize how so many “new” web designs, including my own, utilize so many of the same elements and follow so many of the same “rules”. Obviously, there are very good reasons for a lot of this, such as the common use of a 960 grid or focusing on accessibility and usability, but who says that just because you’re building a WordPress site it must have oversized headers and footers, a horizontal navigation menu, and a right column stuffed with advertisements?
One of the recent ways that web designers began breaking out of the box was with horizontal scrolling and single-page sites, but once again so many jumped on the bandwagon of innovation that it too became a trend. Charles C. Colton was obviously correct when he said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but since when is flattery a goal in innovative web design? Are we as web designers satisfied with designing within the confines of what others have determined is acceptable, both in trends and in design standards? At some point, someone stepped outside of the box to give horizontal scrolling a try, and then it caught on and became a trend. Same with grunge, big headlines, minimalism and the rest. These are all great ideas and styles, and in no way do I intend to belittle them, but isn’t creativity in its rawest form about creating, not duplicating?
Are You A Leader or A Follower?
“There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.” – Martha Graham
Web designers are in abundance these days, and new websites are published every day. Unfortunately, so few reveal the uniqueness of the designer behind them. Whether pushed by deadlines, financial necessity to mass-produce, or one of countless other motivators, the majority of web designers continue to crank out whatever seems to be working at the time. Sure, we make adjustments and tweaks to our designs to keep them from being exact duplications and ensure that they fit the context of their purpose, but the common elements are all there and very seldom do we take risks. It is much easier (and safer) to incorporate proven standards and fundamentals than it is to unleash the unique artistic expression within and open the door to possible failure. Who wants to spend time building an entire website that flops when it is finally launched?
“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.” – Albert Camus
True leaders – those that actually create the first designs that then become the trends the rest of us follow – are those that push fear of failure aside and race recklessly into the unknown, often ending up with far more ideas in the wastebasket than in the final results. One could argue that we can’t all be leaders, but I strongly believe the potential for leadership and true innovation is within every single human being. The problem is that so few actually realize their full potential, settling for falling in line behind the lead of others and emptying the world – and their personal lives – of their own solitary and unique contribution to society.
Most trend-setters do not set out to be one. What sets them apart is their ability and desire to look inside themselves and discover their uniqueness. The next step after that discovery – releasing that uniqueness in the context of their creation – is what breeds innovation.
Can you imagine what websites would look like if every single follower suddenly recognized their individual creative contribution and potential for leadership? It boggles the mind to consider. At the very least I would guess that we would no longer see a few trends but instead the internet would become something like a museum of unique creations, every web design a masterpiece of its own.
Blessed Be The Trends That Bind
So what are some of the current and upcoming trends in web design that we can choose to conform to or break out of? It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of sifting through web design galleries, designers’ portfolios and web design blogs to see the common elements and ideas that permeate the web design landscape. Here are some of the more pervasive trends and the limitations they could impose should a designer allow them to dictate their design.
This style has come and gone a few times, although I’m not sure why. It seems to be spawned by other advertising mediums and the trend rotations they go through. The main limitation I see with the grunge style is that, just like its musical counterpart, it is not timeless. It is a very trendy style that comes and goes, which means probably a regular redesign of whatever site is using it.
This is actually a personal favorite of mine and not one I would like to find fault with. But the limitation I can see is the attempts a minimalist design must make to stay minimal, keeping it from taking chances, having interesting or different design elements and artwork, and possibly restraining experiments in color.
Oversized Headers and Footers
All of a sudden we started seeing huge headers and footers, sometimes worthy of their own page. There are great and perfectly viable uses of this trend, but must we all now try to come up with enough content or advertising or widgets to justify having one? How about just sizing the header or footer based on the context and the content of the website?
Image or Featured Post Sliders
Another element that I personally enjoy and incorporate into a lot of site designs. Its functionality and visual magnetism is undeniable. But if every website has a featured content box, the emphasis can get lost and the visitors could just scroll on by. What might be some innovative ways to capture the attention and focus of a visitor?
Especially in your typical design blog, there is usually an entire column, if not more, devoted to advertising. Suddenly valuable real estate that could be used for content has disappeared, and the visitor has to convince his eyes to either ignore that right column as they attempt to peruse the content, or else click away with wild abandon on advertisement after advertisement and forget why they came to the site in the first place. I realize websites rely on advertising as a primary source of revenue, but I have to believe that there is a dormant innovator out there who can come up with a better way to do this.
Trends That Free Us
While submitting to some of the latest trends can confine the web designer to mechanically produce a generic design that could fit any context, there are also those trends that can open our creative minds and birth wonderfully magnificent web design conceptions. Here are a few of the trends that I believe have the potential to be a catalyst to the self-discovery of the new leaders.
You can’t go wrong with good typography. As it has come into focus lately within the web design context, we have seen it birth simple but interesting new “sub-trends” as well as increased legibility and ease of use. Focusing on innovative use of typography in web design could continue to unlock some ideas in web designers and breed new thought processes and designs.
While most web designs strive to fit inside the 960-pixel wide box, a number of new sites are coming up with innovative ways to organize and display content. Although it may seem there are only “so many ways” that one can design a layout, this trend suggests that we must drop our pre-conceived notions of what is allowed or possible and create new and different possibilities.
Yes, I know I included this in the list of trends that bind, but minimalism, if used properly, has the potential for all kinds of innovation. Yet to be seen are uses of minimalism with creative color palettes, innovative use of whitespace and more. I may be biased on this particular topic because I love minimalist sites so much, but I do believe there is still a lot of potential for what can be done with this trend.
One Final Trend That Will Free Us
This space is reserved for your unique idea(s). There is something inside you, the web designer, that is yet to be discovered. That new trend is inconspicuously absent from the internet landscape, and it is waiting on you to put it into place. The unleashed leader inside you is beginning to stir and it is your responsibility – your destiny even – to awaken this leader and let the world see what you have to offer. Web design is still a relatively new medium. It is a playground for innovation and new ideas. Will you contribute that which is inside you alone to a revolution of innovative web designs and the shattering of restrictive trends? Or will you succumb to your fears of failure and allow others to set the pace, falling in line like a lamb to the slaughter?
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