I hear this a lot lately whether, via website design communities, forums or just in general discussions – but is this the case? And is this a bad thing? I gave it some thought and came up with this…
I think it’s safe to say that modern ‘Web design’ arrived with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) in the late 1990’s, this gave the web designer far more control over layout, imagery and particularly typography leading to within the last few years of website design finding its ‘visual language’.
If you go to a local bookstore and look at the magazine racks – you would have noticed that magazine covers basically all look the same. Large header type (normally the magazine’s name), below this (or overlaying) a large image of the human figure or product, this in-turn surrounded by text highlighting the publication’s contents, so why is this? Mainly because it’s functional, magazines are presented on racks, stacked above and below one another, so each title/header must be near to the top of its cover for it to be visible. As we scan the racks these magazines have just a few seconds to shout here I am! This is my name, this is my content’s and you need me – in the hope we pick it up – look at the cover – pass judgment (I know), take a quick flick and move on with it in hand.
Magazine cover design a classic example of ‘form follows function’
Similarly, website design has the same task of grabbing a visitor’s attention and giving out several messages all within just a few short seconds (anything over 3 and the visitor may ‘bounce’ away). When a website is first being viewed the chances are it will be the homepage, the ‘cover’, and this will need to show its reason for being, gain your confidence and point where to go next, quickly, otherwise, it’s Hasta la vista, baby. There’s nothing more draining than trying to figure out whether a website is what you’re looking for, or just as tiring, not being able to find relevant content (Tip: A good site design rarely has content more than 3 clicks away). So what’s the best solution here? Well…
The website’s visual language
A modern website will have a clear, clean hierarchy, mainly constructed of these following elements;
- Large clear message = who we are, what to do
- Call to action = More info, call, register, email, buy etc
- Clean structure = easy to navigate
- Blocks/Stacks/Modules of content = text/images/data
- Powerful imagery = emotional
- Interaction/engagement = buttons, roll-overs, animation
- Dynamic layout = clear readability on multiple screen sizes/devices
And we got to this ‘standardization’ after years of building websites and testing them – including Functionality testing, Usability testing, Interface testing and of course good old ‘User feedback’ amongst many other types of experimentation.
By standing on the shoulders of giants we, the designers, have a pretty good idea of what works. The challenge is how to present these elements in an original way, and this, of course, is where the website designers and developers come into play – a quick couple of examples; Powerful imagery – a designer will explore what image/photograph or illustration best reinforces a certain brand and/or message, another could be; Copy/text – what’s the ideal word count or what typeface/font will best express a headline.
Of course, not all websites need to fit these design principles (rules are meant to be broken) but most do and that’s because most are businesses and presenting a Plumber’s website with an abstract, ultra low-vis navigation system just ain’t gonna work (ADA?).
Standardization, consistency, expectation plays a huge role in usability and functional website design. So do all websites look the same? Well, yes lots do. Why? Because it works.
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