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04 30 2008

There are merely the illusion of trends. A trend is a term for whatever the stylists are copying en masse at the time. What are stylists? Stylists are people who are technically proficient with the tools of the trade to create design, but lack knowledge of the design process. Rather than applying the process they simply find something they find cool at the time and reproduce a spin-off of it.

When you create something along the lines of the Web 2.0 look, or a hand drawn look for example, you are assigning attributes to whatever the content happens to be that may or may not be appropriate. Design communicates a visual message to a viewer, and when you communicate the wrong thing, you are failing your client.

In fact, this type of ‘design’ devalues real design. Just look across the blogosphere, look at the bountiful amount of Web 2.0 style sites for companies which have no qualities that fit the stigma that comes with Web 2.0; it just looks pretty. Look at the dozens of illustrative, organic feeling designs that have popped up recently. Someone told me that super-sized text is a new trend (when the size of type is considered a trend, may the Swiss have mercy on our souls).

To put it in one sentence, I really love Wikipedia’s definition of design:

Designing normally requires a designer to consider the aesthetic, functional, and many other aspects of an object or a process, which usually requires considerable research, thought, modeling, interactive adjustment, and re-design.

Everybody’s Doing It!

No. No, they’re not. Think of the industry rockstars; none of their sites look like each others or any others for that matter. There are many knock-offs but they all pale in comparison to the original design. The reason why the remakes can never ascend to that level of design is because the design is no longer communicating. Each personal site design visually encapsulates the personas of many of these people:

Cameron MollCameron Moll’s site, Authentic Boredom; Classy, yet personable.
Elliot Jay StocksElliot Jay Stock’s site; Edgy, a little bit of rebellion.
Shaun InmanShaun Inman’s site; Crisp, clean, minty.

None of the above three sites look the same, nor will you find any other prominent designer’s sites mimicking their style. Can you imagine, say, a law firm in Shaun Inman’s design? No. Even though the site is very clean and professional, it has a certain quality to it that is particular to Shaun. This is the core foundation of design, the very thing that separates the designer from bloke who figured out how to save as HTML from Microsoft Word. Creating anything with disregard to emotions, preconceptions, and message is not design.

If the people many of us look up to are coming up with great visual communications which succeed at communicating the proper ideas, shouldn’t we be following suit? If you do believe in trends, maybe the next one should be unique and communicative.

Thirty-three

Responses

  1. People copy others to try and emulate some of the success of a design. Of course anyone who copies a design just to try and emulate the success is clearly not thinking as a designer should; relevance is everything.

    Of course if it’s one company trying to copy their rival then it’s just amusing to see them both fail.

  2. In particular I really like this idea that it’s not really design if all their doing is copying style.

    Designer v. Stylist seems like a one sided battle though!

  3. Charles Eames stated that design is “a plan for arranging elements.” The elements need to be in place in order to arrange them. To cram elements into a pre-configured arrangement is a bit absurd.

    This really all goes back to why I don’t think designers should use Lorem Ipsum…

  4. @Mark Wuncsh: I completely agree about Lorem Ipsum, in fact; I have a post in progress that I hope to put up soon about the dangers of filler content and placholder images. I’m glad to hear others agree!

  5. Nice post, Kyle. Design and style are two completely separate things. Style is not design. Style is applied to design.

    Also, I have to disagree with you, partially, on filler content and placeholder images. They shouldn’t be relied on, and real content should certainly be the primary source of information when working on a project, if possible. But when working with a simple wireframe, filler content and placeholders can be a good thing.

  6. I agree with you on this. Emulating someone else’s design is not the same as creating something unique to you, and it’s why I recently said no to letting a fairly well known blogger use my theme on his site. Credit to him, he asked and offered full credit, but the design is for me as much as it is for my website.

    Regarding filler content, I agree to an extent, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable and has to be used. But my dislike for using it is always confirmed when I get the actual content, designs change drastically.

  7. that explains why this site and Shaun Inman’s are similar…

  8. This is such an elegantly simple idea. Design is not duplicable because a ‘design’ will inherently be attached to what it is designed for: a certain blogger, a certain purpose, a certain idea that needs to be expressed.

    It’s similar to writing; a little bit of the writer’s personality should shine through.

  9. This is an interesting concept. The distinction between stylist and designer is not made clearly enough to the everyday world, in my opinion. Some — well, to be frank, most — clients would not realize the difference between a fresh new idea and something that was just ripped from another website.

    This leads right into another point: where the line is drawn between innovation and being different for the sake of being different. Innovation by nature has a positive connotation, but too often you see designers trying to be overly unique to the point where their site communicates no real message; only, “Hey, look at me! I’m sublimely different!”

    @Carlos This site looks nothing at all like Inman’s. I’m a dedicated fan of Mint and I have read Shaun’s blog for nearly a year, and I can say with certainty that they have very little in common. Other than a single pixel plus sign (which, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly the peak of innovation for either site; it’s a mathematical symbol, for Christ’s sake) there’s no real similarities.

  10. @Carlos: If you’re going to make accusations like that you should at least explain your reasoning. What, the fact that the logo is in the top left and the menu top right followed by the content below the menu? Sure, the general structure is similar but I wouldn’t say they were that similar.

  11. Definitely a great point Kyle. I haven’t really ever heard the word stylist used like this, but I understand what you’re saying.
    Being new in the design field (if you can consider me “in” it yet), I’m glad I have this stuff to look at.

    @ Carlos: And if the little + signs are what makes this ‘similar’ to Inman’s site, it sure shows that you really paid attention to the entry…

  12. @Cory: To be honest, I’m not sure that ‘stylist’ is the best possible term, but it was the best one I could think of; I see it as merely styling content, rather than designing the layout.

  13. Great article, you make some very valid points.

    I guess the issue really comes down to whether we are merely trying to create a pretty looking picture, or actually try to communicate a message, taking into account what exactly that message is, who is sending it, and who will be receiving it.

    Thinking of something Cameron Moll mentioned in one of his articles (‘Good designers decorate, Great designers communicate’), maybe the term ‘decorator’ would be in place.

  14. Superb article! Often clients have a very specific opinion on how their future website should look like ( web 2.0y of course). I often redirect them to some unique designs that are far from the super-sized / super-shiny / super-colorful mainstream and surprisingly often times they start to get the point of personalized and specific design. But there’s definitely the need of more explanation and guidance by the designer.

  15. “maybe the term ‘decorator’ would be in place.”

    This isn’t just the web we’re talking about. Isn’t there some mythical struggle between “interior designers” and “interior decorators” that I’ve only heard about in legend?

  16. I third the motion for no Lorem Ipsum!

    Good article, Kyle. The process of design is so important to the final “look.” The more time spent up-front in the discovery process, creative direction meetings, etc. pays off exponentially in the end.

    Looking forward to the article about filler content.

  17. A little off topic, but isn’t Lorem Ipsum used used for judging the texture of copy without focusing on the exact content? This is especially useful in a blog or site that is driven by a CMS.

  18. I really like your thinking. You are probably right about the me-too effect that seems to define a ‘design trend’ . You are also right that this is not really design, just mimicry.

    Still, design trends are just that - a pattern that seems to point to certain design techniques being used more than others at any given point in time. Maybe when a design style is overused it’s not a trend - rather it would be more appropriately termed a fad.

    Fad: Ornamental scrolls were pretty, but became heavily overused and are now a dated look.
    Trend: Ornamentalism vs. minimalism - now that minimalism has its counterpart, will these balance each other out?

    Fads: Antlers, birds, skulls and ornate chandelier silhouettes are probably already dead.

    Fad: Hand-drawn teenager-doodle-like lettering is overdone by now and will also date pretty soon.
    Trend: The overall trend of handmade (which hand drawn derives from) will last longer and should be considered a trend.

    Fads die a quick death; trends last longer and are more generally defined. A designer has to discern the difference between fad and trend and try to avoid fad-like elements to create something original that taps into a more overarching trend.

    Great read - I’m glad to have discovered your site!

  19. Much as I find comments which simply state “I agree” a bit dull, I have to say I completely agree with this article.

    Apple’s site has been much-praised by folk, and consequently there are lots of shiny websites around, and “Apple-style” is a popular design trend. Yet the shininess isn’t what makes Apple well designed, it’s the attention to detail and the process, not the result.

  20. Thank you for this article, it is great to read someone who knows the difference between designer and decorator. I hate how popular “trends” are given more importance over well thought out and researched solutions. This is a huge problem present in web design.

    The test I use to see if a web designer is really a good design is task them with a print job. If it comes out looking just like a website then you know they are hack. Its very sad, but the web has turned designers into style whores.

  21. I will agree with you, but then again trends does not start with one person making something new and special, and then some people copy the work and make it a tad bit different. Designers will always be inspired and affected by what we see, hear and touch through a day.

  22. @Carlos: While you are welcome to your own opinion, I will firmly say that this design is in no way related Shaun’s beautiful work. I see nothing similar beyond the use of tick marks for a grid in the background, and even that is quite different, and for different purposes. I have used it to provide a subtle grey color to help balance the design since it is left aligned and without that subtle hint the design feels terribly off. Shaun on the other hand, is using the same element to create a texture behind his site and reinforce his grid.

    As far as typography goes, if using Helvetica marks a design in such a way, then I’d hate to see your opinion of many, many works not only on the web but in print. As for the layout of the site, the two grids are quite different, and the overall structure is quite traditional; with the exception of the large empty column to the left hand side of my content. I keep that space open for visual interest and to assist with the flow of natural Western eye movement (left to right, top to bottom) from the logo to the main body of content.

    I have planned on writing a lengthy article on the decisions I made when creating this design, and perhaps that will dispel your beliefs a bit better. I also recommend you read Use Your Real Name When You Comment by the excellent folks at iA Japan; because in all honesty, your accusation lacks credibility rather severely.

    Have a nice day.

    @Everyone else: Thanks for your continued discussion, I’m happy to see that people agree or haven’t thought about such things before.

    Cheers.

  23. @ Ole Martin Kristiansen: I agree about to be inspired of what we see, but, I believe that this extends our possibilities to make better design decisions to a particular project, not to use style over client needs.

    From Wikipedia
    A trend is something that somehow becomes popular within mainstream society over a long period of time. It is the direction of a sequence of events that has some momentum and durability.

  24. Nice article. Trends should not be overestimated. Webdesign is not web analytics. Do it because it fits your project not because it is a trend.

    I do believe there are general aesthetic trends which go beyond webdesign. It’s a combinatinon of fashion, advertising, architecture, graphic design, product design, traditional art…I don’t think one of those fields of knowledge pull the wagon, it’s a reciprocal thing. Everyone is inspired by everyone. When you look at a telephone made in the 60’s, you don’t have to know it was made back then to know it is a 60’s design.

  25. Thanks alot, I was trying to be unique as fad. Now I have a better understanding on the whole design thing.

  26. Some really good points here, man; both in the article and the comments. And thanks for including me!

    I think, though, that some design is – shock horror – just about ‘looking pretty’ rather than answering a brief or offering a solution to a problem. Take the background image to my site, for example. if someone emulates (or even just steals it), they’re not being original – of course not – but in a sense they’re not necessarily lacking in relevance to their own brief. It might be, for instance, that the background image from my site is actually better suited to somebody else’s site. After all, I created it as an image that was pleasing to – and somewhat representative of – me, and although they’d lack that relevance or context by emulating or stealing it, it’s possible that they might gain it in another way.

    Oh god, why have I just shot myself in the foot? I guess I’m just playing devil’s advocate. Admittedly, this situation is rare, 99% of thoughtless copying and theft is unjustified, and… I’ll still kill ya if you steal my graphics. ;)

    Great article, as always!

  27. This article is great and even other post. i always believe that there’s “no trends in design”. I also believe that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In my opinion, if you are a freelance web designer, the client should follow what kind of design they really want(but you can suggest your creative mind if you think that will helpfull). For example, as you can see in oracle they want their website as clean as impossible. grungy, sketch, water color design they’really great but when it comes to client, sometimes there’s no room for that. That is my own opinion. For elliot jays stock I saw his portfolio and he is really a good designer. In his web design work he is very flexible for all the clients.

    By the way keep up your great article.
    I’m Jonathan Concepcion 23yrs old from Manila.

  28. Great article! :)

  29. I always knew we web-designers were actually hairdressers in disguise… Cool… I’m off to give my sites a blue rinse…

    I think all the points raised are quite valid, however, it misses the evolutionary aspect of design and creativity in general… we all learn from each other… people who copy/plagiarise are called pirates/cheaters, people who mimic are either children or hair-stylists…

    good stuff… good read

  30. Good article, you make some good points, but are a little overzealous in some things. I think we’re all maybe needing to get off of our soap boxes. By the way, check out this article by none other than Cameron Moll “Good designers copy, great designers steal” http://www.sitepoint.com/article/copy-great-designers-steal/
    Originality vs. Copying and Designing vs. Styling may be two different topics no?

  31. There are no trends in design?
    Dude, I so want to buy you a dictionary. Please, go a head and look up the word “TREND”. Also, I’d be amused to hear your definition of Web 2.0. Please, seriously…

    A trend is a term for whatever blahblahblah… What are stylists… lack the knowledge of the design process but have the tools.

    Eh, WTF ARE YOU BLABBERING ABOUT?

    Every profession has tools. Stylists, Designers, Carpenters, Doctors, Lawyers… etc. You can give anyone of these professionals a tool to aid in the completion of their job but if they lack the knowledge of how to effectively apply the tool they will fail at completing the task properly.

    Next to your ineffective ability to critique design and web trends (dare I use the word trends!) it might be smart for you to seek out an editor before publishing your ‘thoughts’ online.

    “When you create something along the lines of the Web 2.0 look, or a hand drawn look for example, you are assigning attributes to whatever the content happens to be that may or may not be appropriate. Design communicates a visual message to a viewer, and when you communicate the wrong thing, you are failing your client.”

    Your thoughts are not clear when you’ve used words such as something, along the lines, attributes, whatever, happens to be, may or may not be appropriate to formulate/express a thought.
    Basically what I’m saying is, wtf are you talking about? Where was the wrong thing that failed to communicate to the client? I am so confused of the point of that paragraph.

    And… “Design communicates a visual message to a viewer… “
    duh… who would have thought? Thanks for stating the obvious!

    Sorry to be rude, but I didnt bother to finish the rest of the article cause I couldn’t comprehend/believe the idiocy of the first two paragraphs.

    p.s.
    Good designers copy, great designers steal.

  32. Hi Christine,

    Thanks for your constructive criticism. :)