Is web design stuck?

Are we really stuck in a rut concerning the design and layout trends on the web, or are we meditating among accessible beauty? There’s been a lot of talk recently about the mimicry of web design right now and how we seem to build the same stuff with the same frameworks which result in the same designs as everyone else.

The claim is that when the web first started we experimented liberally with content and layouts. Nothing was forbidden. Then somehow we ended up where we are today—a large header, narrow column of text, a possible sidebar, and a footer. Very grid-like and simple. There’s nothing visually stimulating anymore.

common layout

Doesn’t almost every website look like the above? And if we are building responsively, websites tend to follow this pattern below:

common responsive layout

And this is the crux of the argument—the proof that we’re stuck in a rut. But there’s a difference between art and design as John Maeda so elegantly stated:

Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.

So before we throw away the layouts of today in favor of something more artsy, we need to take a step back and ask ‘why’. Why are these common layouts beings used? Why are these patterns so prevalent across the web? The answer comes back to this question: Are you designing to solve a problem, or creating art to provoke thought? Web design is primarily about the the transfer of information. It’s about creating an environment in which the user can receive what’s being communicated. This is true of all users and should be true for the majority of websites. And this is why our websites today have taken on similar form—that form is following function.

Something needs to be communicated whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a thought, and these are only communicated when something on the other end is receiving this transfer of information. The world is full of humans who interpret or receive that information in various ways. So as designers we think about solutions. Often times this leads to very straight forward layouts that are accessible by all humans on any device. High contrast, proper hierarchical text, narrow line lengths, and simplified structures all tend to provide the best form of communicating across the web. We’re meditating among accessible beauty, and we shouldn’t be so quick to disregard it.

But this doesn’t have to be true for every case. If a website’s purpose is to cause questions or evoke an uneasy feeling, then the solution is to be experimental or artsy. But the good majority of websites are there to transfer information, and this common layout rut seems to effectively accomplish that task in the most accessible way. Everything you add to the content only hinders the transfer of information. So where’s the trade-off? How creative can one get and still communicate easily? That’s where we’re still having fun.

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