John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

Going Creative in Web Design

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I recently read Andrew Clarke’s chapter in the latest Smashing Magazine book about Creativity (or lack thereof) in current website design. His’s argument is that website designers are too obsessed with ‘UX’ and using well established design methodologies that give highly usable websites - but within designs that are not especially memorable or inspiring.

You can watch a video of his talk here:

My background is similar to Andrew’s. We both studied Fine Art and are self taught in graphic and website design. I share his passion for more concept driven design and a desire for the design of a website to be not just about usability but identity and uniqueness as well. And importantly, this is not just visual creativity but the atmosphere or feel of the site. Something that is incredibly valuable in building emotional engagement but also rather intangible.

Andrew remembers the PG tips adverts with the chimpanzees and Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like advertising campaigns that were unique, memorable and did fantastic things for those brands. These are campaigns that are driven by the concept much more than the design nuances in their execution.

There’s a lot of well established conventions in website design that, as designers, we automatically roll out as solutions to certain problems, because we know they work. We split our pages up into one, two or three columns, with an image, some headline text, perhaps a byline and then some body text. The designs look good. They have a style guide and the grid, colour palette, typography and re-use of modular components ensures consistency and reassurance for visitors across the site.

The visual designs are very attractive and support the content appropriately. Some specific elements are introduced to the visual language to make the site a bit more unique to the brand and it’s a well structured website that can be happily iterated and grown for the next few years.

But they are not truly unique. To draw a parallel with Fine Art, they’re all of the same movement. We’re all using more or less the same visual language with subtle variations from one site to another.

15 years ago, when web design was more of the wild west and the rules were still being written - there was a lot more experimentation in the design, architecture and expected user experiences, because none of us (users and designers alike) really knew what the best practices were.

What Andrew Clarke is arguing is we should make more effort to design as if it were 2001. To pretend the countless articles on usability studies and best practices didn’t exist. To come up with a design concept first and figure out how to turn this into a highly usable website second. And more than this perhaps - to include a Creative Director role to oversee the design process, with an understanding of the brand and how it should feel to customers, not just how it should look.

To my mind though, TV advertising isn’t a comparable media. As viewers - we have an understanding of the transaction taking place watching a TV ad. We sit back for 30 seconds, knowing a company is going to try and impress us with how clever they are and if they manage to impress us, we might buy their products. There’s no interactivity going on at this stage. The company will introduce a creative idea, that might amuse or spark our interest and by implication a positive association with their brand. There’s no learning curve or expectation of skill or knowledge from a TV advert - the medium does everything for us. As viewer we can just sit back and enjoy.

Usually the company advertising is one of many in their sector and they need to engage a customer on an emotional level. The functionality of the product or service is pretty much the same as the alternatives. The Creative Director knows that getting emotional buy-in based on the spirit of the advert is more likely to be successful than trying to sell the nuances of that product’s best feature.

Online, we have to use a different term for viewer. They become a User. The TV ad might have inspired this person to then visit the company website, and it’s important the visual design of the website is clearly the same company they’ve seen advertised on TV - but it needs to be usable, informative and intuitive first and foremost.

So I still believe the user research, product functionality, content architecture and basic foundations of UX and UI need to come first. Which is, I think what’s happening on many reasonably well designed websites now. Because they’re interactive products - users can’t be expected to have to pick up an entirely new conceptual model for each website they visit. The rules and design solutions being used on websites do need to be consistent across the web. Of course we should still try and innovate and try out new ideas, but carefully and in measured doses.

The art directed website has a place. I’m certainly not arguing against it. But I think it’s the icing on the cake and has to come at the end of a project rather than built in from the start.

In the process of designing/developing websites, most prove themselves to be more complicated than anyone ever really expects. No matter how much initial research and planning you do - new problems and unanswered questions always crop up mid way through. So any available resource is better spent being able address these rather than the inspiring creative concepts.

It pains me to write this. I think of myself as a creative and am usually pushing for getting the more challenging creative ideas accepted into designs - but I also believe creativity is just a part of the bigger Design process and design is fundamentally more about how things work than how they look. So, sadly, the more conceptual creative direction is better being brought in on an already established and successful website as part of a process of progressive enhancement.

UPDATE
After writing this yesterday, I read this article today and it's a fantastic read on the sameness of design found across so many modern websites. In many respects it makes a great argument for the importance of considering design direction and uniqueness in web design. However, I think the comparisons still keep coming back to design trends found in print. Which (similar to the user/viewer distinction compared to TV advertising) is still not an entirely valid argument. Print can be much more unique and editorially led because it isn't interactive and responsive.

yes it would be amazing to get more of these design traits into website design - but I think there are other greater strengths of websites that might end up being sacrificed to get there.

It's a great article however and really worth a read. I'm book marking it for myself to refer back to because I still want to be able to test my designs against some of these arguments and make sure I'm not living up to them out of choice and awareness rather than laziness.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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