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Design agencies are holding us back by trying to stand out

I was reading "About Face", Cooper's book on design process, and this line got me thinking:

Though users almost never notice good visual hierarchy, a bad one will jump out for its confusion and difficulty.

You've probably come across this idea before, that something well crafted won't stand out. I've heard it said about film soundtracks, for example: If it's well composed, it should fade into the background.

The same can be said about interface design: An interface should exist to serve a purpose, rather than serving itself, and should get out of the way of whatever the user came to do. The easier they can accomplish their task, the better.

I think one path to getting out of the way is establishing standards and best practices. Someone in the 80s tried a few different ideas for an interface component, and found that one was easier to understand than the others. Then, other people saw that it worked well, and started using it in their own interfaces. Soon, these designs became "patterns". As the people using our software notice these patterns more and more, they become used to them, and eventually STOP noticing them. The design gets out of the way because it's familiar.

Of course, some designers consider themselves artists and aren't very happy with everything being similar. See Jon Gold's well-known tweet, for example.

Incidentally, I love the design of Jon Gold's blog, but I think his home page is trying to stand out too much.

Designers considering themselves artists, and wanting to be known for their work, leads them to create work which stands out. One way to stand out, unfortunately, is to ignore best practices and make something that looks and feels different.

The best examples of this reaction I've come across are design agency websites. Design agencies probably make most of their money on bog-standard websites like those in Jon Gold's tweet, but their own websites are very often screaming for attention.

Take Zero, for example.

Despite their name being "Zero", which literally means "nothing", their website is heavy enough that it needs a loading bar. Once it's loaded, you see a full screen animation where their name is repeated 50 times, which is about as far away from the concept of their name as you can get.

As you scroll down the page (Assuming you want to see what they've worked on at this point), you do get a pleasantly minimal list of their projects, but only until you accidentally mouse over one of the links, at which point a background images flashes up before disappearing again, making you think that the image loaded incorrectly.

I'm not suggesting that Zero is worse than others - I'm sure their designers are more accomplished than I am - but it's a shame when designer/artists rebel in this way. It does damage to the progress that best practices have delivered.

As a counter point to my own argument, design needs to be considered in the context of what it's trying to achieve. In the case of design agencies, they're trying to sell their work to clients. This means I'm not the best person to judge how well the websites are designed, because I'm not the client of a design agency. "Out-there" design is probably quite impressive to the buyer at a client organisation. When you're paying a lot of money for a website, you want to make a splash. You want to be able to show your new website to your buddies at the golf club and gloat about it. You don't want something that looks like any other website, despite those websites being based on proven ideas.

You want a website that screams YOU.

However, I'd argue that hiring an agency with such a strong stance on non-standard website design is more likely to get you a website that screams THEM, instead.

For more examples of what I'm talking about, see just about any of the winners of the 2017 Webby awards, which should be called the "Difficult to use" awards.

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