How can you fit in and stand out?

There are broad trends in landing page design, which leads to tweets like this:

which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing?

Even designers’ portfolios—which could be a playground of creativity—often aren’t very original, which leads to tweets like this:

Designers:

<h1>:wave: I’m {name}, a multidisciplinary designer based in {location}, with a focus on {ability} and a love of {creative quirk}</h1>

The mocking tone of these tweets shows that some designers believe it’s better to stand out. To be fair there are practical benefits. For example, whether or not you’re hired might depend on how impressed someone is with your work, and work that stands out is more impressive, all other things kept equal.

Advertising is relevant here. When I read advertiser John Hegarty’s “Hegarty on Creativity” I realised that it wasn’t very helpful for a software designer. It focused on the idea that “different is better”; when everyone else in the advertising industry zigs you can find success if you zag.

But different is not always better in software design. In the majority of cases the product of a software designer’s work is a tool. It was built for a purpose.

Both advertising and software design sit on a spectrum which stretches from fine arts—like painting—to applied arts—like architecture. Applied art is still art—there’s room for personal expression—but the difference is that the result of applied art is produced to serve a definite purpose.

Unlike in fine arts, it’s important that the product of an applied arts process is usable. One of the easiest ways to make something usable is to make it familiar. If a person picks up a tool and it is similar to another tool they have used, they’re able to use it more easily. For software designers this is codified in Jakob’s Law of Internet UX:

Users spend most of their time on other websites.

This benefit of familiarity means that it is important to fit in. But this need to fit in limits how much you can stand out. After all, an easy way to stand out is to make something less familiar, but as you move away from familiarity you might also move away from usability.

A painful example is websites that are featured on the Awwwards website. They’re often beautiful, but just as often unusable.

I don’t want to suggest that it’s best to not stand out. Beauty is important. There are practical and commercial reasons to stand out. Instead I want to suggest that in software design there will always be a natural and fascinating tension between whether you should fit in or stand out.

As for the title of this post: is there a way to do both? I’ve found the best way is to fit in with large decisions and stand out with small decisions. Your information architecture should be as familiar as possible. Your microcopy can live a little. The smaller the decision you make, the more you can be creatively free. Typeface quirks, touches of unexpected colour, and fun animations are all low risk.

To put it another way, a house with only three walls is too much. A house with colourful window frames might be just enough.