The fight between creativity and consistency
There was something amazing about Myspace, something you often don’t see on the internet these days; true freedom of creativity.
Personally, I spent hours on Myspace. Tweaking my page’s colours. Choosing the right song for my profile.
It had to be perfect. It had to represent me.
Myspace allowed me to teach myself HTML and CSS. Not saying that I am a developer or anything, but it gave me a pretty basic understanding.
You don’t really get that kind of wild, unhindered creativity anymore. Even the likes of Instagram still have very rigid rules on what size images need to be.
What’s crazy though, is this isn’t just my opinion. Science has shown that the internet is getting less creative.
The web is getting less artistic
A study by Indiana University explored over 10,000 websites between the period of 2008 and 2016.
What they found was the use of colours, layouts and images became less diversified and had greater similarities over time.
This is despite the tools available to web designers and developers being much greater than they were back in 2008.
What’s going on here?
Spend a while thinking about it and it starts to become clear…
Let’s take a look at biology (trust me on this one folks…).
In 1859, Charles Darwin published his Origins of Species. In it, he proposed the idea of Natural Selection. The idea that resources are limited, that those traits that allow an animal to obtain its fair share of resources are more likely to pass on those traits to the next generation.
Now let’s spin the microscope back on the internet. Resources, such as the number of visitors, download speeds, even the top spaces on search engines like Google, are all limited. Websites need to fight to survive.
Those that are successful, are rewarded, and the traits which made those websites successful are copied and improved upon by competitors or other websites.
Essentially, websites have evolved, carrying successful traits forwards.
But what’s driven the changes?
Show me the money!
In 2008 over 25% of businesses didn’t even have a website or online presence.
Since then, as the internet crept more into our daily lives, as smartphone usage grew, and internet connections improved, the importance of online presences increased.
Business websites became essential in exploring products and services.
To succeed, it was vital that websites were hitting the top spots of search engines. Those users were staying on the website and contacting.
A website became a critical marketing and sales function.
And with that, performance became a key driver of that evolution.
Sure, that means that designers use fewer rainbow cat gifs and flashing text banners on websites these days, but that proves that websites now consider their users, more than their creators. And surely that’s a good thing?
Any good website built these days will be responsive. What does responsive design mean? It’s the ability for a website to change how it looks to a user depending on the device they are using.
In the early days on the internet, if you wanted a website to work on a desktop and mobile device, you would need to have two different websites designed and built.
If someone viewed it on a desktop, one version of the website would show up. If someone viewed it on a mobile, a different version would appear.
Then along came responsive design, which allows for only one website to be built, one that reorganises how the website appeared on different devices.
To design in a responsive way, designers need to be clever about how they create websites and think inclusively. They have to explore how a design or feature will work not just on one device, but all devices.
Responsive website design is a dynamic design. You don’t design once – you design for every possibility.
Ultimately this delivers a much better experience for a website visitor. Say a user originally visits a website on a desktop. They learn how to navigate around and find the information they’re looking for.
At a later date, the revisit the website. But this time they use a mobile device instead.
Sure, the website might initially look different, but because the site is responsive and adaptive, all the same information is there and in the same structure. They’re able to navigate around the same. They get a consistent experience.
And a consistent experience helps users build trust with a website. The greater the trust, the more credible the website becomes. The more credible a website is, the greater the chance of conversions.
This is a whole new level of creativity, born from evolution.
SEO is another evolutionary driver.
As mentioned earlier, businesses began to want to appear higher on search engine rankings.
And it’s understandable. Obtaining the first-place position on Google can give you a 30% increase in traffic to your website!
Yet to achieve a high ranking on search engines like Google, you need to play by their rules.
How you structure your website, the quality of content, the amount of content. All these and more contribute to how your website will rank on Google.
As a result of these rules, it becomes hard to break these boundaries without affecting business performance.
But is this impacting creativity, or is it strengthening it?
Google spends a lot of time researching how people use the web. Their research then informs algorithm changes that affect how websites rank in search results.
Their algorithms are based on intent. Google needs to show the user the results they expect, otherwise, they may decide to start using other search engines to get the information…
To rank high on Google, you need to give your target audience what they want.
This means that designers have to deeply consider the user when creating a website. They have to consider how a user navigates a website. How information needs to be presented on a website. How the branding has to fit in with all this.
All whilst making sure SEO guidelines are met.
This expands creativity to more than just how the website looks. Considerations on its structure, its coding, the layouts, and more all begin to play a part.
So we’ve already looked at how designers now have to consider responsive design and SEO, making great web design far more challenging than it used to be, but that’s not all…
Anyone who has read about user experience (UX), has probably come across Jakob’s Law.
Simply put, it states:
Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.
Users do not want to spend time learning how to use your website. In simple terms, they want it to work in a familiar way.
Let’s take ecommerce websites as an example. Pretty much every ecommerce site uses a cart, basket or bag icon to indicate where the items you want to buy are kept.
Therefore, if you were to build an ecommerce site, would you opt for using the same icon, or something different like an apple?
You would follow the convention, right? To use a different icon would only be confusing, and users wouldn’t know where to look. You would make fewer sales.
As these conventions build and become more universal, the strongest design traits survive.
One in ten people in the world has a disability. And many of those disabilities impact how people can interact with devices and the web, including both physical and visual disabilities.
And let’s be honest, the early web very rarely considered how accessible it was to those with a disability.
Websites using software like Flash, or high-contrast colours, were all the rage in the ’00s. Sure, they added to the early creative energy of the web, but they prevented accessibility to a large section of the population.
Accessibility makes the web a fairer place for all and is another consideration in great web design.
Creativity’s place in evolution
Design conventions make using the web easier for people.
Users visit a website to achieve a task, be that getting directions, buying a product, discovering a recipe or researching a topic.
The novelty of a website that indulges its creators’ artistic urges, like in the early days of the web, are long gone. Users now expect a refined experience, a fast and intuitive structure, one that works across all devices seamlessly.
But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for creativity. Creativity still has a vital role, even in the B2B space, it’s there to make brands memorable and distinctive.
Web design has evolved. It is no longer about flashing colours, making wild guesses about what will work or just throwing random GIFs all over a page.
It is about research, intelligence and insights – discovering what people want and offering them that in a way that is visually appealing and useful.
Creativity can be applied to these processes, but also has a place in building brand recognition and distinctiveness.
This has advanced web creativity from an art to a science.
There is a reason why I referenced Darwin early on; survival of the fittest. The web has evolved to what it is because we, as a society, have decided it should be that way. Now those decisions may have been conscious or unconscious, but we have decided upon them because they work for us.
And, as a result, creativity has a new place, alongside those boundaries we have set up as a society. It’s not possible to force new ways of doing things onto people. Instead, we need to take what people want and need and introduce better ways of doing what is already expected.
Designing for the web is a greater creative challenge than it’s ever been, but this evolution delivers better experiences.