Does It Matter That So Many Websites Look The Same?

WebsitesOver the last couple of years, startup and business website design settled around a few recognizable themes: large hero images with contrasting text, a vertical layout with large icons / images and concise text, navigation in a banner across the top which may or may not be sticky, and so on. We all recognize this design — AirBNB might be considered the paradigmatic example.

Some in the web design community have a problem with this sort of design. It lacks imagination, it’s not radical, and for a designer who loves a challenge, implementing such a site is frankly boring.

Startups and small — and not-so-small — businesses gravitate to this design because revolutionizing web design is not their concern. It’s not a bad way to solve the problem of arranging text and images for a scrolling medium like the web. It’s relatively easy to make a site like this responsive — especially with the advent of flexbox. There are hundreds of themes for content management systems and web frameworks that businesses can choose from.

It’s a design that works and is fast and inexpensive to implement — important considerations for a business without time and money to burn on fancy web design.

Over the course of centuries, the basic design of the print book was refined to a specific pattern: fixed page sizes, well understood typographical rules, conventions for front and end matter. No one complains that book design is boring.

A book is a technology for reading, and in its refined form is pretty much perfectly suited to its purpose — so much so that eBooks and the web still don’t have the same quality of reading experience.

Of course, there are books that push the limits of what a book can do. There are beautiful, unique, original book designs. But it would be unreasonable to argue that every hardback or paperback novel should be as fabulously original as a limited-run art book. The basic book design is a strong baseline — it does its job and it does it well.

That’s why it’s OK that many websites conform to a fixed set of patterns — they work, they’re pretty (enough), and — most importantly — they convey the information they’re intended to convey. And, within the constraints of the form, there is plenty of room for variation.

You might argue that the oft-repeated form is not good design: that it doesn’t meet the conditions it sets out to meet, but that’s a different argument altogether. Popularity and ubiquity are not anti-design: spoons look the same but we don’t excoriate spoon makers for their lack of imagination.

It’s sensible for businesses and startups to stick to a known good form, and it won’t stop the web design world from innovating. There will always be brave creative designers pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to present content on the web. But not every business wants to be a leader in web design — they want a site that works and doesn’t cost them the earth.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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