The dust has settled from the introduction of Responsive Web Design (RWD), and we’ve honed design patterns that adapt well across devices. This has led to those same design patterns appearing on site, after site, after site. But few people seem to be celebrating this trend. Does it mean we’ve lost our desire to innovate, or is it that web design reaching a new level of maturity?

Before I dive into why you should be happy about the lack of innovation in web design patterns and what needs to come next, let’s talk about zippers.

Consider the Zipper

The first zipper was invented in 1851 by Elias Howe, but things in zipper-dom didn’t pick-up until the modern day version of the zipper was created in 1913. That’s over 100 years ago. It worked then, and it’s still working now.

Well… mostly. I’m looking at you, fly on my maroon pants.

Innovation is driven by need. We haven’t needed a new version of the zipper, because the current one is good enough that no one has bothered to redesign or innovate it.

A New Era of Zippers

The zippers we all know can only zip in one direction. They can go around corners, like on suitcases, but that’s about the end of its adaptability. If you try to curve it laterally, it’ll just lock up in a column.

Wendy Howard wanted to be able to use a zipper on a three-dimensional garment or object, so she invented a zipper that can go around curves.

Source: http://www.pdesigni.com/features/show/8454

The design of the old zipper wasn’t good enough for Wendy. Her need for a curving, adaptable zipper was a great enough need for her, so she innovated a new one called the ZipZag.

The ZipZag looks like a normal zipper. It works like a normal zipper. But it can do so much more. Each zip on the tape can move independently, allowing for flexibility and suppleness even on curves and three-dimensional objects.

It’s like the zippers of yore, but infinitely more adaptable (or, dare I say, responsive?) to different situations.

“Good Enough” Web Design

“Good Enough” is where we’re at with web design. Most sites don’t have that need for innovation, as the common patterns we’re seeing over and over are accomplishing their goals reasonably well under ideal circumstances.

In Maciej Cegłowski’s, “Web Design: The First 100 Years,” he argues that we’re reaching a point of “good enough” in web design. People are moving away from super fast laptops towards slower mobile devices for the convenience, not performance. It’s not that we can’t innovate, but the need to isn’t as great. As for building websites, there’s really only one noble goal: to “connect knowledge, people, and cats.”

“The web we have right now is beautiful. It shatters the tyranny of distance. It opens the libraries of the world to you. It gives you a way to bear witness to people half a world away, in your own words. It is full of cats. We built it by accident, yet already we’re taking it for granted.”
– Maciej Cegłowski. Web Design: The First 100 Years

Responsive Design meets that challenge head-on, and the common design patterns we’re using are delivering that content reasonably well to users on whatever device they’re using.

It’s Not About Your Design

If you agree that our goal as web developers and designers is to “connect knowledge, people, and cats,” then our designs aren’t the focus. People don’t go online to look at all the new web designs being launched. People go online for content.

So, why do we hear a far-off, sad-trumpet playing when we see the same design patterns over and over? Do you hear that sad-trumpet when you get to the footer of a site?

“Oh, LAME, they’re using a footer on their site? Those are so overused,” said no one, ever.

The design patterns aren’t to blame (usually). It’s the content.

For example, Font Awesome was an essential part of web design progress that allowed a huge icon set to be quickly integrated into any site’s content.

Now Font Awesome is extremely overused, which was how it was set-up to be. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it’s used so often by content creators and designers that didn’t care to create genuinely useful content.

When content is disingenuous, we feel like the website creators are wasting our time. Font Awesome icons have been generalized to the point of meaninglessness, or, worse – to the point that when we see them, we assume the content and product is generic and not worth our time. It’s not Font Awesome’s fault. It’s ours.

The same goes for when we try to read “20 Amazingly Cute Cats That Will Explode Your Brain With Cuteness.” We click to it, get greeted by an ad, try to click to close it but the click registers to “like” it, then it loads the ad page, but we were just trying to close it, so we try to go back, the ad loads again and we sit through it this time, then the article finally loads and it’s a picture on each page instead of one page of all the images, etc.

That site’s goal isn’t to “connect knowledge, people, and cats.” It’s to generate ad-revenue at the expense of its unfortunate users.

To combat everything unnecessary that gets in the way of the content, Brad Frost released Death to Bullshit. Here’s how to create a great website, according to his death-to-bullshit-i-festo:

  • Respect people and their time.
  • Respect your craft.
  • Be sincere.
  • Create genuinely useful things.

– Brad Frost. Death to Bullshit

We don’t need more innovation in web design’s visual styles, we need more genuine content. Because if you’re accomplishing the goals of your client and user, it doesn’t matter if you innovated design styles or not.

It’s Still About Your Design

I’m not trying to throwing content creators under the bus here. Web designers are still to blame when we intentionally create awful processes at the expense of our users. We need to stand back and let the content shine, not make our site styles the focus.

Back in the old days of web design, we constantly pushed boundaries to see how unique our site could look, to push the limits of the medium. We’re maturing now where we’ve seen what works well and what doesn’t work. It’s a giant collective iteration.

We’ve also realized the benefits of sharing design patterns across websites. You click the hamburger icon, and a menu shows up. This is a good thing. Users don’t need to learn a new icon for every site. Reuse of these conventions is helping people use sites more effectively.

When your design lets the content be the focus, your design succeeds. It’s about the content. If the site is about the design, then reconsider your focus.

What’s Left to Innovate with Web Design?

So far, I’ve said our common design patterns are “good enough.”

I lied.

They’re “good enough” for a limited section of our users. Specifically, for sighted users on modern devices with fast connections. For everyone else, they’re awful.

A full-background, parallax image might be worth the 1mb to you while you’re sitting at your desktop, but to someone on a terrible connection with an old device, that 1mb is worse than worthless. It’s preventing them from getting the content they wanted.

We have to change what we think of as a solid design pattern. It can’t just be visually responsive across devices, it has to be accessible across devices for all users.

The future of web design is not going to be shinier, more glamorous, win you web awwwards, or get you likes on dribbble. We have to innovate for our users that have been neglected by the designs that dominate the current state of the web.

This is too important to not repeat it: Innovation in web design will make content more accessible.

And people are innovating. Srcset and sizes is allowing browsers to pick the appropriate sized image to download based on device, critical CSS is bringing faster perceived load times, and ARIA attributes are allowing inaccessible designs and zippy javascript frameworks like Angular and React become accessible.

All of these innovations and more are making content more accessible.

Onwards

It’s not going to be easy, but the alternative is that our websites are only built to serve sighted users on modern devices with fast internet connections. That doesn’t sound very accessible, inclusive, noble, or morally right to me.

Let’s not forget though, that websites in their pure form are accessible. It’s mostly our designs getting in the way of our content, then us innovating to implement inaccessible, slow websites in an accessible way. We can’t let our “innovation” take us backwards.

In the eloquent words of This is a Mother Fucking Website:

“…you have no fucking idea what a website is. All you have ever seen are shitty skeuomorphic bastardizations of what should be text communicating a fucking message.”

Let’s innovate universal access to content, not design trends. The simpler and more accessible our design patterns become, the better we’ll be able to communicate the fucking message.