Have we reached a plateau of digital design?

by Emma Sherwood-Forbes and Nour Tabet for ixda16
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Through our quest to optimize user experience, we have reached what feels like a plateau in digital design. For better or worse, it seems like we have successfully simplified our interfaces, turning interaction into a series of repeated patterns. Designs have fallen flat, minimal and somewhat similar wherever we surf.

Emma and I met at graduate school, pursuing MFAs in Graphic Design. I now work at Huge as an Art Director, tackling projects from landing pages to educational apps for teens. Emma is a Director of Digital Product Design at Cooper in San Francisco, where she does interaction design, visual design, and strategy for agencies and digital product companies.

We often talk about the state of design in our separate worlds, and we’ve found ourselves a bit bothered by something: we feel like we’re swimming in a vast sea of design sameness. The same styles and solutions are filling up our screens, infecting project briefs, and invading our own creative processes.

We’re not just talking about visual design. We’re talking about interaction design as well, about the way the digital world behaves and not just what it looks like. We’re talking about infinite scrolling AND Proxima Nova. These considerations have become inseparable. They inform each other to create an experience. And sometimes it feels like we’re having the same experience over and over.

We’re definitely not the only people having this discussion. There are loads of articles on the current design situation and about the Dribbblisation of design: how work is presented without context. The so-called democratization of design is on everyone’s minds, too, the effect of the pattern libraries, templates and platforms for $8/month. All of this contributes to this sea of sameness.

Why do so many sites share this incredibly limited visual language, why do so many problems have this same solution? Have we decided this is it, we’re done?

Thing is, the sameness sells design short. There’s no character, no spark, no emotion. It’s not memorable. And worse still, there’s little reason for the design choices made. The way it looks and behaves simply makes the site a member of the sameness club. As Peter Mendelsund would put it, it’s wearing design camouflage.

If we stop here, if we call our job done when we create this, we alter the perception of what design can and should do, of what it entails. We sell ourselves and our industry short.

How does our creative process lead us to make things that look and behave the same way? There are lot of obvious reasons as to why are here.

For one, we all have access to the same sources of inspiration. We supply them and we feed from them. We browse interfaces on dribbble, behance, ui parade, even pinterest. We look at sites on Awwwards, the FWA, Typewolf, SiteInspire. There’s even Trendlist, trying to stay on the front edge of more hipster design.

We’re all looking at the same things! And when the trend changes, we all move with it, all together, all brought together by the internet. And we’re not the only ones watching — our clients are too! They see their competitors’ success and ask us to “get inspired” by their styles.

What used to be “Make it look like Apple” is now “Make it look like Google.” It is only natural that clients want to mimic a certain style that others had success with. Copying is very efficient.

And copying ensures we’re not making a mistake, right? Everything might look the same, but sometimes there’s a good reason! Our industry has been around for a while at this point, and we’ve developed really solid best practices based on research and behavioral science.

We’ve done an excellent job of defining and reinforcing patterns that make the digital world easy to understand. From nav patterns to buttons, we have great shortcuts that are instantaneously recognizable to our users.

Also, technology moves really fast. That ubiquitous enormous hero image or ambient background video? These gained popularity in part because we finally have the bandwidth to serve up the assets. Tech limitations and possibilities are informing our design choices. Whenever there’s something new it is only natural that we all migrate together towards it. And we all want to use it because it’s the new hotness.

It’s like we’re playing catch up with emerging technologies, so we’re all building the same things.

And we’re also building WITH the same things. We’re deeply influenced by our tools. We shape them and they shape us, right? Anyone here a fan of Sketch? Me too! It’s my #1 right now, super easy and efficient. But it definitely encourages a certain outcome. It’s much easier to create a gorgeous flat color field in Sketch than it is to create a ripped-paper collage, say. And we almost don’t even need design software. We can download a UI kit from anywhere, a palette from colour lovers, and bring it all together with free google fonts from fontpair. We can download Bootstrap or use SquareSpace or Wix publish a site, or something like The Grid the claims to be an AI designer.

All our valuable best practices are nicely packaged up, easy to implement. We can assemble a landing page in a day, a store in two, and a dev-ready product in a week — yeah, I’m not saying it will be amazing, but it will be done. When crunched for time or out of ideas, it’s tempting to just use ready made solutions.

Beyond time and budgets, I’ll admit — it takes extra effort to step outside and consider new possibilities. It’s comfortable to rely on the sameness, and hard to keep pushing when you think the answer has already been found.

Who reading this made some lovely flat designs two years ago and is now adding a bit of that hard shadow? Who hopped right on board with hamburger menus? We know we did!

The sameness is easy to feel bad about, easy to hate. But actually when we sum up all these reasons of why the sameness exists we realize that they’re also raising the bar.

That sameness actually looks pretty good and is usable. At this point, it’s like there is no excuse for bad design. Bad design is dead. Making it easy to create products that are nice to look at and easy to use is a positive thing. If we really are on a plateau, it’s a pretty good one.

But… back to our original observation: it’s not great. Bad design might be dead, but good design is not enough. Using a template might result in something pretty good… but never something great. It’s a good starting point, but it’s not the end. When I create something that looks simply like it was pieced together from admittedly good sources, it’s a sign that something is missing.

All these advances should push us to do more, not just create more sameness. With all our resources and knowledge, we should be able to do more, and we should be able to do it more efficiently.

Let’s step back for a second and talk about what makes a great design. It’s a diagram based Maslow’s more general Hierarchy of Needs from the field of psychology that describes what users value in an interface, in a website.

The qualities are Functionality, Reliability, Usability, Convenience, Pleasure, then Meaning, in that order. Things at the base of this pyramid of ux awesomeness are more important, must be addressed first. There is no value in moving up before you’ve taken care of the bottom, in making an interface usable if it is not functional, for example. This chart may be a bit outdated, but it highlights something important.

The plateau we sense, the sameness we see — this level of design climbs pretty high up the pyramid. Many of these interfaces highly usable. BUT — few of them are meaningful, or pleasurable in any deep way.

I’d like to acknowledge that there’s also a lot of designers’ efforts being put at the bottom of the pyramid into thinking about functionality in a deeper way and I think that’s awesome, but that’s a topic for another day.

This is a great reminder. To create a truly excellent experience, to be the illuminati of design, we need to go all the way to the top, to create pleasure and meaning. Usability is not the gold standard, it’s a step along the way.

A great experience should be pleasurable, or better put, evocative. Memorable. Impactful. Design that hits this level triggers a reaction. It might be strange, or scary, or sweet, or calming, but it provokes emotion. And it’s hard to do that with anything you’ve seen a thousand times.

Meaningful design goes a step further to be personally enriching. Design that is meaningful connects to its audience and does something just for them. It helps them complete tasks they actually care about, buy things they actually need. It provokes the right emotion. Perhaps it gives users a sense of belonging, or motivates them, or reduces stress.

Ok, so our ultimate goal is to design interfaces that climb the pyramid of ux awesomeness: that are more than just usable. That’s our job… right? And yet, I admit I made one of those 60% black photo hero image landing pages in the past few months… So, how do we commit to pleasure and meaning?

When Emma and I started talking about this, it took us right back to grad school, back to basics. Here’s what we found helps:

Practice safe design, use a concept.

To begin: first understand the context, then use it to define a concept. I’m sure I don’t have to sell this to this crowd — sounds like research! But in this case, research into pleasure and meaning, not just functional goals. A concept can come from a lot of places. Who are my users, how are they feeling? What is the brand like? What is true, or interesting, or personal about the project? What are the competitors NOT doing?

Slack is a great example. Sure, it has robust functionality. But it’s successful because it has a great concept, and one that is executed well.

What could be a dry platform for information exchange is a conversation. As one of Slack’s designers said, “It feels like a favorite co-worker, not a tool or utility.” It’s fun to use and it evokes playfulness, connectedness. This is meaningful because office workers can be overwhelmed by email, perhaps even yearning for human connection with colleagues. It humanizes work, and that’s incredibly meaningful — and a great backbone for design.

Go beyond the comfortable

Once there’s a concept, there are lots of ways to translate it to design. To get in the right mindset, we need to go beyond the comfortable.


Go back to basics, to how we all trained our eyes, take a mental trip back to the first time you got introduced to design. Take nothing for granted even how the cursor reacts to roll overs. Make time to experiment without having a fixed outcome in mind. Prototype bizarre ideas, try out ugly colors. Don’t play it safe. We’re not saying that everything should be artsy and weird, like this, but we are saying experiment with your concept.

Get inspired by other things

If you need some inspiration, look beyond complete interfaces, beyond Dribbble. Be inspired by everything. Look around you!

When we look for inspiration, we’ve got to make sure we’re not just bathing in sameness and the vast river of what everyone else is doing. Get inspired by random things, by architecture and urban planning and sneckdowns, the extended corners you see after a snowfall that show you where people are actually walking and driving. It’s dangerously easy to mimic instead of creating, but when we translate ideas from other domains we bring a fresh perspective.

Build on patterns and expectations

There’s a wealth of excellent shared knowledge. Still, the best work comes from building on it, not giving in to the ease of existing patterns. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but the wheel isn’t the only way to get around. And honestly, it’s not always critical that everyone understands everything instantaneously. If we understand the context, we know how far we can push it.

Take Snapchat. We’re designers, and we struggled to figure it out. It’s not familiar, certainly not instantaneous. Still, Snapchat has millions of users. People are willing to invest brain cells in something meaningful. And if things fail? Well, you have a great safety net of patterns to fall back on.

Have a rationale for your decisions

Use your concept to develop a visual language. This is a basic one but having a justification for design decisions leads to a better experience.

Choose typography, icons, colors, and photography that has a connection, that creates meaning and doesn’t just follow the latest trend.


In this microsite, the designers did a great job in choosing visual assets that express Weber’s brand and culture. They used video to tell a story that feels personal, and overlapped it with scientific illustrations that express a high level of technical know-how.

Be smart about tech

This same thought applies to how we explore technology. It’s good to stay on the front line. We want to create interfaces that feel fresh and new, that’s a shortcut to pleasure, to creating impact. But when we do this, let’s use technology to also further our concepts and build meaning.

Like everyone else, we’re both really excited about the new possibilities in web motion. Animation is great for building character, creating anticipation, and telling stories. Animated rollover states — like the one above for Science Friday — can inject personality without being distracting.

We get overwhelming sameness when these things get implemented without reason. Any one idea may start to feel overused and therefore meaningless, but when used in the right way it shines.


Parallax scrolling is fantastic for narrative, like the story of the coffee bean. Used this way, it makes sense.

We also have more possibilities for micro-interactions, these individual moments when an interface reacts to its user. A concept will help us understand how our interface should look and behave all the way down to these tiny details.

We can build context-specific pleasure and meaning when we think of mobile design as complementary to the desktop experience and not just an adaptation. Take Eventbrite. On the day of an event, your mobile app automatically shows directions to the venue. And there’s a great micro-interaction when you show the barcode for entry, the app automatically brightens your screen for a better scanning experience.

Assembled together, these ideas for creating pleasure and meaning feel pretty straightforward. Of course we need a concept! And yes, great design requires time to expand, to be creative, but it also requires that our decisions be justified.

But when it’s so easy to just follow along, to use automated processes, it’s good to be reminded of things that are more important than efficiency. Sameness is only bad when it is designed with no reason. Getting inspired by dribbble or using squarespace is only bad when you don’t already have a concept as a base.

These simple considerations will only become more important as the world we’re designing for expands and new platforms emerge. A concept that results in pleasure and meaning can be a thread that ties together different devices, situations, and services. It is a way to make different contexts fit into one product family, one brand, one kind of experience.

It’s a great time to be a designer. We have more tools, resources, and best practices than ever before. We have unlimited access to inspiration and assets. Yes, this can lead to some unwanted side effects, like the sea of sameness. But we don’t have to be on a plateau. We’re standing on some tall shoulders and we can rise above the ease of the sameness to create meaningful work. We have a great opportunity to do more, to think bigger and to think smaller. And we’re excited.