If web design is art, we may be entering its minimalist phase.
Website redesigns from some of the most-visited media destinations on the Internet may be leaving users with a bit of déjà vu since many are sporting the same visual elements.
“It’s sort of the same way that all cars look more or less the same. There’s only so many ways you can design a doorknob to where it’s going to be effective,” said Brad Frost, a web designer that has worked on the websites for TechCrunch and Entertainment Weekly.
Cars and doorknobs serve a purpose under certain constraints, just like websites. But unlike those everyday items, the demands on websites have changed drastically as audiences have taken to different devices.
Time.com is a prime example: Clean lines, big pictures and defined columns dominate.
Time.com is also “responsive,” a relatively new concept that combines development and design to allow websites to conform to a wide variety of screen sizes while still providing a useful experience. The rise of responsive design has been driven by steadily rising mobile traffic combined with the introduction of a wide range of devices.
“Mobile was this crisis that woke us up from this shared delusion that the web was this fixed width,” said Josh Clark, a web designer and developer.
“To a certain degree, websites always look the same. Design is fashion and it follows trends. We’re in the middle of a trend of big and clunky, not just because of responsive design but also because of touch,” Clark added. “As touch has spread from small screens to laptops and desktops, all desktop designs have to be touch-friendly, and that has influenced the aesthetic, too.”
Numerous major media sites have shifted to responsive design with similar results — multi-column, boxy and flat designs that look almost strangely similar. NBC News has its main column on the left, but the similarities are apparent.
At first, it was tenable to create multiple sites: one for mobile, another for desktop. Now, more sites are moving to the responsive design as a one-size-fits-all solution. There are simply too many different screens and experiences to plan for.
“Your head is going to explode trying to support that stuff, let alone afford it,” Clark said.
It’s the ad economy, stupid
It’s challenging enough to try to build a site that looks good while also contorting to fit various screen sizes and resolutions. Adding in a static element adds a whole other dimension.
“Media sites have a specific limitation called an ad unit that really limits the flexibility of design, because unlike every other unit, this ad can’t change size,” Clark said.
Online advertising guidelines are set by the Internet Advertising Bureau so marketers and websites can have a common market. Rigid ad sizes may help sales, but end up being a pain for designers.
“You have these dinosaurs grasping at straws, that haven’t been able to move as fast as the rest of the industry, and it creates a real restraint,” Frost said.
Sports Illustrated, which rolled outs its redesign, has a similar three-column design. The site is pictured below incorporating Viagra ads.
Design and conquer
Responsive design is a crucial element of modern web design, but doesn’t necessarily explain the entire similarity in aesthetics.
The lack of shadows, gradients or really any elements that attempt to illustrate depth are gone, in favor of what is known as “flat” design.
Flat design arose in concert with mobile. In addition to having a modern look, the minimalist motif looked impressive on smaller screens while also minimizing page load, meaning that websites would come up faster on slower mobile networks. Flat design is also a hallmark of many of the new media sites.
Kelly Sutton, a web designer and software engineer, credited Microsoft’s Metro, a design language that helped usher in the era of geometric, boxy shapes with bold colors that was a hallmark of its ill-fated Windows 8 operating system that rolled out in 2012.
Since then, there has been a rapid adoption of that style, Sutton said, including by Apple in iOS 7 and Google.
“I think digital design for web and app design is moving into a peacetime of sorts. The last two years have been very much wartime,” Sutton said. “The great flattening has happened over the last two years, but things are kind of settling down.”
The Internet of tomorrow
Responsive design is still a new concept that is changing as designers and developers figure new ways to marry form and multi-function. Dan Mall, founder of web design firm SuperFriendly, noted that while responsive design is only about four years old, many of the programs being used to build new site are much older.
“I think there are really great tools that are coming out, but I think that we as an industry are still wrapping our heads around what it means to design for different context,” Mall said. “I think as the tools become more intuitive and the process becomes more intuitive, it will free us up to start thinking about these things in different ways.”
The designers that Mashable spoke with pointed to a variety of sites as examples of forward-thinking responsive websites, including blog publishing platform Medium, gaming site Polygon and digital magazine The Great Discontent.
Thinking differently might also include recognizing the limits of responsive design and planning accordingly.0