Lincoln Anderson / Technology / October 1st, 2014

Rediscover the Soul of Web Design

Noah Stokes might seem like the kind of guy to poke a hornets’ nest just to see what will happen. Last year he kicked all kinds of hornets with a simple tweet:

Never mind the hornets’ nest, to a web designer that’s more like a kick in the face.

His statement felt like a personal attack, and web designers reacted passionately in protest. But at Front-End Conf 2014 in St. Pete, Noah got to the root of his sentiment and asked us all a question: “Why did web designers stop dreaming, and start making all their websites look the same?”

That may be a leading question, but it hit home immediately for many here at 352. Like Noah, a decade ago we spent our free time drooling over the eye candy at sites like We were amazed by the attention to detail and the immersive, concept-driven design. We said “someday I’ll be making sites like that,” and that passion fueled our careers.

Well, why aren’t we making sites like that? Noah pinpoints Responsive Web Design (RWD) as the root, and there may be some fairness to that accusation. RWD has become synonymous with a specific “look” composed of flat design and simple blocks. At best, these sites may look “nice” on any screen, but at worst they can be dry and unoriginal. They’re functional, but they don’t inspire wonder.

Times Are a’Changing

RWD aims to solve a problem we didn’t have a decade ago – all these f**king screens. Users don’t just visit a website anymore. They stretch it, twist it, poke it. They view it in all shapes and sizes — on desks, on laps, in pockets, and soon on wrists and even eyeglasses. Even the most basic website design is much harder now than it used to be.

Image by Vadim Sherbakov

This unpredictability hampers experimentation, which is why RWD and frameworks like Bootstrap have been so popular. The new miracle on the web is simply designing things that don’t break.

Which is why Noah pissed off so many designers – we work our butts off foolproofing this madness, and then here comes this guy implying we’re lazy or unimaginative.

But hold on, let’s really think back to the early 2000’s. Are we romanticizing the good ol’ days? Do you remember what sites looked like back then? On the whole, they were awful! Ugly, inaccessible, bloated. RWD has allowed us to take a giant leap forward with the average web site.

Check out the hotness that was in 2001.

But even in the early 2000s, there were a few gems we remember fondly, and typically they were highly detailed, concept-driven designs. There are a handful of those these days, but they are typically based on HTML5 video or parallax, and the novelty is wearing off.

So how do we recapture the soul of web design? How do we find that passion that fuels us? I think the answers are the same today as they were back then, just with different technologies.

Don’t Be an Old Dog

Learn the new tricks. Experiment. Do you like eye candy? Try learning about animated SVGs. Looking for an immersive experience? Try your hand at a fullscreen design or nontraditional layout.

It's never too late to learn to be awesome.
It’s never too late to learn to be awesome.

Dream, early on. Take time for it. Try starting with high concept. Forget about your frameworks or usability studies for a moment. Let your ego run free. Suggest dumb ideas. Write it all down. Let someone else worry about what’s realistic and affordable.

Show people what an awesome website looks like. Make them want it. The soul of a design is in the details, and details are hard to imagine. Often, if you show your boss or client what success looks like, they’ll find the time and money to make it happen.

Come to terms with the fact that making a mindblowingly awesome web site is going to be hard. It might be something you just do for yourself or your friends, to tell a story or make a statement, and not to make a million dollars. It’s going to be time-consuming, and you may not get paid fairly for it, but it’s going to be worth every second.

Finally, we get to the easy part — start making it.

Image credit: Galymzhan Abdugalimov

  • Christopher Burns

    To me I think it’s just a step in the evolution of the web. Making a site look great on any device was a really nifty trick 5 years ago. Now we’ve figured out that it’s easy to make a responsive site by keeping it boxy and simple, no more complex textures, just simple background colors and an elegant font. So I think you’re right that the next step will be to take an boxy responsive site and start adding visual flair without breaking the responsiveness.

    • Lincoln Anderson

      Yeah! Wanna buy one? 😉

  • Peter Brownstein

    Hell to the yeah! Great blog.

  • Paul Traylor

    About RWD, I think the important point that you touched on is that websites should inspire their visitors/users. I think where we’ve seen a major shift in the past years is with the focus on the creating great content and letting it do the inspirational work. I feel like often the purpose of websites today is simply to get out of the way and let the content do it’s job regardless of how, when or where is it being consumed.

    By the way Lincoln, thanks for continuing to be a positive influence & learner-and-sharer-of-new-and-cool-things! I’ve been inspired by your work, attitude, and humility for the past 10+ years 🙂

    • Lincoln Anderson

      Thanks Paul. Good points. I’ve been thinking recently about that design/content split. Do those aspects of design need to be viewed separately? Are we making highly usable containers, or more than that? Our boxy layouts often have a certain “image-goes-here” syndrome going on, where the design itself could instead be a reflection of the content and attitudes of the site. In other words, more intertwined. I think that’s where the unique/interesting stuff is waiting right now, and I love seeing it be uncovered by innovative designers.

  • Robert C Hanley

    While it’s probably for the best that I’m not a designer, I’m in the boat with Noah. In the few side project sites I’ve done over the years I’ve always made a point of trying to avoid ‘standard’/’traditional’ UI/X in favor of experimentation.

    Mobile sites feel *very* cookie cutter and responsive design while great from a tech/principle angle sadly seems to have let that cookie cutter vibe bleed into full scale sites

    • Lincoln Anderson

      It’s tough to experiment in a “lean” world, for sure. But with art and technology, those experiments are often what allow you to “jump up” to the next caliber of excellence. So, incremental improvement is great, as long as you seek occasional breakthroughs. Thanks for reading, Bob. 🙂

  • Adam Russell Davis

    Thoughtful post, Linc. As Don Norman has said in the past, “there’s incremental innovation and there’s radical innovation” – both are important for us to progress forward. As a designer, I constantly focus on the user and what makes sense for the audience. Intuitive grid/ecommerce experience, or experimental emotion-packed experience? If you can combine both, huge win.

  • Minneapolis Web Design

    I am working as a web designer in Minneapolis, MN. So, I really feel what you feel. thanks for nice blog.

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