Pursuit of the Original

My friend John Endean is one of the most successful people I've met in web development. He taught me that the most important skill for a developer is laziness.

When faced with a problem, the lazy developer will first find out if it has been solved before, and if possible rip off the code. The hardworking developer will stay late and try to figure out the problem from first principles.

Who is most likely to succeed? Who is most likely to produce more successful code in less time? Who would you rather have on your team?

I propose that web designers too should embrace laziness, and stop straining to create the truly original.

We are not independent

We're all influenced by the designs we see around us all the time. Subconsciously, we spend most of our time trying to do designs that are similar to the ones we like, even when we're saying we're trying to be unique and original.

Let's face it - the web's so darn big and so exposed, everyone's looking at everyone else's, and we're really all in this together.

True originality is a Siren

A lot of web designers strive to be original, to make each site design unique. The motivation is to differentiate yourself as a creative artist. This is a worthy goal, but (like the call of the mythological Sirens) the call to continuous creative originality can also be deceiving. It leads many virtuous designs onto the rocks.

The fundamental problem is: most truly new things (ideas, products, or genetic mutations) fail. That is the way of the world.

Aesthetic design is like a virus

Designs have an evolutionary lifecycle, like the lifecycle of a virus.

Advances come through fast, random genetic mutations, some of which give a design/virus an advantage. Most mutations fail.

Occasionally, a strong strain arrives that has a competitive advantage. These successful strains filter through the community in an organic pattern, lots of people get it, and after a while people start to grow immune: it doesn't have the effect it had initially.

Over time, the strain starts to reach the most remote communities, and can remain in existence for a long time. This pattern of spread is well known to epidemiologists and biologists.

In terms of aesthetic style - what we notice is that designs that once excited us start to look dull. We're starting to get immune. The aesthetic-virus loses its power to influence designers, reproduces less frequently, and hence starts to die out. As in Nature's natural balancing mechanisms, success can bring its own failure.

There's no getting away from the common cold, and there's no effective vaccine. In the same way, we as designers can't inoculate ourselves from the influence of the design we see. We get affected by it all, to differing extents. It's in our bloodstream. We're saturated with it. It comes out in everything we do, and sometimes there are those miraculous mistakes or surprises that seem like something new has come into existence...

Functional design has a much slower lifecycle

Functional design exists in a basically similar competitive type of environment to aesthetic design, but it has a significantly slower lifecycle.

As with aesthetics, original ideas compete against each other and spread where they are successful. However, the functional world is less chaotic, and changes occur less frequently. Because the mix is less volatile, the strongest functional designs have the opportunity to become conventions. Conventions persist for long periods, until supplanted by a more effective competitor. (Not every more effective competitor gains the upper hand, of course, luck and timing play a part, but the system works very well for the overall benefit of the user community.)

It's vital that web designers appreciate the differences between functional conventions, and purely aesthetic conventions. The domains of aesthetics and function are as different as the worlds of viruses and human beings. The aesthetic biosphere is faster-moving, faster-changing, more chaotic and more competitive. The functional biosphere also evolves dynamically, but over a longer lifecycle. Changes take place over a greater timespan than in the viral aesthetic world.

Web designers often fall into the trap of reacting to the functional and aesthetic in the same way. As though we have over-sensitive immune systems, we can react to familiar functional (human) designs in the same way as we react to aesthetic (viral) designs - by becoming immune. You can spot where designers can find certain layouts, navigational patterns, terminology or interface controls distasteful or dull, and have attempted to invent alternatives.

In most cases, trying to reinvent functional conventions fails, because most new things do fail. However, when they fail, the consequences can often be more serious than when aesthetic designs fail. Aesthetic considerations are usually most important for site owners, brand managers, and designers. They're not unimportant, but they're not vital. Success is only possible when people, users, consumers use a web site successfully. It is at the functional level that users achieve their goals, and when they achieve their goals they are satisfied and start to save bookmarks, build pathways of re-use, and tell friends. This is a natural system where a small competitive advantage can reap huge benefits (think of an online bookstore, think of an online auction site).

A new belief system

It's time that we as designers admit the following:

  • We're working in a huge, creative common market, where the vast majority of design isn't original
  • Successful (aesthetic and functional) designs are successful for good reasons: they have properties that give them a competitive advantage in their environment
  • Our job isn't to reinvent the rules in every design we produce - our job is to understand the environment, and to put together the strongest products we can
  • When we try to do something totally original, we are more likely to fail than to succeed
  • The consequences of creative failure can be much more serious in functional areas than in aesthetics

The benefits of kicking the originality habit

  • Adherence to standard design principles, standards, conventions and patterns benefits web users.
  • It's quicker, easier, and more profitable.
  • It lets you save up your creative energy, and pick your moments to shine, which is also more fun than sweating over reinventing every wheel



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