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
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
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
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
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
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
A new belief system
It's time that we as designers admit
- 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
- Adherence to standard design
principles, standards, conventions and patterns benefits web users.
- It's quicker, easier, and more
- 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