I’ve read a lot of articles about how homogenous web design has become, but few have compelled me like Morgane Santos’ on Medium. For the first time, I felt as a web designer that I wanted to join this conversation.
This part of the article grabbed my attention:
Perhaps the biggest issue with all this homogeneity is how lonely it can feel when you want to do something different.
Two separate friends have told me how they don’t feel like they fit in with the design community. These two friends are guys who more or less fit the Designer Dave stereotype, too. If they feel isolated, how does everyone else feel?
I started to gather my thoughts, but explained to my wife later on that I didn’t feel qualified to share them — which is interesting to me because it proves Ms. Santos’ theory. I, too, am white and in my mid-twenties (although I do not have a beard). Some of my web design work falls prey to certain stereotypes (although I don’t necessarily feel all of it does). In many ways, I relate to Designer Dave. With that being said, I’ve tried to gather my thoughts coherently regardless.
What’s happening in design reminds me of what’s been happening in filmmaking over the past twenty years. Have you noticed that a lot of popular action movies have been bathed in orange and blue?
Once you see it, it’s hard to un-see it. Priceonomics has a really good rundown on what’s going on, and you should read the whole article, but this quote deserves special mention:
One way to figure out what will look good is to figure out what the common denominator is in the majority of your scenes. And it turns out that actors are in most scenes. And actors are usually human. And humans are orange, at least sort of!
Most skin tones fall somewhere between pale peach and dark, dark brown, leaving them squarely in the orange segment of any color wheel. Blue and cyan are squarely on the opposite side of the wheel.
You may remember from preschool that “opposite” color pairs like this are also known as “complementary” colors. That means that, side-by-side, they produce greater contrast than either would with any other color. And when we’re talking about color, contrast is generally a desirable thing.
I’d need to do more research, but I’d be willing to wager that a teal and orange colour scheme makes your average film studio more money on opening weekend too. Most big-budgets films are cast in this orange and blue look, while indies feel more free to roam around.
That’s not very different from web design: while market forces are unwilling to invest in unusual design, smaller organizations who need to stand out may be more interested. The same way some directors make one for the studio, and then one for them, it’s financially sensible to do the same thing as a designer. (I’m not saying to compromise your values; I’m telling you to make enough money to support yourself and your families.)
My second thought is this: there are ways to play with established conventions.
Priceonomics included an image from Mad Max: Fury Road in their article. It was my second-favourite movie last year, and a big part of that was because I adored the colours. The story is that director George Miller wanted to show the film in black and white, but Warner Bros. refused (market forces at work). In response, Miller gave them what they wanted: blue and orange, cranked up as high as he could make it go.
That sense of over-saturation practically outdoes Transformers, and in a backhand way, forces you to notice it and be aware. I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t mention the colours. It’s subversive. Miller wants the colours to be part of the film’s intensity, yes, but he also wants it to reflect the insanity of everything else going on. It’s absolutely intentional.
I think we can learn something from Miller: If you’re given constraints that you don’t like, be subversive with them. We design for audiences who are smart enough to notice, and while they might not realize you’re being playful, they’ll appreciate your work all the more. You’ll stand out within the confines of homogeneity.
All that being said, at the end of the day, I don’t know the answer to homogeneity in web design, nor do I feel qualified to share my thoughts on the topic. For me, sharing this takes courage.
I learned in school that our brains are wired to notice semiotic patterns. Blue and orange is one such pattern. Boring websites are another. And while neither are going away any time soon, I think there’s a lot we can do to subvert expectations and experiment with new things.