It feels as though the amount of genuinely terrible design out there has reduced massively in the last decade or so. In the same way as it has become comfortable with contemporary art, the general public has become far more design aware. Mainstream companies have in-house design departments, and design thinking is more central to their business. So how come the definition of what constitutes good design feels so narrow?
There are plenty of exceptions, talented people with a unique take on the world. And of course, true ideas are something you can’t copy from a blog. But a lot in our visual landscape is becoming a sea of good taste, accepted formulas and polite aesthetics.
I think there are three reasons for this.
Firstly, it’s easy. The veneer of professionalism is easier than ever to apply to any startup. I can get a logo crowdsourced at Crowdspring for £100. I can get a template website at Squarespace for £10 a month. Doing things from scratch yourself is still really hard, so it’s difficult for many to resist a short cut.
Secondly, in digital and service design, the user’s experience is key to how we design. Work based around their needs can often result in something simple on the surface. But beneath simplicity there is a lot of hard work to get to that point. The way Apple have always created products is a good example. Now it feels like that end result, a clean, elegant interface, is being adopted as an aesthetic in it’s own right, divorced from the thinking behind.
Thirdly, the cultural shift towards perceived ‘authenticity’ and away from ostentatious decoration. Craft beer, organic food, small producers over big business. Spare, simple design has the feel of something hand-crafted despite its digital origins. Sharing this culture through Instagram and the like means visual trends get blended into the soup very quickly.
But this creates a strange situation for those of us in the branding industry. Talk to a UX (user experience) designer and they’ll probably say that the ideal solution is one that follows convention and established norms, to make the user’s experience as intuitive as possible. Talk to a brand designer and the focus will be on differentiation and stand-out. Brand had the upper hand for many years. With the growth of the web and mobile technology, user experience is now out in front. We have more services and products shouting for our attention than ever before, but with a narrower and narrower range of visual expressions.
Online, the understanding of what customers want is improving so quickly because eveything can be measured so clearly. Eventually, rival brands with almost identical, user tested, intuitive web experiences will get so similar that the opportunity will surely be there for one of them to do something completely different. The benefits of intelligent experience will suddenly seem outweighed by the disadvantage of brand anonymity. The question is, when will this happen? How far are we along the road?
Joseph Harries is Design Director at GW+Co