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:
I feel like responsive design has sucked the soul out of website design. Everything is boxes and grids. Where has the creativity gone?
— Noah Stokes (@motherfuton) February 26, 2013
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 2advanced.com. 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.
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.
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.
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