Cookie cutter design, revisited

Paul Hammond bemoans how everyone’s sites are looking the same, prompted by Heather Powazek’s exhortation for new design. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, saying that Orient looks pretty much like kryogenix looks pretty much like Caveat Lector looks pretty much like Simon Willison’s weblog looks pretty much like Textism looks pretty much like Zeldman in a discussion of “anonymity of style“. I did then go on to say that “perhaps this era of relatively plain (but very pretty looking, and fairly minimalist) site designs is an interim period while we find our feet in this relatively new medium“. Has this happened? For a while, I thought that the Zen Garden was the counterpoint to this argument; it shows how design can be incredibly varied on exactly the same content. No-one’s actually doing that, though. It’s not just that we’ve got too many people who are just using the default templates for their weblogs (and all sites are weblogs now, right?), meaning that their sites look exactly the same, but that, as Heather says, “I long for the diversity of the time before weblogs (BW) when life was more than a two or three column layout“. Look at the three best designers I know, Zeldman, Jon Hicks, and Douglas Bowman. While their sites are very pretty, they fall into Heather’s black hole of two-and-three-column designs. If the best and the brightest are coming up with simply graphical variants on this type of design, what hope the rest of us?

Possibly the reason that everyone’s got this type of design is that it makes the best sense for usability. I mean, all buses are roughly the same shape: they’re a big long box with wheels on. No-one builds a bus that is one person wide and 144 people high, for example. This isn’t because bus designers aren’t creative, or becuase they’re unable to do anything other than copy their predecessors, it’s because that’s the best shape for a bus. So one concentrates (if one concentrates at all on bus design) on little things: the shape of the wheel arches, the fittings, the doors. Look at cars that are acknowledged as a triumph of design, like the Aston Martin DB9 or the Jaguar E-Type (or the Fiat Coupe, heh heh). Yes, these are beautiful cars. But they have four wheels and a steering wheel and a windscreen and the pedals are in the same place as a Lada Riva. Apart from how the Riva looks like two boxes in a pile and the E-Type looks like a big shiny dick with two chairs in, they’re the same in concept. Perhaps weblog sites have to also be the same: two column layouts aren’t like design, they’re like wheels. You have to have them to go forward, and that’s not negotiable.

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