Why Standard Site Designs Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be

by in Design on 10th Sep 2013 · 1 Comment

Imagine you’re standing on a street block where all the houses are nearly the same shape, size, and color. They all have a two-stall garage and a nice green lawn. They all have the same house number styling, and judging from your external view, you’re pretty sure all their interiors are the same layout, too. You’d be bored with this view all the time, wouldn’t you? Why’s it any different on web sites, then?

Seems boring, right? As a designer, you’ve been around the digital block enough times to know that many business websites eerily resemble those houses. It’s because they’re all made with the same site designs in mind.

And though all the rage for businesses, standard site designs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Why Designers Should Design With a Difference

Think about it. It’s really hard to find a website that doesn’t have one of those image sliders blatantly placed right under the logo. It’s also incredibly hard to find a site whose logo isn’t at the top of the page somewhere, along with the navigation links.

Domino Effect

And yet your clients think these standard designs are exactly what they want because most of their competitors’ sites look like this, so heck, they’ll just do the same. Instead of asking if that slider would actually be a good design choice for their business to help accomplish their goals, they default to what “everyone else is doing” because it seems easiest.

But easy isn’t always what’s best for your client’s business website goals.

There’s 'SOME' Value in Standard Site Design

Now your clients probably like standard site designs for many reasons, several of which are legitimate and made these designs popular in the first place. Just take a look at some of the value they offer a client’s business:

  • They can be responsive.
  • Their navigation isn’t confusing.
  • They’re easy to read on a mobile device.
  • Their layouts are familiar to most internet users.
  • They’re usually very customizable.

However, because they do offer so much value, standard site designs have been quickly adopted by most businesses and individuals. Everyone wants one.

And now it’s hard to tell one site from another, let alone remember what businesses those sites were supposed to represent.

Standard Is As Standard Does

If your clients want to stand out, you’ve got to convince them that copying everyone else’s site design only goes so far.

Standard Is As Standard Does

When a standard design can hinder your ability to express your client’s values and differences, or even prevent you from showcasing your talents and growing your freelance business, how smart is it to default to these designs just because “everyone else is doing it?”

Of course you don’t want to confuse users by making an entirely wacky layout or theme, but you also don’t want them to view your creation for the first time and think, “I could’ve sworn I just visited this site yesterday.”

The “same site design as the one next door” syndrome is not what you want users experiencing.

And what’s so unfortunate about this syndrome is that it can be easily avoided. For example, though designers are surrounded by a myriad of tools and technology that allow them to create powerful visuals, they often don’t utilize them to their fullest potential. Just think about how few of Photoshop’s features are actually put into practice in current designs.

Kind of sad to think about.

So if you and your clients are serious about creating designs that highlight their unique selling points and business goals, you need to make sites that visitors won’t easily forget.

“Same Site Design” Syndrome Can Be Solved

Beyond the tools and tech, there’s even more that designers can do conceptually to avoid giving users the “same site design” syndrome and create sites that are appealing, creative, and functional.

Of course, not all of these will work for every client. Part of your job as the freelance designer is to talk with your clients to figure out what design elements will help them stand apart from their competition while also aiding them in their business goals.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about making a client’s site unique:

1. Stop caring about what everyone else is doing.

Seriously. You’re working for yourself and your clients. Act with some Han Solo-inspired confidence, and do your own thing.

Figure out not just what would be best for advancing your clients’ business goals, but also what their customers like in terms of web design. These facts should be your top priority when creating site designs, since they’re the ones you’re trying to appeal to.

Once you’ve gotten past the “everyone else is doing it” mentality, only then will you be able to start creating designs that truly represent the people and companies you’re making them for.

As a good example, check out the blog Signal vs. Noise by 37signals. They don’t have social media sharing buttons, the blog isn’t left-aligned, and it looks more like a magazine page than a blog. But it sets their company blog apart by miles with all these different decisions -- you’ll never think you’re on another company’s site.

37signals Signal vs. Noise

Simple, straightforward, and yet different than most corporate blogs. 37signals knows how to keep themselves separated from their competition.

2. Start small.

Feel free to pick a standard design, but don’t stop there.

As you gather feedback from site visitors and customers, make small additions or changes that you or your clients feel comfortable doing. These need to be done purposefully to showcase and enhance the goal of the site and company who owns it.

For example, you could add a crazy picture of dogs in tutus because your client specializes in dog products, or you could add images above your plain text menu links to help visitors better separate the links, like Carbonmade does on their site.

Make sure to keep track of people’s reactions to these changes, and adjust accordingly. Just remember that the uniqueness of a site can come from small elements just as much as from big ones.

Carbonmade

To add to its adorable theme and unique (yet easy-to-use) layout, Carbonmade uses images above its navigation links at the top of the page.

3. Experiment with the visuals.

If simple site designs are what your clients want, that doesn’t mean they have to be plain.

Spruce up typical designs with unconventional visuals. You’ve already seen in the previous example how adding small elements like images can make a big difference in branding, but try taking that a step further.

A simple way to set a site apart is to choose a color your client’s competitors aren’t using, or one that’s not typically found on sites within that industry. Lots of people use blue and red, while it’s harder to find oranges or purples, for example (and orange can be very cool, like for the site Concentrate that features a frozen orange juice can as a logo!).

Concentrate

Kudos to Concentrate for not only coming up with a creative logo you won’t easily forget, but also successfully using the color orange to further cement their product branding into your brain.

You could also choose a font that will catch people’s attention -- just make sure it’s readable and you’re not choosing it for no reason! Also consider using different font sizes around the site.

Or what about making a different home page? Ignore the typical top menus, main, and two or three columns below that, and find a way to arrange things differently that’s still intuitive to the user. For example, designer Rachel Comey’s home page is nothing more than a menu and an animated ocean background.

Rachel Comey

Yes, this is all the home page is. White navigation links, fish tank background. Bubbling water sounds are also included! Memorable, no?

It doesn’t matter how “taboo” anyone else thinks your visual choices are; if the visitors and clients like it, go for it (notice again how important it is to rely on visitor feedback?).

4. Location, location, location!

You know how all those sticky menus stay at the top? They don’t have to, you know.

Play around with placement and spacing for many of your key elements, like menus, logos, or social media buttons. Though users are used to these elements being in certain locations on sites, if you move them around strategically, you could help enhance the site’s overall function and appeal.

For example, instead of placing the logo on the top left of the page, try putting it in the middle of the page, or writing it vertically down the left-hand side of the page. Fail-ure even dares to put their logo design on the bottom left!

Fail-ure

That main font isn’t the company name, surprisingly – it’s just the title of their latest collection. Instead, look at the less obtrusive brand name in the lower left-hand corner, which helps put customer focus on the featured products before the brand name.

And guess what you need to do after you adjust placement? That’s right -- test and get feedback. Make sure visitors can still properly find and utilize the elements you changed.

It’s Time to Implement

Now don’t think that this post is advocating that you shy away from standard site design all together. As you’ve read, it’s here for a reason and it’s generally because it’s easy for site users to figure out.

But so many designers are stuck in the standard site pattern that you might want to consider breaking out of it, especially if you want to set yourself apart as a creative freelancer or if your client just has that kind of daring character.

The ultimate goal to keep in mind when you break the design mold is to separate your clients’ sites from others so you can keep visitors from experiencing the “same site design” syndrome.

However, you have to do this in a way that doesn’t confuse site users. Don’t go so crazy on your design that the site’s essentially unusable. People are used to menus and logos at the top, for example, so you don’t want to stray too far from this convention. It’s your job to make a unique site without confusing the users.

Always test your design changes for intuitiveness and functionality along with visual appeal, but don’t ever think that making the changes in the first place is a bad idea.

How have you helped clients stand apart from competition in the past, and which of the 4 ideas in this article do you want to test out in the future?

Bree Brouwer is a blogger for Bidsketch, a powerful tool that makes it easy for freelancers and agencies to create professional client proposals in minutes. Grab their free guide, 5 Elements of a Perfect Proposal, to learn proven strategies that will win over your next client.