I had a conversation with a co-worker of mine, who is in video production, about what it’s like to watch TV shows and movies when you know so much about the art and science of making TV shows and movies. Where others see dragons and spaceships and raw emotion, a professional sees mistakes in the color, the frame, and the cuts between dialogue. Being a professional in video production changes the way you consume media—you can’t help but see all the little mistakes and tradeoffs.
Being a web designer has a similar effect. I see a website’s patterns before I see its content.
- “This is a WordPress site, looks like a modified TwentyEleven theme.”
- “Upper left logo, upper right nav.”
- “Let’s resize the browser window and see how responsive it is.”
- “Proxima Nova, we meet again.”
- “Tons of ads, probably tons of trackers, and tons of junk in the sidebar and footer.”
Just to give you a few examples. And my website is no exception:
“Color bar, standard one-column blog, static.”
My website’s design is not original. And chances are that yours isn’t either. Websites are built on interlinked patterns that are found throughout every website. So in a sense, no website is truly original. Just as every story can be boiled down to its archetype. Just as every song can be pulled apart into time and key.
In which I now contradict my own thesis
I work with a bunch of skilled folks who all have a good eye for quality. I’m constantly amazed by the links they share of websites and videos and art. They are amazing, sometimes insane, and almost always original.
The thing is, being original does not mean being devoid of patterns. Just because we’ve heard a million stories about a good, yet troubled, unlikely hero being thrust into an adventure only to find out that they were destined to be the hero all along does not mean that Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and [insert tons of titles here] are not great, original stories. They used the patterns in a new way that captivated people.
At Mad Genius, we just launched a site for Multicraft International that I think is pretty darn original. You’ll recognize common design patterns used in interesting ways—an apt characteristic given Multicraft’s business. Take the plunge into full-blown creative fusion and check out this sweet animated narrative on process. It’s boss.
I love books. I don’t even read as many physical books as I would like (or digital ones for that matter). But I love how you can look at a book designed a hundred years ago and it more or less looks like books designed today. We’ve pretty much nailed down book layout and typography.1
I designed this website to be a nice place for words to live and be read. I’m not so grandiose as to say the design of this website is timeless, but the timeless design qualities of books, modernist advertising from the 1960’s, and recent trends in minimalist design influenced me a lot. Like any web designer who looks at this site, I see its flaws and compromises. But I also see its potential and its originality.
Go forth and be original
Much of the fun in making things comes from exploring all the pieces you can use—just ask fans of Lego. Don’t worry so much about whether what you are doing is original. Just make sure it’s useful, fun, accessible, beautiful, heartbreaking, effective, or at least consists of one kitten photo.
I would be remiss not to point you in the direction of the canonical work on typography that is “The Elements of Typographic Style” by Robert Bringhurst. ↩