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How to Follow Conventions, Evolve With Trends, and Ignore the Fads

March 10, 2015  |  Pluralsight
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A web designer is a problem solver — someone who knows how to take a problem and a strategy, and turn it into a usable interactive solution that converts. Web designers who are also artists know when and where to experiment with a creative point of view, and feel comfortable enough to break out of conventions and establish new ones.

Whether you’re both a web designer and artist, or you identify as one more than the other, you have a responsibility that far exceeds simply making things look nice.

What you create has to sell.

The T-shirt is arguably the most popular garment in the world, and for good reason: Everyone needs one and everyone has one. An easily fitted, easily cleaned, and inexpensive clothing option, it was a bold departure from the union suit used in the 19th century. More importantly, it was created out of a very clear and specific need.

For a T-shirt to be usable, it essentially needs to have a neck and two arm holes. That’s the design solution — a T shape. How an artist then uses those constraints to create something new and unique and actually sells is where the artistry comes in. There will be customers who prefer to buy couture, trendy, or plain ol’ tees — but the design solution that makes it usable remains true.

Websites are like T-shirts — everyone needs one. Okay, maybe not everyone. But like T-shirts, websites were also created out of a simple need, and offer the same blank slate. The possibilities for creative problem solving are endless, but there are only a handful of problems most aim to solve:

  • It needs to let users buy something (product or service).
  • It needs to let users access information.
  • It needs to let users connect with other users.

A great designer solves these problems in the most simple, usable way possible. An artist then takes that solution and turns it into something unique and new with a distinct, creative point of view. Sometimes you’re the designer and artist, sometimes you’re not. And that’s okay.

Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)) and Belgian computer scientist Robert Cailliau proposed in 1990 to use hypertext “to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will.” With that, the Internet and, thus, the link was born.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp and author of REWORK, recently wrote an article about his first website design project in 1996. He recollected the “links” page websites used to have. “Companies weren’t afraid of sending their traffic elsewhere — we were all so blown away that you could actually link to other sites that we all did it so generously.”

Over time, people realized links could be used to guide a user’s experience around their website and even make money. But when that links page disappeared, another problem was solved and designed for. Hyperlinks that needed to be emphasized were re-designed into a button that replicated the aesthetic of buttons in real life.

Users responded, conversions increased, and designers adopted the new convention. Artists created new trends. Fads happened. There was skeuomorphic, now there is material design and everything in between — but the design solution behind links as calls-to-action and the adoption of the button aesthetic remained.

What’s fascinating is our users help drive the evolution of trends. Over time we’re gaining the freedom and permission from our users to explore and experiment artistically because they’ve become more accustomed to using digital devices. My prediction? Even more artistry in the coming years that pushes the limits of design conventions.

Who says the T-shirt has to have a neck and two arm holes to be called a T-shirt? Consumers are conditioned to know what to do with it. (An artist!)

So, let’s recap:

  • Design solves a distinct problem and creates new conventions.
  • Artistry establishes a unique, creative point of view, and sometimes challenges conventions.
  • Trends are meaningful and evolve over time.
  • Fads happen because everyone else is doing it.

We won’t all reinvent the wheel and be “The Designer” who creates and establishes new design conventions. But that’s okay — we can each contribute to web design in our own ways.

A great designer understands why design conventions exist, but pushes themselves creatively to challenge them. More importantly, they know when something has evolved to become a trend, and learns to pass over the fads.

What kind of designer are you? Let us know your thoughts on design trends and fads in the comments section below.

Learn something new. Take control of your career.

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