When Does Inspiration Become Stealing?

August 22, 2008

Posted in Design.

This is a response to the eduStyle question about design diversity in higher ed

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years and here are some of the factors that swirl in my head.

Different is risky

Designers have to balance function with style. Making something drastically different always risks alienating visitors and can do more harm than good. It’s easier to take the road more travelled.

There are only so many configurations

The web has constraints—code, browsers, content, hardware, connection speeds—these things provide a framework for doing what we want to do. Some of the most unique approaches break these constraints, or at least appear to. Around 2002, ESPN.com forced users to upgrade to a newer browser in order to use their site because they simply couldn’t support Netscape 4 or IE 4. These constraints get looser all the time, through innovation and technological advancement. But it keeps us designing on a grid, following “best practices,” and creating something familiar.

Designers don’t get the final say

The biggest factor, in my experience, is the client. Designers rarely, if ever, get to dictate how the site will actually look. Designs are almost never approved on their first draft. The more creative and unique the design, the more likely it will be altered or rejected.

Clients aren’t designers. They don’t know the industry. Their minds are not saturated with the designs of other sites. So when they see a rip-off of Cornell they don’t know any better. They just like it.

So why is it bad?

The big question is whether it matters. On one hand, people don’t want to see their hard work ripped off. Organizations certainly don’t want to steal another design, at least in any obvious way. There’s something about human beings that makes us want to be different and special. That designs should be unique.

On the other hand, the web design world isn’t that big of a place. Trends become cliches (gradient reflections). Neat effects become overused (LightBoxJS). Every site ends up with The Big Image™. Creative layouts are duplicated time and time again.

In any organization, the ultimate goal is not the design. The point of design is to help achieve another goal: increase applications, gather sales leads, position a brand, etc.

Web sites aren’t consumed in tandem. They are individual experiences. So whether your site is “different enough” from other sites isn’t really important. What’s most important is whether your site is effective, authentic, and consistent with your brand.

1 Comment

  1. Stewart Foss — August 22, 2008

    Great post. I think you are dead on about risk being a big factor in deterring many from trying a different approach. I suspect most school don’t really want or need to the most innovative design out there. They’d be happy to be as good or maybe a little better than the next guy.