Design and Trends

An article by David Brooks on December 4, 2009


I once took a position on an amazing web team, one that really understood design and functionality. I’ve been on a few since, but there’s a reason I mention that one specifically. It was at the beginning of the web standards movement and most people didn’t know anything about the web, if I’m being honest that probably included me.

We (mostly they) designed and developed a gorgeous website that really met the organizations’ needs. It was also very forward thinking and bold, definitely well suited for their target demographic. At the time it wasn’t something most people were doing, especially not in that type of organization. As a result they won a few awards, really nice awards, and were recognized for their accomplishments. Believe me, they deserved it.

A couple of years later I found myself at the helm of that same ship, but without any of the people who had put it in place. About that time some of the people in the organization with influence wanted a redesign. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, so we made it happen. The designer took care of the visuals, I took care of the development.

This time around the new site was a lot more subdued and with a large dose of clean. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it was the polar opposite of the design we had been using. And we didn’t win any awards for it, or get any recognition at all. And though that’s a bit depressing, it’s okay too.

A few months after the redesign went live I noticed a blip in the analytics tool. Someone had posted the old design on a design gallery that was attracting a fair amount of people. The people commenting, mostly designers themselves, were going on about the look and feel of the site. In comparison to the other sites featured on the gallery ours had definitely become the center of attention, but not in a good way.

Most of the people criticized the site’s style. They didn’t like the colors or the textures that had made the site different than everything else out there. They didn’t care for much about it at all, actually. And they couldn’t seem to look past what they considered the site’s biggest design flaws.

But what they didn’t know was the history of the site. They didn’t understand that the design they were looking at had already been replaced by a design that would have felt less antiquated to them, and that we had targeted that design at a certain group of people. But they commented anyway, thinking we were that far behind the times.

What was once new, warm and bold was being described as old and misguided. In their defense, had the site been new I probably would have agreed with them a little more. But two years on the web at that time was a really long time. We learned a lot every week, things like semantic markup and the use of CSS. Ours was the first site that I could name that didn’t use tables for presentation, and the design reflected that forward-thinking movement. By the time that design arrived on the gallery, everyone else had learned those same lessons and could create what it was that we had been doing for years.

So what am I getting at?

Trends come and go, it’s a known fact. The haircut that everyone loves today will be tomorrow’s mullet. Our website wasn’t a mullet, it just wasn’t what the critics wanted to see at that point in time.

I think what really separates the good designers from the great designers, is the ability to create something functional, but that doesn’t necessarily go along with a trend. The best design will stake its claim on the ability to exist and inspire for years to come. This is the only trend worth following.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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