Design vs Trends

My blog has always been a random hodgepodge of whatever happens to be on my mind. Luckily, WordPress allows you to subscribe to a single tag. Posts tagged with DGM2740 are responses to reading assignments from my Web Design class. You’re welcome to stick around if you’d like.

This week we had two articles to choose from. I’m opting to respond to the one that is readily available online: “10 best-designed websites in the world” by Ben Hunt. I question his choice of titles. Reading through his list, it seems the post focuses much less on design than it does on trends.

As in any list of trendy sites, his top pick is Apple.com, of course. Now don’t get me wrong, everyone loves apple.com, but I am not sure about choosing it as the best designed site in the world. But Apple is Trendy with a capital T.

Remember Stacey from Junior High? Maybe I have her name wrong, but surely she went to school with you: she’d walk into class with a new outfit on Monday, and by Friday several other students were wearing the same thing. Within six months, you’d more or less be beat up for not dressing like her; and by the time you get the outfit, they’re beating you up for not wearing the next big thing.

Apple is the new Stacey in so many ways: ask any software author about the initiation to the iPhone App club and you’ll see a strong comparison. But I’ll focus on the wardrobe analogy. Stacey might indeed look fabulous, but isn’t calling it the best outfit ever going a bit overboard when everyone knows she’ll abandon her look as soon as the band geeks start wearing it?

Apple is the same way. They really do define trends on the web, but how well designed can it be when they change it so soon? I can’t say as I blame them, either, what with all the copycats out there, but I hesitate to list this design among the best of the best when they aren’t even using it anymore. For the life of me I can’t find a single page on their site that looks anything like the screenshot he’d grabbed. It’s not just the content, either. The navigation is completely different. I did find this, though, courtesy of the WayBack machine at webarchive.org:

Apple.com in 1997
Screenshot of Apple.com in 1997

You don’t see many sites looking like that anymore, right? Was it horrible design on Apple’s part, or did it simply go out of style?

Apple has changed their look and feel several times through the years, opting for a simpler layout in 1998, then adding tabs across the top and a news ticker that later went away. I had a great time digging through the archives, but I never found anything that looked like the screenshot Mr. Hunt provided. The layout has apparently been dramatically changed again since then, from the site with the cute icons and several boxes of information around the page, to this:

Apple.com Today
A screenshot of Apple's Site circa Jan. 2010

So now we have a few plain tabs across the top and a full-screen image with a brief description of the page. Users scroll down for some below-the-fold content. A glance back at his top ten list tells me Mr. Hunt would approve of that trend as well. 🙂

Screenshot of the 10 Best-Designed Web Sites in the World article
Tabs along the top, full screen image with summary, scroll for content.. wait a second!

Let’s talk about Stacey again for a moment. It really didn’t matter how she dressed. What mattered was her intended message: “I can change my look whenever I feel like it, because I am successful.” Or at least her parents are. The people who copy her first say, “We’re just as good as she is.” Of course in my little story, Stacey is no doubt wearing some trend found in her mother’s fashion mags; she didn’t invent the trend herself. If the trend really takes, sooner or later everyone’s got knock-offs, and finally the people who don’t care about fashion at all are wearing it because it’s on clearance at Wal-Mart.

The same thing happens with websites trends, and similar messages apply. When I’m evaluating clients, I like to try to figure out where they stand when it comes to web trendiness. Well-funded clients are happy to pay for a team of designers to give them a cutting edge look. Others are happy to pay, and re-pay, to ride each trend as it comes along. Remember the message? “We are successful enough that we can afford to keep up with the ever-changing trends!” — if that’s really what they want, I as a designer am happy to help them with their goals!

Some are happy to utilize whatever is already functional and cheap. Some balk at designers rates; bear their expectations in mind when giving them a quote. Personally, I’m the type that would rather find a neat and functional look of my own so I can stick with it for years as style takes a back-seat to content. None of these are wrong; use what fits your client best.

But real design work… the type Apple pays the big money for… is much less a question of which trend to follow, and more a matter of rational thought and strategy with style sprinkled in as a finishing touch. This makes judging a top ten list much more complicated, because how are we to know what a company’s goals are and what limitations they must work within? How are we to know whether their intentions are being carried out successfully? Design doesn’t start with a template or with inspiration from a trendier-than-thou model. It is learning what the client wishes to communicate, and finding the best way to do so.