October 23, 2014

Flat, Big Type, and Great Photos: Contemporary Web Design at its Simplest

The world of web design has changed. Over the past two decades it has been influenced both by the Modern Art movement and by a need for websites to load and work smoothly on mobile phones. This has led web design to become simpler and simpler. Gone are the sites that try to mimic keyboards or other real-world devices, filled with heavy drop shadows, bubbly buttons, and piles upon piles of images. They've been replaced by subtle lines, barely visible shadows, solid blocks of color, subtle patterns, large images, and big typography stating a clearly defined message.

Near the beginning of the Modern Art movement in 1910, architect Adolf Loos commented in his lecture "Ornament and Crime" that by adding superfluous ornaments to the product you commit two crimes: wasting energy on the ornaments and dating your product when that ornamentation goes out of style. From Modern architecture's beating drum of “simplicity above all else” rose the notion that through the function of a thing rises its form.

At its core, a website exists to simply convey information—our company does this and here is our contact info. The rest of the content is there to help convince users that you're their best choice. But during the 1990's, most websites were being generated by the same people who managed the company’s servers and email systems. Without a formal background in design, they were creating sites, throwing whatever they could find onto them to make them look "fancy." But soon actual trained designers intervened. They brought the "less clutter, more focus" philosophy of logo and print design with them and started web down the road to what we see today.

Apple is a prime example of contemporary design trends because of the evolution the look and feel of their hardware and software has undergone. From the first generation of iPhone to the iPhone6—a mere seven years—both hardware and operating system have changed from a bubbly plastic aesthetic to a flat, simple look. Apple's website also follows this trend closely and far more visibly. Looking through Archive.org's Wayback Machine, Apple.com showcases as a perfect example as it moves from a 1996 site that has dated terribly to slowly transitioning toward what's seen on all modern websites today: blocks of color, images, a clear message, and extremely subtle effects if any.

Now the influences of the Modern movement are felt more than ever in the design field as a whole. "Form follows function, and a reason for everything" has become the mantra for everything that designers do with very few exceptions. If we cannot give a reason for ornaments outside of "it looks pretty," then we can not have it included. This translates perfectly to contemporary and responsive web design's purpose: a clear message with minimal ornamentation and the ability to flex to the size of the screen.

During the introduction and prevalence of previous smartphone generations, multiple versions of websites were developed: a flip-phone SMS based site (which is still prevalent with flip-phones, non-US and most non-Euro countries), a redirected smartphone site (seen as mobile.website.com), and finally a regular desktop version. Designers and clients alike saw that they were increasing their workload and incurring significantly more expenses because of the time needed to develop multiple versions of the same sites. They concluded that their time was better spent by embracing the simplicity in the core construction of one website that responds to users screen sizes instead.

But not all is lost if your website isn't responsive. The question that companies have to answer is whether their user base is going to be viewing the site primarily on a mobile phone or on a desktop computer? Inherently, even websites designed for desktop size will display in some form on mobile phones, which is acceptable if certain precautions are taken. But if companies want to look like they haven't cut any corners, they absolutely must develop a site that caters to mobile phone users. And, as history has shown again and again, a simple, functional design is likely the answer.