Much like midcentury modern has overtaken the American home, design homogeneity has descended upon the web.
It comes in the form of particular typefaces, notably Georgia and Arial; the use of white and off-white as default background colors; and certain design elements, such as hamburger menus and flat design, that are common enough to be ubiquitous.
This design homogenization has emerged gradually, according to a recent study by a group of researchers at Indiana University. It found that websites were most dissimilar from each other between 2008 and 2010, when designers began to take advantage of large, higher-quality monitors that gave them more room to work with, according to Sam Goree, one of the researchers who worked on the project. But between 2010 and 2016, differences in web design between sites became significantly less common.
“In the early 2000s, there was a lot of variety in the kinds of layouts and colors that people were using on their websites. And, by and large, that variety is decreased,” says Goree. Imagine designing a GeoCities website: much of what you had to create, from layouts to fonts to colors to navigation, were built from scratch. Maybe you could scrounge up someone else’s code for a bit of guidance on a menu bar or a text box. But for the most part, you were on your own.
Of course, GeoCities was hardly the only place online where web designers let their freak flags fly. The entire web was a bit of a free-for-all. Even corporate websites that people interpreted as looking similar were actually relatively dissimilar, as Goree points out in The Conversation.
The emergence of software libraries — repositories of code that programmers and designers can access to assist when building websites or embarking on other projects — contributed to the ever-growing homogenization of the web, according to Goree’s study. “In the early 2000s, people would generally write the code or copy the code for their website. But now there were these resources that they could use,” he says. These software libraries, along with the advent of the iPhone and other smartphones that encouraged designers to create sites that would look decent both on a computer and on mobile, encouraged this growing design conformity, he says. As the large tech companies that maintain these software libraries have grown in size and influence, this design consolidation has only become more entrenched, Goree writes in his piece in The Conversation.
By applying generic templates to a wide range of website types, designers are separating form from content, when in fact, form and content are dependent upon each other.
“In the past, sites had many different colors and backgrounds and many different colors of text. But now sites mostly have an off-white background with images taking up large portions of their space. So that’s color,” Goree says. “The second thing is layout — in the past, sites had a varied number of columns and arrangement of things within their space. But now, sites generally have a one-column or a three-column format.”
In a piece for the Medium design blog Modus, Boris Muller, a professor of interaction design at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam in Germany, blames templated websites, such as WordPress and Behance, for the bland nature of our current internet. By applying generic templates to a wide range of website types, designers are separating form from content, when in fact, form and content are dependent upon each other. “One of the fundamental principles of design is a deep and meaningful connection between form and content; form should both reflect and shape content,” he writes. “Separating them breaks this principle and creates generic content containers. In a design sense, templates are meaningless; the form adds nothing to the content.”
There are a lot of good reasons why websites would adopt certain design elements, layouts, and colors. Chief among them is that users like the predictability. A 2012 Google study found that users preferred sites with medium-level complexity (or the amount of intricacy and detail within a website), and prototypicality, or familiarity. In other words, users prefer websites that feature a design with which they are familiar, as well as one with a medium amount — not too many, not too few — of features and activity on the screen.
The other huge issue is accessibility. “Sites that make use of common software libraries tend to be more accessible to the visually impaired, because these libraries are better at conforming to standards,” says Goree. Software libraries often feature product designs created with accessibility in mind, but the overall adoption of white and off-white as the standard website background color undermines some of this progress. A 2017 study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that for users with dyslexia, in particular, warm background colors, like yellow and peach, are more readable than sites with cool background colors, like blue-gray. High contrast is another crucial element of accessible design, so a pale yellow or peach background with deep black text would be considerably more accessible than a baby blue background with a dark gray text, for example.
Relying on someone else’s work is also, quite simply, easier. Using a template or a software library to make a site is undeniably less of a demand on a designer’s time than building it from scratch. But there’s a heavy side effect: the internet has become boring. Uncreative. And, yes, predictable. “The internet, at least in the 1990s and early 2000s, really felt like a shared cultural artifact that many people were contributing to in an artistic and aesthetic way. And that no longer feels the case,” says Goree. “It seems like a small number of professional designers at big tech companies are making all of the aesthetic decisions about the internet.”
By depending on software libraries and templates to create the web, we’re sending a message about our current moment in time: that it’s one dominated by corporate control, our own individual preferences and aesthetic sensibilities steamrolled by convenience and conformity. Perhaps this is a truthful demonstration of this stage of the internet, one written by Silicon Valley monopolies instead of the people who use the web, day in and day out. But imagine online spaces in which beautiful, unique design crafted with a vigilant acknowledgment of accessibility guidelines. An internet for everyone, by everyone, from the ground up.