If you’re old enough to remember the early days of web design, you know the aesthetics of our digital experiences have changed considerably. What was once a ‘wild west’ of icons, buttons, images, and navs is now a space of mostly organized, functional, and familiar websites. By and large this has benefited businesses and users alike; a more efficient, elegant, more predictable digital landscape makes it easier for companies and people to accomplish their goals. But with that evolution of digital design has come a new quandary: why does everything look the same and what does that say about the changing role of designers?

In this episode of Wireframe, host and Adobe Sr. Director of Design, Khoi Vinh, along with podcast producer Amy Standen, took a trip back in time to see just how we got here. What have we gained as modern digital design principles have evolved, and what have we lost in the process? At first, it might seem strange to explore the visual topic of ‘aesthetic monoculture’ in the audio format, but as Vinh reveals, it provided a rare opportunity to ask some of the big questions in design.

“Podcasting may seem like exactly the exact wrong medium to discuss this, because you can’t show anything. But at the same time, this gave us a good opportunity to not just focus on the aesthetics of the things that we’re talking about and ask the bigger questions…It’s not about saying that I want things to look a certain way, but rather that we should think about the way things look,” he said. Listen to the episode to hear more about the emergence of aesthetic monoculture, and read on for a behind-the-scenes look at why this is an especially important conversation right now.

Click here to read a full transcript of this episode.

Episode 11

We’ve learned to speak the same design language, so it’s no wonder we’re using the same words

Cliff Kuang headshot, UX Design lead at Google.
Cliff Kuang, UX design lead at Google. Image by Medium/Cliff Kuang.

In the early days of the web as we know it, web designers were very much ‘making it up as they went along.’ They turned to the offline world for inspiration (clicking a loudspeaker icon to play a sound file, for example). In evolving our design practices, designers created a digital visual language of their own.

The homepage of this music website from the 90s exemplifies how design has evolved over the years.
90’s web design — not as pretty, but certainly more interesting. Image by Tiklah.

“[Early web designers] were bringing an unconscious culture of aesthetics, reference points, influences, and all this kind of stuff that they were carrying with them, right? Which I think is radically different today,” Cliff Kuang, UX design lead at Google and the author of the upcoming book User Friendly, told Vinh and Standen.

Designers are selling themselves short

Headshot of Jessica Helfand, designer, writer and managing editor of Design Observer.
Jessica Helfand, designer, writer, Yale University professor, and managing editor of Design Observer.

“We’re all more visually sophisticated. Our appetite for beautiful things or better things or more well functional things is better.” Jessica Helfand, a designer and writer who teaches at Yale University, added, stressing that the public, and their perceptions, have changed alongside designers themselves.

“It’s a fantastic time to be a designer but then you ask the question that brings us here today, why does everything look the same. I think it’s related.” 

For producer Standen, this struck a particular nerve — that this same kind of design trend is visible offline too. “I think the aesthetic monoculture of the web mirrors what we see on the streets. Quirky, site-specific, very local-feeling businesses are being replaced by the stylized, minimalist coffee shops and chain stores that look the same no matter what city you’re in. Personally, I’d prefer a world with more weirdness and less slick consumerism. Ditto the internet,” she said.

Photographer Jill Greenberg's very playful 1995 website 'The Manipulator.'
Photographer Jill Greenberg’s very playful 1995 website ‘The Manipulator.”

While Vinh stresses this aesthetic monoculture is not necessarily a bad thing (after all, it has made many corners of the web more functional and accessible), he says there is a risk to designers themselves in becoming purveyors of this ‘sameness’ online.

“I think the risk is that design becomes this discipline that only supplies the parts, so to speak. And doesn’t become a discipline that truly takes into account the wellbeing of users, truly thinks about the full journey of these customers, and really takes responsibility for what it does. So in short, I think the risk is that we sell ourselves short in terms of how we can influence outcomes.”

But in order to move forward, it’s not just about replicating the past, he said. Rather, it’s about designers pushing the boundaries of some of what is currently deemed ‘best practices’ in design.

Jill Greenberg's current website with vibrant portrait images of people from diverse backgrounds.
Jill Greenberg’s current website. Evolved aesthetics, same interesting vibes. Image by Jill Greenberg

In defense of aesthetic monoculture: Is it just about approachability and simplicity?

Vinh and Standen also spoke with Emily Heyward, one of the founders of design and branding agency Red Antler, which has created many web presences for clients that clearly harness the visual and UX conventions that make up the current aesthetic monoculture. For her, these trends are rooted in her client demands, and a perception that these design principles will make for better experiences for everyone.

Headshot of Emily Heyward, co-founder of design and branding agency Red Antler.
Emily Heyward is co-founder of design and branding agency Red Antler.

“A lot of the design choices that accompanied this wave are about approachability, simplicity, just making it easy for people. We’re just going to tell you what you need to know, and we’re not going to have a bunch of bursts and swirls and  all sorts of ways to try to catch your attention with a shiny object. You know, we’re just here to serve you,” she said. 

A screenshot of Red Antler's website illustrating some of their work which leverage modern design principles rooted in simplicity.

A screenshot of Red Antler’s website. The company has done branding and created web experiences for many popular brands. Most now aim to be as approachable and simple as possible, to make it easy for potential customers to access information on products.

Standen, on the other hand, sees this as a corporatization of web design. “There are consequences, both social and aesthetic, of a web that’s increasingly dominated by big corporations trying to sell us stuff. Aesthetically, it means less individualism, more of whatever the current visual trend may be,” she said.

App UIs across the digital world are favoring similar design aesthetics, optimized to be as easy-to-use as possible.
App UIs across the digital world are favoring similar design aesthetics, optimized to be as easy-to-use as possible. Image credit: A Fast Company article exploring the ‘sameness’ popping up in apps (and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing).

But Heyward and the team at Red Antler also see the value in pushing back against this ‘sameness’ that many of their clients crave — searching for new approaches to design instead and gently pushing their clients in these directions. Red Antler is deeply invested in recruiting young designers, fresh out of school, because they haven’t yet “learned the rules” of the modern design aesthetic, and this makes them much better at pushing boundaries. 

We’ve taken our eye off the ball.

Khoi Vinh

Reflecting on the episode, Vinh said he has gained a better understanding of how we got to this point in design. Meanwhile, over the past decades, designers have gotten better and better at their craft; they’ve mastered new technologies, platforms, and have become better than ever at doing business. Designers have gained a lot, but what is being lost?

“We’ve gotten better at all of these complementary aspects of the core act of designing,” he said.

“But we’ve taken our eye off the ball in terms of making sure that the good design that we’re doing is actually good, and it’s uniquely contributing to the overall world that we’re creating…It’s just so much sameness out there, and so little questioning of what the impacts of that might be. The silver lining though is that it’s a tremendous opportunity for new, unique voices to break through and reset the table when it comes to what the internet can look like.”

Behind Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Sr. Director of Product Design, Khoi Vinh. Subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as we uncover more design insights.