The commoditisation of design

I believe that design is the frontier of uniqueness and creativity. However, as websites have matured, we've started to witness a curious phenomenon...
Written by
Nichola Hudson
Published on
March 26, 2024
The commoditisation of design

I believe that design is the frontier of uniqueness and creativity - a stage that offers boundless opportunity to leave a unique footprint on the World Wide Web.

However, as websites have matured, we've started to witness a curious phenomenon - the commoditisation of design.

An increasing number of websites, most notably SaaS (Software as a Service) websites, are beginning to look strikingly similar. The reasoning behind this growing homogeneity is the prioritisation of performance, usability, and simplicity, resulting in websites featuring similar templates and styles.

Does this mean that all websites are starting to look the same?

What will be the future of web design in this climate?

Is there a lack of design talent?

And how does AI factor into all this?

Let's delve deeper.

No items found.

Performance over Aesthetics?

Websites are crucial for most businesses and organisations -generating sales, leads, and engaging with a membership base.

Consequently, there's a strong focus on optimising the performance of a website, a trend underscored by the emergence of Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) and analytics tools aimed at evaluating design effectiveness.

This has led to a preference for safety by following ‘best practice’ rules, often at the expense of innovative design.

Adhering to these best practices can indeed result in a user-friendly and highly performant website, but in my opinion, it's becoming common to see websites that overly conform to these guidelines, resulting in a landscape where many sites look strikingly similar.

Moreover, the urgency to create websites quickly has led to an increase in the use of HTML, CSS and JavaScript frameworks. I think this further contributes to the proliferation of uniform websites, further constraining the creativity of designers, especially those with less experience and confidence to find their own path.

Prioritising Usability and Simplicity

In the world of SaaS, where the primary aim is to offersoftware solutions via the internet, in addition to business performance, thefocus is on creating a user-friendly interface that resonates with customers.

A key challenge we face as designers is ensuring thatcustomers can easily and intuitively navigate these platforms. As a result, thedesign elements of SaaS websites, in their pursuit of universality anduser-friendliness, have started to resemble one another.

With a focus on boosting their conversion rates, many SaaScompanies rely on tried-and-tested user interface patterns to enhance theusability of their platforms, which in turn creates websites that lookstrikingly similar.

Screenshot comparing three different SaaS websites
No items found.

Take the examples above, from left to right, we see Mouseflow, Slack, and Typeform. Upon initial observation, their visual similarity is striking.

The pink arrows highlight the identical layout structure shared by Mouseflow and Slack, including center-aligned content including titles, calls to action (CTAs), logos of well-known companies, and an explanatory video.

The orange circles identify the common content arrangement found across SaaS websites, where an image is paired with content.

The blue lines show a section dedicated to statistics on both Slack and Typeform, indicating a shared approach to presenting data.

And finally, the green boxes highlight the resemblance of their footer designs, each featuring a CTA banner just above the footer and a similar layout within the footer itself.

The Repetition Dilemma – A Crisis or a Blessing?

Firstly, from a business perspective, prioritising usability and simplicity is nothing short of sensible. It enhances user interactions, leading to improved conversion rates.

So, is it a bad thing? Not necessarily.

Meanwhile, from an artistic standpoint, the over-reliance on generic templates could be disheartening. It creates a predictable design landscape, potentially stifling the creativity and originality that once defined the realm of web design.

What implications does this have for designers? How can we persuade companies of the value of creativity?

Each website is unique, offering opportunities for creative contribution. Differentiating a website is crucial for users to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Tt's true that we should follow essential design principles. However, the requirements of your users will vary from one site to another. Creativity isn’t just aesthetics; it involves inventively navigating the ways users interact with your site.

Will design ever have a ‘seat at the table’?

It’s a hot topic in the design industry that very few designers make it to the C-Suite. When you think of a designer, you might think of the late Steve Jobs, the infamous leader of Apple. But in reality, there are very few others of similar note.

Designers are frequently sidelined during decision-making processes. Design departments sometimes lack a defined role, finding themselves under the umbrella of Product, Engineering, or Marketing departments. These oversights can lead to significant challenges, including overlooked user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) issues that, when eventually addressed by design professionals, can delay project timelines as problems are rectified.

An illustrative analogy used to describe this situation is the concept of a three-legged stool, where each leg represents a fundamental component necessary for building a successful product: Engineering, Product, and Design.

Initially, as a project commences, the stool should stand on three sturdy legs, symbolising the balanced involvement of all three sectors from the start (Figure A). As the project evolves, the legs of the stool grow, ensuring the stability and robustness of the final product (Figure B).

No items found.

A common pitfall occurs when a project begins with just the Engineering and Product teams, depicted as a stool with only two legs. The subsequent introduction of the Design team, illustrated as a belated attempt to add a third leg, results in an unstable structure, metaphorically representing the precariousness of the project's success.

These examples underline the crucial nature of incorporating design from the outset. Design is not an afterthought or a department to be integrated at convenience; it is a pivotal element of a company’s success, warranting equal priority with any other department within a company.

The journey toward recognising the value of design and ensuring it has a 'seat at the table' is ongoing, but the evidence is clear: the commoditization of design not only undermines the potential of design itself but also jeopardises the holistic success of businesses.

Designers are creative thinkers, but we aren’t always great at articulating this verbally or in writing. Our ability to think ‘outside the box’ and bring new ideas to the table can be overlooked because of this.

I think that designers need to more consistently show their impact on the business, and not just the outputs they create. We need to share our knowledge with the wider team, and build productive relationships with those that think differently to us (as they do with us).

Is there a Lack of Design Talent?

The landscape of web design has experienced a profound transformation over the last decade. Today, designers have many resources like Awwwards, Dribble, Behance etc. for inspiration and tools for analyzing user behavior on websites. This abundance of information has undoubtedly made designers more knowledgeable and well-equipped than ever before.

But has it made us better designers?

I’m not sure.

The role of a front-end developer is becoming increasingly blurred with that of a web designer. Have front-end developers become the new 'designers'?

The notion might seem unsettling – "please don't scare me like that!" you might think. It’s natural for businesses to prioritise efficiency and performance, especially if designers fail to demonstrate their unique abilities or convey the value they bring.

I believe that there is a wealth of design talent out there. It needs senior designers like myself to coach, mentor and lead the path for them to excel.

AI and the future of design

A noteworthy factor that could potentially redefine the balance is Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI’s integration into the world of design might pose as a threatening prospect for some, although, in reality, it harbours potential for positive disruption.

AI tools are developing at an unprecedented rate, offering possibilities that stretch beyond the use of common templates.

AI can evaluate user behaviour, preferences, and interactions, facilitating highly personalised design. These advancements mean designers can adopt a data-driven approach, creating unique digital experiences tailor-made for distinct user bases.

What does this mean for the future of design?

I hope that we have not reached the end of uniquely creative design.

Instead, I hope we will see a shift in the design approach.

As community, we, as designers, need to strike a balance between maintaining simplicity and usability and expressing originality. This calls for a refined focus on elements such as typography, colours, and imagery – areas where creative choices can distinctly shine without sacrificing user-friendliness.

Wrapping up

In my opinion, even though the commoditisation of design might appear as a barrier to creativity, there’s a silver lining.

By having a common base of design features, designers can focus on innovating around the fringes, such as adding personalised design elements or engaging content, which complement the user-centric interfaces.

AI's involvement will intensify the importance of data and ‘best practice’, so we can expect trends to become even more intuitive, consistent and structured.

I believe that web design in the future will follow a mix of predictability, anchored by AI, whilst offering creative, personalised user experiences.

Web design doesn't have to be a battle between creativity and ‘best practice’ usability. Rather, as we move into the future, embracing both may be the best path forward.


Regular newsletter
Our latest thoughts, tips and exclusive interviews in your inbox every month.