Don’t Follow Trends: Set Them!

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Your website represents your brand. New visitors will form a first impression of your service or product within seconds of arriving at your website, and the visuals, layout and aesthetic will play a large role in shaping that impression. Sure, your website may be very usable and have great content, but it’s the aesthetic that will evoke feeling, and it’s the aesthetic that will be used to judge the quality of your website in those first few seconds before the visitor has had time to browse around.

Use this to your advantage and fashion a unique style that will set your website apart from the rest — a style that will impress and delight your users.

Throughout history, great artists always found new ways to express themselves and create new techniques to set their work apart from the rest. Think about the styles of Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock. Think about the different movements of art, from Impressionism and Expressionism to Surrealism and Minimalism. These styles couldn’t be more different from each other — and that’s the point. The artists’ names live on because their art is unique.

Unique

Do you want to simply follow the latest design trends and create a website that works well but looks just like many other websites out there? Following trends won’t set you apart from the rest; it won’t help your work make a strong impression. To make something memorable, you’ll need an element of creativity and novelty.

Unlike certain other forms of art, such as painting and sculpture, Web design is very limited in its expression because more often than not your website has to serve a very specific function and achieve certain goals. Successful designs are influenced and driven by those goals. There is, however, still room to develop your own unique style and aesthetic. Doing so will help you stand out from the competition and allow you to develop a strong identity.

Web design isn’t art

Having said all that, Web design isn’t art. Art is self-expression that is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated on its own. Design is communication; and, more specifically, Web design is an interface for content. Sure, there are websites out there that are purely art, but the large majority of them perform a certain function or deliver information. The website acts as the interface between the user and that function or information. This means it not only has to look nice, it actually has to do its job well, too. Indeed, in most cases, function should come before form.

I believe I can say that websites today are much better than they were 10 years ago. What do I mean by “better”? I mean to say that Web designers have learned from their mistakes over the years and have picked all the low-hanging fruit of usability. Websites today are more usable and more user-friendly because we have greater experience in and increased knowledge of how to build websites that work and interfaces that are easy to figure out.

Yet, I cannot say that art today is “better” than it was ten or a hundred or a thousand years ago. Impressionism isn’t “better” than Realism. Expressionism isn’t “better” than Minimalism. They’re just different.

Web design as architecture

While Web design incorporates an aspect of art, it also incorporates function. In this way, I think it actually has a lot of similarities to architecture, for which you need a healthy dose of both style and function.

Architecture

The world’s earliest treatise on architecture, “De architectura,” written by Vitruvius in around 25 BC, outlined three principles that all good construction should fulfill: firmitatis, utilittis and venustatis: durability, utility and beauty. I believe that today these three principles apply to Web design as well.

Your work should be durable in that it should scale well — or handle a lot of traffic — which is ensured by having code that is clean and optimized, as well as a means of making future modifications and updates with ease. It should fulfill the goals and function of the website, whether they be to advertise a product, sell goods, show off a portfolio or perhaps display articles from a blog. Finally, it should look good; it should have its own look and feel. We need to make the Web browsing experience enjoyable for our visitors by crafting a pleasing aesthetic.

Over centuries, architects and engineers have figured out better ways to construct buildings, to make them stronger and larger. These advances in function are similar to advances we’ve seen in Web design. We’ve figured out better ways to make registration forms, navigation menus that are easier to use, layouts that are simpler to figure out; generally speaking, we have greatly improved the usability of our websites. This is because we’ve had years to look at how people use the Web and to fix the usability problems that pop up most of the time. We see what works best and implement those things in new websites that we build.

Venustatis

But let’s not forget Vitruvius’ third principle of beauty. In architecture we see different waves of style. Different centuries bring different looks and feels to buildings. Houses are designed to be lived in, but life would be really dull if they all looked the same and focused only on function.

Sydney Opera House

The design of the Opera House in Sydney is so distinct that it’s more than just a building — it’s an iconic city landmark.

In Web design we have very similar waves. Most notable is the Web 2.0 style, in which we had things like glossy buttons, mirrored floors, starbursts and so on; it even inspired various Web 2.0-style logo and website generators, because the style was so formulaic in nature.

New trends like this appear, and some get picked up and quickly adapted across the Web. Does your current website design follow a trend? Perhaps it is setting one? If you copy other trends, then your website will be just that, a copy, but if you can go the extra mile and create a unique look that differentiates your website, then your website will be memorable. Of course, being different isn’t the only thing you’ll need. The unique style and layout must also be attractive and must accomplish its goals.

Fresh inspiration

So how do you go about creating something different? Where do you find inspiration to create something unique? When Cordell Ratzlaff and his team were designing the new interface for the Mac OS X operating system, they found their ideas in the most unusual places.

Cordell saw a great opportunity to change to an appearance that was fresh and fun, in contrast to the existing state of the art. He decided to change from gloomy, square, and bevelled, to light, fun, and colorful, with a very fluid expression. He asked, What’s the opposite of a computer interface? He came up with things like candy, liquor, and liquids, to inspire a new visual design of the interface. The designers collected magazine ads for liquor, with delicious looking liquids in glasses with ice cubes, sparkling with reflections and highlights.

Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions

When working on your new website or Web application interface, don’t simply look at what everybody else is doing. If you look inward to your own industry and similar websites, you will no doubt find a lot of likeness. This is because many of these websites borrow from each other, and when new websites launch, they borrow from them in turn. What we have is a monotonous experience in which you are only looking inward, blind to the world of possibilities outside.

Water splash

Take a lesson from Cordell Ratzlaff and seek inspiration from new sources. Look at nature, look at real world objects, look at the things that symbolize and evoke the kinds of emotions and feelings you really want to elicit with your design and aesthetic. Cordell looked at things like ice cubes in liquor, which inspired him to create the liquid Aqua interface for Mac OS X. The glossy gel buttons and other user interface elements in Aqua have since inspired many Web designers in the rise of Web 2.0 and all of the glossy and shiny visuals it brought.

Let’s take a look at a few trendsetters, websites that break the mold and feature successful designs that get picked up and adapted by others.

Leaders and Followers

Twitter

Twitter, the popular micro-blogging platform, has created a unique flat and colorful look that features illustrations of clouds and birds (and whales). The bright, cartoony feel is accompanied by an elegant and simple layout.

Yammer

Yammer, a recently launched “Twitter for businesses” application, takes on a similar appearance and an almost identical layout. The cartoony feel is gone, but the shape and feel remain very similar, due to the iconic Twitter layout.

Facebook

Facebook, the social networking heavyweight, has won its audience partly because of the uncluttered, minimalist design that puts the content right in the front seat. The clean layout is accompanied by a simple blue and gray color palette.

Social Median

Social Median, a social news website, features the familiar minimalist look and feel of Facebook, together with a similar color palette and layout.

Highrise

Highrise, a CRM application, features a very powerful landing page. On one page, visitors can see a description of the app, an overview of several features, a video tour as well as a bunch of links inviting them to explore. The typography and colors work to focus the visitor’s attention on the most important things.

Presently

Presently, another internal communication tool for businesses, features a landing page that is very close in its composition to that of Highrise, or indeed that of any other 37signals app. This powerful layout is now used by a lot of Web start-ups.

Apple

Apple’s website incorporates the same aesthetic as that of its product interfaces, and indeed its entire product line. Over the last few years, it has transitioned from the watery Aqua style to smooth aluminum gradients, light-gray shades and rounded corners.

Newspond

Newspond, a news aggregator, features a different layout than that of Apple’s own website, but the aesthetic is strikingly similar. There are many other websites today that use very similar styles that are inspired by Apple’s industrial designs and interfaces.

Basecamp

Basecamp, one of the most popular Web project management applications, from 37signals, has pioneered this simple and effective layout that you can find in a lot of other Web apps today. Everything is clear and structured, with a minimal use of images to speed up downloading time.

Blinksale

Blinksale, an invoicing Web application, is one among many to borrow the popular design and structure of the 37signals website.

Simplebits

SimpleBits, Dan Cederholm’s design company, uses his signature minimalist layout and typography. Dan takes out everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, tweaks white space to pixel perfection and focuses on really polishing the little details. The result is beautiful minimalism.

Twiek

The Twiek blog design looks like it’s heavily inspired by SimpleBits.

Conclusion

If you want to craft an iconic website that stands out from the competition, you need to come up with a unique and novel aesthetic. You need to design a look and feel that’s different — something that doesn’t look like all of the other websites in your industry. Getting inspired by great work and beautiful things is a good thing, but you have to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of mimicking other designs too closely, or else your website could end up looking like a cheap copy.

Seek inspiration from outside your industry. Focus on the emotions you want to evoke and the character you want to give your website, rather than on what everybody else is doing. Design a layout unique to your website or application by focusing on its goals and objectives rather than on what other people have done.

While Web design isn’t art, and while there are limits to how much you can express yourself and how many visuals you can use, there is still plenty of room for a unique style. Just as Vincent van Gogh’s post-Impressionism style and Pablo Picasso’s unique art set them apart from the rest, breaking the mold will give your website a powerful and memorable identity that others will want to mimic.

Don’t follow trends: set them. (al)

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Dmitry Fadeyev is the creator of Usaura, a micro usability testing service, and the founder of UsabilityPost, a blog about good design and user experience. Additionally, you can read his thoughts on design, art and practical philosophy over at his personal blog.

  1. 1

    Good stuff

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  2. 2

    Hey! An actual article with information and junk in it… way to go smashing! I’m surprised you didn’t try and fit some RSS icons in here somewhere.

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  3. 3

    Juan Manuel Lemus

    November 25, 2008 2:24 pm

    Oh, Wow! My site on Smashing Magazine. I am the author of Twiek: but the site don’t uniquely inspired by SimpleBits. Twiek was inspired on A List Apart, Simple Bits, and Adobe.

    Following the best on Internet: A look to creativity.

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  4. 4

    Nice article, that was really well written and is really true of the web. I haven’t seen many “flashy” designs for utility/function based sites go very far actually.

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  5. 5

    HAHA really? An article on originality on this site? You guys fuel this Web 2.0 bullsh*t like nobody else, with your endless barrage of useless RSS icons, shiny gloss over everything imaginable (which subsequently HAS TO reflect on a surface), etc, etc.

    Seriously, take a look at the sites you’re featuring in this post. You’re basing originality on looks, and yet virtually every site listed (regardless of leader/follower title) looks almost the same (with a few minor exceptions).

    Get over yourselves. And here’s a message to the worshipers of all things Web 2.0: knowing how to customize a WordPress template doesn’t necessarily qualify you as a ‘designer’. This blog-style designing is completely overrated, utterly unoriginal, and the color of your RSS icon / radius of your rounded corners doesn’t make you unique.

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  6. 6

    Great article Dmitry! Now go update your tweets! (I didn’t even know you had a twitter account)

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  7. 7

    it so hard to get this message across to new clients who approach you with a plethora of sites that they love and wish to mimic..
    Great post.. and i agree with most of it – with a few changes in the Leaders and Followers category though…

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  8. 8

    good article

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  9. 9

    I don’t think “lol” actually read the post ;P….

    I think if companies, but more so the clients, understand what this article is really saying, they will get why craiglist, google, basecamp, facebook, linkedin etc… look the way they do. Simple works, sometimes flashy graphics hide a site with no real function to provide, other times it just slows it down unnecessarily.

    Now how to get clients to understand this is a different matter.

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  10. 10

    Wow it was a good article up until you included a set of uninteresting bland mainstream examples. What a buzzkill!

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  11. 11

    @lol, please understand SM features different guest authors. While many of them merely compose list blogs of show casing trends, Dmitry actually writes thought out, original articles. The sites Dmitry featured in this article all look different from each other, for obvious reasons due to their individual goals. If you think they don’t look unique enough, it’s because too many people have copied them.

    But I agree with you on your sentiment overall, just had to clarify a few things.

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  12. 12

    Great article for sure, its exactly what ive been saying to myself and other designers for years, but just never could put it into the words like you have.

    However, great article but some bad examples there.

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  13. 13

    Awesome article :)

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  14. 14

    And I also ‘sort-of’ agree with user “lol”. Majority of the web today have no real “unique-ness” to the structure. Most of the elements are the same on most of the websites being made today.

    Here’s a quote from me;

    What you call “the web today” you think its the best it can be, you are completely wrong. You say that “Design isn’t Art”, but yet “Art and Design is creation”. Manufactured elements of creativity from the power of one’s knowledge, to produce something that’s never been done before. For all those sites listed above, I can tell you this, the one’s that made these products are not Designers. They are stylists.

    And before you question, a stylist is someone who immitates a style and develops it. That’s what majority of you so called designers have been doing for years. There is no real creativity being shown. Yet you shine upon yourselves and others around you about your “amazing web 2.0 design” or whatever else you want to call it.

    How many of you so called “designers” know what Art/Design reall is? How many of you so called “designers” have immitated a style or an element of another layout?

    Another quote;

    People story around the subject that a God created everything, this place we live in. So therefore if a God did do so, he designed / created, manufactured from imagination. I and many other people do the same thing on a daily basis, we design, create, manufacture from imagination of things that have not been done before, so arent we the God?

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  15. 15

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    November 25, 2008 3:41 pm

    @all: the article was updated, thank you.

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  16. 16

    Hey guys, thanks for the feedback :)

    To address some points above: The sites above were the pioneers — these are the guys who “set” the Web 2.0 trends you see today. All the barrage of copies you talk about are often reflections of these styles, be it Apple’s glossy buttons, aluminum gradients or 37signals’ application layout, aesthetic and product pages.

    Sure, the sites don’t look very flashy or awe inspiring, but that’s exactly the point — they don’t have to in their context. The sites above are not all the same. Just think of Twitter… and you can instantly remember the familiar clouds and cartoony feel. Think of Facebook… the minimalist interface comes to mind. I’m not even going to talk about how much the 37signals app design influenced a lot of the new web apps you see out there.

    Those guys created their own thing — they had their own inspirations. The point of my post is that today I’m seeing a lot of sites (though it’s much more prevalent in web application design) that look like copies. I think that instead they should be a little braver and try to pioneer their own style, design their own icons and come up with a layout that suits them rather than looking like every other site in their industry.

    The web application industry is getting very competitive lately, with startups popping up left and right. I think this makes it even more important to try to stand out and create a brand and identity rather than just a site. And that’s by no means an easy task.

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  17. 17

    Juan: It’s a nice site :) I can see the A List Apart inspiration now.

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  18. 18

    How can you say web design isnt art? That’s almost offensive…

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  19. 19

    “Web design isn’t art. Art is self-expression that is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated on its own. Design is communication; and, more specifically, Web design is an interface for content.”

    “While Web design incorporates an aspect of art, it also incorporates function. In this way, I think it actually has a lot of similarities to architecture, for which you need a healthy dose of both style and function.”

    You have no idea what you are talking about, Is there any regulation on guest posts on this website? I stopped reading when I got to your rant about what “art” is, just terrible.

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  20. 20

    interesting article, but a very strange set of “example” sites to end it on, none of witch are unique or set a new trend at all: Facebook uncluttered?!

    Certainly the uniqueness of this site is being a blog of free glass icons and articles on uniqueness. Fun times :-)

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  21. 21

    HMMMMM…

    All i Can say is every design style has it’s place but let’s be honest the above are mainly basic style sheets, What I find really insulting is the prices some firms charge for “web 2.0 sites with a custom *cough* open-source bookends” Just saying.

    I tend to give a cheaper rate for “web 2.0 b.s” because it requires little to no work just smart placement.

    And design is art.

    But i guess that’s why web 2.0 is so huge lot’s of non-creative coders by the book flooded the market.

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  22. 22

    Very well written call-to-action. This is going to stick around in my head for a long time.

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  23. 23

    Creating a great design is an art.

    However, creating “art” in the layman sense is limited to the technology used.

    If you use HTML/CSS/JS, you can only go so far.

    However, if you’re using Flash, processing, and/or a 3D engine (such as papervision or sharikura), then it is very possible to create digial interactive art.

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  24. 24

    currently I’m trying to set a trend locally on Chile.. my website it’s started about 2 weeks ago.. it’s about the bussiness activities that came up on the years end..
    I’m using clicktale to record random videos of my visitors and with that I can improve the layout of my website (BTW it’s on spanish language)
    i’d love to hear some feedback from you

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  25. 25

    Great article about ripping ideas without ripping the reality !
    thanks for the article.

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  26. 26

    all i can say is this:
    Art is Love. Design is Money.

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  27. 27

    Nice!

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  28. 28

    My quote my not be 100% accurate but I think Paul Rand once said “don’t try to be original just try to be good.” In any case, I like the post and it’s message.

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  29. 29

    @Stu – I like that someone here can quote a designer and not just say, “Well Apple did it.”

    I think there should be a ban on articles on Smashing that have an image of 37Signals or Apple… Smashing is making a name for themselves by being bland, copycat, lame, rehashed, boring, and useless. Unless that’s their goal, then, well done.

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  30. 30

    My regular comments got heart! But the examples are examples for mainstream design, sorry, at least mostly. Blink sale’s design has the same color scheme, grid and senseless blog design as millions of other sites have currently. It just looks kuler+wordpress. Same thing with Twitter. May be something new regarding its function, but what’s new with the design? The only thing that is missing are inner shadows on crystal bottoms. The opposite is Apple. Besides the fact that many are copying their design, one can see that there is one constant way of designing und development from the 80ies up to now. I hope they are going to ban all blue tones in their next make-up so millions of “designers” are forced to do like them overnight :)

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  31. 31

    I think this is one of the main reasons I don’t use CMS. Sooner or later everybody’s website/blog will look the same.

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  32. 32

    SYan, I think CMS is called CMS for a reason, it is not supposed to screw with your layout, only the content. Perhaps you have just found the wrong CMS-systems and you should google for better ones. In fact I recall there is an article in Smashing Magazine that gives more about CMS-systems.

    This was once again a good article. Thanks!

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  33. 33

    i hate highrise so bad its the worst site ever made… all this giant fonts and bad used vibrant colors make me go insane, but btw nice article as always

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  34. 34

    yes I agree with not to follow trends and instead of it set them.
    but somehow old trends will plays a vital role while setting new trends.

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  35. 35

    Smashing becomes for good my daily dose of design. Thanks for all good articles.

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  36. 36

    Probably the best post I’ve ever read anywhere. Something that a lot of the readers of SM could use a huge dose of. Every person posting here is completely guilty of this.

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  37. 37

    Hmmm.
    I didn’t really think these examples vere trendsetting… I kinda felt like: “Same old- same old…”
    Sorry.

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  38. 38

    Great article; Best ever article I’ve read here at SM. I would love to see article like this not only RSS icon set and wallpapers.

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  39. 39

    hiii thats cool tutorial

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  40. 40

    Good stuff!
    Guys instead of arguing over the post, can someone share or throw some light on the core subject of setting new trend. I mean some pointers, some real life examples like Cordell Ratzlaff would be great !

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  41. 41

    Good article (minus the art thing) until those examples appeared, I was expecting to be blasted by some great unique designs, but I only got to see Twitter…what a disappointment :)

    You all really think all of those example websites look nice? Twitter as a service is cool, but that is not enough to make it ‘inspiration’ ! Am I the only one to say Twitter’s design is awful out loud? And Yammer??? The color is awful on almost all the examples, especially Yammer, I respect the functionality but dude, look at the friggin’ header, it looks like some “$50 freelancing professional from Bangladesh” did it in 10 minutes…

    That 37whatever/Apple/AListApart bunch seems to be something that sets the rules, that is not to be discussed and/or questioned, or criticized at all. And there seems to be a sect of designers (stylists, as somebody wisely said) that will just replicate anything those certain “inspiration-blasters” do without thinking. It’s like a new design religion…where they strive to achieve perfection set by their gods aforementioned…

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  42. 42

    Let’s set some things right. We often confuse the concepts “Layout” and “Design” and that’s wrong. Layout is all about element positioning in a webpage. Where the main menu will be placed, the main content, the ads, the relative links etc etc. That is, it has to do with readability and ease of use. The design is the presentation of those layout elements in a different style. Layout and Design are both very important for creating a unique user experience. Both have to be unique. I think that art can be expressed through the web, after all, art is about expressing different feelings and make a point, or show something in another view. A web page could create feelings to the viewer and could express art IF it was indented to. It depends on what the website is trying to achieve. I hear some say that its all bolggy today and they are right but i have to admit that the bloggy style achieves a very good presentation of the content. A layout trend such as blogs is based in concepts about readability and ease of use. After all we all know how to navigate through a blog and find what we want. When i get in a supermarket i know where to look for the navigation signs or where the cashier is and it is fundamental to find what i want in a very short time especially when there are thousands of products (content). How it would be if the cashier was at the fourth floor instead of the exit? So after many years and different approaches of what’s usable and what’s not, the web community has set unofficially some fundamentals about the good presentation of data. When someone comes and gives us a whole different and successful way to do that, he creates a new trend. These are the pioneers that Dmitry says. That’s what we want to do. So if you don’t like the web 2.0 approach, go ahead and invent the web 3.0

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  43. 43

    I think the “design is not art” point has been misconstrued.

    Of course design is an art form – great design is a beautiful thing. What I think Dmitry meant was that whereas “fine art” is expression without necessarily function, design has to accommodate both.

    I agree that function in design is more important than superficial appearance. No one would be impressed by the roof of the Sydney opera house if it didn’t provide shelter from the weather while they were watching a show.

    Design of websites should reflect the purpose of the website. It may seem a redundant point, but I’ve met many fellow designers who treat information and utility like a terrible inconvenience, compromising their graphic design (often the design was uninspired to begin with).

    Getting the right balance is what separates the leaders from the followers :)

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  44. 44

    @Dimitris Bor
    Layout is only a part of the design. They are not separate.

    @mikemike
    Speak for yourself. There are a lot of people who read SM for the sole purpose of finding out exactly what to avoid (e.g. uber-glossy free icons).

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  45. 45

    To do so, the first step is to remove Smashing from your bookmarks.

    It’s gonna be hard, no more “200 astonishing free vector-grunge brushes for your RSS icons” blog-posts.

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  46. 46

    Descartes; golden mountain. Originality is dead. EOD.

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  47. 47

    very cool! thank you!

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  48. 48

    Very nice :D thanks!

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  49. 49

    Very good article. The selection of example sites could have been better but the points made in the content were good.

    I think Jason Santa Maria deserves to be up there as well.

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  50. 50

    Thanks for the article, the quote from Bill Moggridge/Designing Interactions was really inspiring. I hope I can think outside the “web 2.0 square” next time I’m working on a new site :)

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  51. 51

    this site is more and more useless and unprofessional…
    at least, next time, take the wikipedia definition of “art”

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  52. 52

    That should be “utilitatis”.

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  53. 53

    Interesting article. Ironic that an essay on originality would be peppered with such cliché photography.

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  54. 54

    Enjoyed this article – thank you!

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  55. 55

    This really has given y’all an opp to slag other sites off with your comments eh?

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  56. 56

    Quite interesting.
    I like the link between architecture and web site design.
    Opens up nice research possibilities.

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  57. 57

    Web Design isn’t art.

    I agree!!

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  58. 58

    chris Kelly: If I gave “unique” examples, then they wouldn’t be very good examples of “trend setters” would they, as there wouldn’t be a trend? The more followers, the stronger the trend.

    Rob: You say I have no idea what I’m talking about, yet you fail to point out where in your comment. I would be grateful to learn from you if you could take the time to put write down your thoughts ;)

    Zhillo: I think I should have made it more clear that the examples I gave go in pairs. So the first of the pair is the original, and the second is the “inspired” one. So no, I don’t think Yammer and Blinksale are very original. That doesn’t make their sites bad… just not original.

    malasse: I don’t think the overabundance of design resources Smashing Magazine provides is a bad thing. It just comes down to what you do with them ;)

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  59. 59

    I think everyone in these comments needs to lighten up. After all, its more what works for your client than what you’d prefer your design to look like.

    If I have a client that wants a certain type of website and their is a preconceived notion of how its supposed to work – I’m not going to completely ignore the strong points in that design solely to be “unique”.

    This isn’t fine art. It’s web design.

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  60. 60

    The holier than thou mentality of many web designers never ceases to amaze me. I enjoyed the article, whether I agree with some of the points or not is my opinion not a factual rule just because I say so.

    The entire point of the article was just to inspire readers to pave their own road instead of following trends, I can’t see how that wasn’t accomplished. I also can’t see the point in ripping apart specifics just for the sake of trolling.

    Thank you for an interesting read Dmitry

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  61. 61

    Totally agree with Bob.
    I’d love to see a road worker with his head in his hands cos the piece of tarmac he’s just laid looks like all the other bits!

    (ready for the onslaught!)

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  62. 62

    great article!!! everybody just needs to double-click their mouses and call it a day :)

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  63. 63

    “Web Design isn’t art.” That may be the biggest problem with web design today.

    It is artless and soulless for the most part.

    All of these websites suffer from acute and sever WebTwoPointOma.

    Apple created this whole look and the rest of them are sheep.

    Its interesting that this article is supposed to be about setting breaking away from the pack and yet all these sites are web 2.0 clones.

    Ugh.

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  64. 64

    isn’t it saying the web 2.0 look was fresh and original at one time and then everyone copied certain style leading sites? Duh!

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  65. 65

    What about popular emailing tools like Email Future?

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  66. 66

    Moritz Feierabend

    November 26, 2008 8:50 am

    pff bullshit, sorry! webdesign isn’t art…. what a ……

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  67. 67

    As a followup to my first comment (#5):

    First and foremost, I just want to thank Dmitry for a sensible response to the feedback.

    I totally agree that the WebApps market is booming right now, hence all these clones when it comes to their websites. However, most (if not all) these tiny startups like to think they’re following the Apple paradigm, except they’re only looking at the surface and not the underlying philosophy of actually “doing something different”. As much as form should fit function, I think it’s way more important to focus on what could work tomorrow as opposed to merely imitating what worked yesterday.

    Fuck what 37Signals has to say, fuck whatever comes out of “FOWA” or “FOWD”, fuck “Carsonified”, DO YOUR OWN THING. Don’t treat those guys/groups (as successful as they may have been in whatever) as a dogma. Think like an individual.

    Fine, web design may not be exactly be “art”, but it’s sort of a fine line between the two principles (go ahead, try define “art”). However, that’s besides the point when it comes to originality (as far as design goes). Whether something is pretty or not doesn’t make it any less original nor does it make any less functional either. Biggest example of that: MySpace.com between 2003-2006. The site was a total mess, yet it was one of the top visited sites on the net with record numbers of users.

    So, please, if you’re going to rip anything off of Apple, rip off their motto: “Think different.” Follow it, and not just how they brand their company on the surface.

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  68. 68

    Yeah, I enjoyed this article, too, although I also agree that not all the design choices were very unique. What sites do YOU think are more unique, but still functional and user-friendly? MyOutSpirit.com is mine, but I love the simplicity of laptop.org. I also use DeviantArt.com on a daily basis and love Threadless. A lot of strong design contenders are much less well-known than the ones featured in the article, don’t you think?

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  69. 69

    As an architecture student, I LOVED your essay. Although I think Vitrubius said that about public structures, not structures in general.

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  70. 70

    Good article, i have tried to be diferent thats why i designed my site to be unique, at least when compared with other mexican sites hehe.

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  71. 71

    How to define what art really are? Perhaps we have to take it a step further. Compare surrealism with retro art, antique paintings vis-a-vis Michelangelo, flash design and web 2.0 – what is art? Is it depending on how many hours you spend on your work, how many colors you have used, or how advanced it is? According my personal opinion it’s very difficult, even impossible, for one to say what art is and what’s not because it is always from the beholders eye, more or less.

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  72. 72

    Good article, when you refer to design not being “art” I think it can go both ways. Like certain artists will tailor make a painting according to a client’s décor, so do web-designers. We are all artists at heart, but something’s got to pay the bills!

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  73. 73

    funny … most postings relate to the question wether web design should be art or not, respectively it’s about the examples. the examples are – as the author said – there for highlightning very popular and often copied websites.
    i think he did well showing the point of successful, simple to use, the robust and good quality of design and not demonstrating comparisons to the latest trends.

    wether web design is art or not, may be a question of personal style ;)

    in any case it’s structured “art” and mainly used to deliver the content. therefore it’s clear that dimitry cautiosly pointed out, that form should follow function.
    i think this is a good analysis and good article.

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  74. 74

    Newspond and the “replica” for Facebook are not good samples.

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  75. 75

    Webdesign isn`t art. At least it shouldn’t be if you follow the definition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art) Art is self reflected (selfish) and very private, egoistic in some way. Design is the contrary of that. Design should take care of the users and the clients. Design is much more like architecture. A characteristic of good design is that things are usable and usefull. Art mostly isn`t. Design might be applied art but it surely is NOT art per definition.

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  76. 76

    lol: Thanks for your followup.

    Andy: They are examples of “followers” — those who were heavily inspired by other successful designs. So all the examples are in pairs — the original and one of the “copy”.

    Regarding the whole art argument: It’s difficult to define art — my definition may not be the one you agree with — and that’s fine. After all, if you read only stuff you agreed with, how boring would that be? ;) But I’ll clarify…

    I see the difference in function. Ask yourself, what’s the function of a painting? The painting is there to express something and to be enjoyed by the viewer for what it is. There is no function or purpose — it is something which is meant to be looked at on its own.

    Now, in web design, the function is to deliver content (in the majority of cases) and so the whole design is an interface to that content. I don’t come to a website to enjoy its design on its own or to admire its beautiful visuals. I come to a website to get information, and its design is the vessel that gets it to me. Granted, there are sites out there that serve no function at all and can be called art — but for all the web apps, blogs, news sites, product shops and so on and so forth, the interface itself is not the function — it fulfills a function, whatever that may be (sell products, show blog articles etc.)

    That’s not to say web design is “souless” or boring or somehow ‘less’ than art. It’s not. Good web design incorporates a whole collection of schools, from typesetting, layout design, graphic design, copywriting and programming. That’s why it’s called web ‘design’ and not web ‘art’. Anyhow, that’s just my opinion on it, you may disagree.

    Thanks for the comments everyone :)

    1
  77. 77

    FilthyRichmond.com

    November 26, 2008 7:01 pm

    Too many designers out there, not enough content.

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  78. 78

    you should take a look at mailchimp.com for email marketing, it is the best laid out site i’ve ever seen. way better than icontact or constantcontact.com

    good article.

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  79. 79

    This is utterly the stupidest article I have ever read on this topic.

    Whether or not other people copy your site is completely beyond your control.

    It is therefore impossible to set trends.

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  80. 80

    Useful article to set trend

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  81. 81

    This is a great article Dmitry. Especially if you want to become a trail blazer.

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  82. 82

    In the end from a business perspective, it’s about what makes the most dollars. It’s about getting the visitor from point A, to point B in the easiest and quickest manner possible. Split testing / usability testing is all it takes to refine a website and deem it successful. Whether or not the design itself is “Trend setting” really has no relevance in the end, unless that is your primary goal.

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  83. 83

    You aren’t copying, or sheeply following, your using a recognized pattern that is effective for specific a job. Same thing happened with GoF for programming and now its coming to web page layouts.

    I think instead of thinking of the shown items as ‘trends’ they need to be thought of as design patterns for the web. Its not that any of these patterns such as the facebook or 37signals didn’t exist, they just weren’t popularized, or proven to work.

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  84. 84

    Excellent article.

    Aiming for setting the trend is always better goal to have than following a popular path. This goes beyond art & design. It goes for almost anything in life.

    Another interesting point, that I got from Tim Ferriss, is that there’s usually less competition at the top. So it’s actually easier to stay there, when you once get there. It requires maybe more effort than staying at the bottom, but isn’t that obvious?

    Think about it: people want their blog to stand out from the crowd and yet they use some standard theme (including myself) or style it like everybody else or just make it bad design choices with it. Then there comes a some designer with a completely new and creative design and it gets massive attention and keeps getting it for a while – some longer than others.

    You just have go for that extra mile. I think it’s what Jason Santa Maria, Khoi Vinh, Jeffrey Zeldman, Elliot Jays Stocks and Cameron Moll (among other trendsetters) have done. Usually their designs are simple & effective. And functional. I myself see web design as functional art, but the article said that web design isn’t art. It’s just my point of view. A different one.

    But then again, I’m not a designer or any professional, I’m just a musician. Maybe the wiser know better :)

    Thanks again for the article.

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  85. 85

    Web Design isn’t art?
    Hmmm…
    Craftsmanship vs. mass production…
    What do we need?
    rational, functional, sometimes standardized building of web sites…
    What do we need to accomplish?
    …integrate art and mass production
    WHAT DO WE NEED???
    “reunite art and craft to arrive at high-end functional products with artistic pretensions”
    it is not the art that is missing….
    It is the fundamental knowledge of the artist that is often lacking…
    …aesthetic principles, courses in color theory, industrial design, and architecture
    (WEB architecture, but it is architecture!)
    Not enough ART basics are being taught to web designers
    One of the main objectives of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology
    It was proven that it can be accomplished,,,
    There is excellent web design ART…
    Much today is being copied by those not knowledgeable enough to create their own…
    An inspired page is not copied…
    There is an obvious difference…
    Much today is being copied because designers cannot deconstruct !
    If you look at a page and cannot break it down…
    If you look at a page and do not know WHY it is good or bad…
    Go back to school and take an art class or two…
    We’ll see a lot more inspiration molding true trends…
    Not just copy cats viewing sources and snitching .css
    …in the spirit of Bauhaus
    Web design can indeed be art

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  86. 86

    Here we go again with Design not being an Art… and then mentioning that Web Design is like Architecture, which is Art. Ho Hum.

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  87. 87

    Basecamp, Highrise, Blinksale…
    I have the feeling that this article is slightly subjective.

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  88. 88

    There’s a survey on this topic online :-) http://isgraphicdesignart.com/

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  89. 89

    another post with nothing new and stuff that designers sholud already known and if not, they shouldn´t call themself designers

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  90. 90

    Sorry, this is a slight tangent on the art vs. design thing. I’ve studied both fine art and design separately, and agree that whilst there are inherent similarities they are also entirely different. Yes, there are basic elements which unify them – the theory of semiotics, processes, etc – but their purposes conflict.

    The main objective of art is to stimulate the senses, and in essence have no purpose (hence Duchamp’s “Fountain”). However design is tailored to fit a specific purpose leaving little room to be ambiguous or cryptic. This is why the term “graphic design” seems so wishy-washy to me in comparison to “communication design”.

    I don’t understand why people seem to be offended. It doesn’t mean design is necessarily clinical, boring or easy in comparison to art, just different. It can be just as creative, thoughtful and even beautiful.

    I do agree with what ‘susannetic’ said about fusing practices in art with practices in design. Poor education of those principles lead designers into following trends. I suppose this is why I was so adamant about obtaining an education in art before learning design.

    Pedantic, uninteresting long comments ftw.

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  91. 91

    Really great article.
    I totally agree on the architechture observation. I alwasy use that comparison when explaining the different disciplines of webdesign.

    And though I would love all buildings in the world to be unique (like the Sydney Opreahouse), that is simply unrealistic. And why? Because some materials, structures, layouts are tested, cheap to produce, and thoroughly tested. We do not question that those buildings are based on templates with minor alterations.
    CMS’s are a the equivalent to model houses, and their sites will never bring us the new revolution in webdesign. But it is easy to set up, and for some clients it’s just perfect. It’s like an IKEA chair. Cheap, almost nice, standard – and certainly not durable. But meets some peoples’ needs.

    When working with clients, only 1 out of 20 (or maybe 30) projects are a “Sydney Operahouse” opportunity to push the standards. With a fitting budget, and the expectations to match. In which case you should read this article again and make sure to “think different”.

    (Usually the real innovation comes from independent guys – not the major players)

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  92. 92

    wow, i’m slacking off at work since i’m reading this, but i don’t believe i’m completely slacking cause i get a lot of design inspiration from smashing mag and in turn that makes my job easier : )
    i’m applying all this good stuff..

    i agree that a lot of trends have been overused such as the glossy buttons, reflection, rounded corners, etc. however, as unoriginal as these web concepts seem, using these concepts you can still be original.

    it’s like fashion. almost every girl is wearing skinny jeans tucked in their boots these days. it’s such a common trend. but you can make it your own by dazzling the rest of your outfit differently. someone wearing skinny jeans and boots with sparkly chandelier earrings will give a different impression than someone who’s wearing the same jeans and boots with skull earrings and black lipstick.

    make it your own – even if you are using glossy buttons. that’s the message i got from this article.

    thanks!

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  93. 93

    Sydney Web Design

    November 27, 2008 3:21 pm

    Hi Great tutorial, love the designs. I’m always designing new sites and looking for inspiration to keep it fresh.

    I’ll be posting more web design articles on my Web Design Blog

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  94. 94

    Great article Dmitry.

    What lot of people on here miss is that a website must have a purpose behind it, a goal. I come from marketing background and when it comes to websites my mantra is always: what do you want people to do next?

    I can see lots of artists getting offended here, but I have seen to many sites that are an absolute state of art, but don’t make any money for their owners. And then I need to come and tell my clients to ditch their ‘arty’ site that costed them fortune, go and get a nice wordpress or joomla template and let’s starting making some money.

    A question for offended designers – do you ever really think whether you cool unique site will achieve the ultimate goals that they have? Do you give them a choice between a piece of art and a money making website?

    My advice – if you really want to help your clients, leave your art for galeries and focus on users, think of results rather than making a beatiful road that leads nowhere.

    On the other hand, I love the sites that are beautiful, original and at the same time serve its purpose. But such sites are generaly not concieved by artists…

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  95. 95

    Respectfully, the elements of design do not change, only how we utilize them. It does not matter if it is fine art, graphic design, architecture, fashion, interior design…the basic theory is exactly the same…It is my feeling that the reason we are lamenting cookie cutter websites is because there are many individuals who can copy code…it gets easier all the time. Fewer individuals who spend the sweat equity necessary to grasp the actual concepts of design

    Not unlike other industries with parallel issues…
    The quality of home construction has plummeted in the past 10 or 15 years because the industry is inundated with contractors who can pass a test and close a sale, but can’t hammer a nail…

    All too often, It’s the old “If you’ve got an outfit you can be a cowboy, too…” mentality

    Regardless of background, I suggest picking up a copy of an excellent new book, “Graphic Design, The New Basics” by Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips.

    It endeavors to bridge the gap.. timeless basics with fresh perspective for a digital world…My best find in quite some time. I picked it up because I liked the cover.

    Not about web design per say…but the elements of design are introduced in a digital environment, and the inspiration is relevant.

    “…Drawing with code…designs built from a binary tree, a basic data structure that magically takes on a graphical form as it gathers more data…repeating, rotating, inverting…”

    “Abstract art in the order of a charted trend…”

    “…virtual texture”

    Through visiting or revisiting the basic elements…a designs’ unity potentially becomes “more than the simple addition of its parts” … Gestalt

    …the “IT WORKS!” reaction we would all agree that we strive for .

    other “fundamentals” books to consider:
    The Elements of Graphic Design by Alex W White
    Design Basics by Lauer and Pentak
    Design Principles and Problems by Zelanski

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  96. 96

    web design isnt art? seriously… wtf.. is ist because we didnt use paint brush or water colour rite?

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  97. 97

    It´s not art because its supposed to communicate what “the owner” want to say, sell, buy, or whatever, it surely can be in a beatifull way, but must always have a reason to be.
    Art can be random, beatifull, ugly or what you will and never give an explanation about it. It just is

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  98. 98

    “Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications…The more individual the feeling transmitted the more strongly does it act on the receiver; the more individual the state of soul into which he is transferred, the more pleasure does the receiver obtain, and therefore the more readily and strongly does he join in it…three conditions present in varying degrees:individuality, clearness of expression and sincerity…”
    Tolstoy

    Why can’t every word apply to the art of web design?

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  99. 99

    My God, u guys just hate to provide any help on the direction of web design these days, regardless of whether he explained art in itself is not the issue. Art cannot be explained in a simple way neither can it be explained in sophisticated way, one thing that is certain, it must serve a purpose, be it pleasure, function or just plain jerko bullshit. it must serve a purpose the client has asked it to serve. As designers or architects
    @susannetic you just said it all. guyz just go on about what and which site should not be on the list. get a life! a site must serve a purpose fun, silly, serious. it must serve a purpose and do it in a simple, memorable and routine manner so the users gets a rich experience that keeps em coming back to serve one purpose or another

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  100. 100

    God I never knew web designers were so stupid and egotistical. Everyone who got offended by this article should shoot themselves in the face. You obviously only do webdesign you so can tell people at parties that you are an artist.

    You can all get off your self-aggrandizing shit heap, because Dimitry isn’t saying that you aren’t artists, or that good, functional design isn’t an art form, hes saying that web design is not art in the traditional sense of purely being about conveying feeling or emotion.

    90 percent of websites, and 100% of all the websites that you make, are about making money for your clients. If you dont accomplish that it doesnt matter how good your site looks. The fact that none of you can see why sites like facebook, twitter, and some of the others he mentioned are brilliant is exactly why you all suck at web design.

    Good article.

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  101. 101

    Jeff – touche.

    Pefect comment for no100.

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  102. 102

    your pointing out just a perspectiv, not a trend. everyone wants to market, not to make art, just because you make a layot that atracts attention and some visitors find it “COOL!” it means nothing, only that your not the only “ONE” stupid person on the face of the earth. Your point of view is just argumented for your perspectiv.

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  103. 103

    @jeff
    Who says that “real” artists like painters, don’t try to make money?
    Most great painters sold their work. I don’t think that Picasso wasn’t a true artist because of that.
    Why is it so bad to make money out of your work?
    If i don’t sell my painting or website how will i live to make art?
    And why “real” masterpieces (paintings) are evaluated in money and not beans?
    It’s all about money, even art

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  104. 104

    nobody said art wasn´t about money, it sure is. the thing is that art and web design are not the same thing. design (web, editorial o whatever) = succesfull communication; art =expresing emotions, making statements that people can o cant understand or feel

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  105. 105

    homeBiscuitsAndGravy

    December 1, 2008 11:08 am

    all you haters and self-styled critics give me a bad case of gas. reaching for the Beano now…

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  106. 106

    I like it alot! A friend of mine was just talking to me about this…we got to stop hashing out the same stuff all the time!

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  107. 107

    Gr8 !! really that creates a good desinger !!

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  108. 108

    Alexandre Plennevaux

    December 8, 2008 3:16 pm

    I completely agree about the arguments, much less about the examples.

    What do you think about this style : http://www.lisapram.com an interactive barcode as image gallery, that degrades gracefully for non javascript users.

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  109. 109

    Web Design Bureau

    December 9, 2008 6:09 am

    Well this makes me think of a trend about which I was preparing a blog post some time ago, Mascots. I ended up in dropping the line when Smashing Magazine published its post on mascots clearly showing that it was about to follow the trend and have a mascot made.

    Anyway, this is a great article that we could cross reference with Duoh’s article on being innovative.

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