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Symptoms Of An Epidemic: Web Design Trends


Since Elliot Jay Stocks so poignantly told us to destroy the Web 2.0 look1, we’ve witnessed a de-shinification of the Web, with fewer glass buttons, beveled edges, reflections, special-offer badges, vulgar gradients with vibrant colors and diagonal background patterns. The transformation has been welcomed with relief by all but the most hardened gloss-enthusiasts. However, design and aesthetics work in mysterious ways, and no sooner does one Web design trend leave us before another appears.

The Symptoms Link

So, exactly what is this new epidemic? Well, let’s start by looking at some of the most common symptoms, many of which you have probably noticed. They are easy to spot, and as with many other conditions, they often appear in conjunction with each other. (This is why the contagion spreads so effectively — seemingly independent symptoms grow more infectious when combined with others.)

Please note: The following list appears in no particular order and does not indicate the level of infectiousness or severity, which seem to be stable across the board. Note also that the instances given often exhibit more than one symptom, making classification more difficult.

Stitching Link

Stitching appears gradually, often as a result of the designer playing too long with borders and lines, particularly of the dotted variety. A full-blown stitch is evidenced by the subtle shift from dots to dashes, augmented by drop shadows and other effects to give the impression of 3-D. The purpose of the stitch is somewhat elusive, but it seems to thrive in environments where certain textures are applied, most notably fabric and leather, but also generic graininess.

While determining the exact cause of stitching is difficult, scientists are certain that it belongs to a larger strain of the infection known as “Skeuomorphism.”

Collage of interfaces with stiches
Clockwise from top: The Journal of Min Tran2; Dribbble shot by Mason Yarnell3; Dribbble shot by Liam McCabe4.

Zigzag Borders Link

Borders are common elements of Web design, and as such, they are difficult to avoid; luckily, they are usually harmless and often have a positive effect on the layout. However, for some reason, a particular type of border — the zigzag — has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now threatening the natural habitat of more benign border specimens. Exactly why this is happening is unknown, although some researchers claim that the pattern created by the repeating opposing diagonals has such an alluring effect on designers and clients alike that straight borders have somewhat lost their appeal.

Collage of interfaces with zigzag borders
Clockwise from top: You Know Who5; Dribbble shot by Christopher Paul6; Dribbble shot by Meagan Fisher7.

Forked Ribbons Link

Like borders, ribbons have long existed in various forms. What we’re seeing now, though, is the near dominance of a particular style of ribbon, easily identified by a fork at one or both ends. Some ribbons are also folded over twice, creating a faux effect of depth and reinforcing the diagonal lines in the fork. Whether the fork is related to the zigzag effect is unknown, but it seems that diagonal lines are the key to the ribbon’s survival, along with its ability to evoke memories of times past.

The danger of the ribbon lies mainly in its ability to exist independent of other symptoms (although it thrives in the company of vintage typography), meaning that it could date your design long after the epidemic ends, even if the symptom itself appears dormant. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “special offers” badge of the Web 2.0 look.

Collage of interfaces using forked ribbons
Clockwise from top: Ryan O’Rourke8; Cabedge9; Jake Przespo10

Textures Link

In the age of all things digital, it’s a conundrum that textures should dominate our illustrations and backgrounds, and yet they are indeed one of the most common symptoms on our list. Manifested by subtle grain, dirt and scratches, paper-esque surfaces and fold marks, they seem to embrace the spirit of the handmade. But ironically, they’re often the complete opposite: computer-generated effects or Photoshop brushes.

Possible explanations for the widespread use of textures include a yearning for tactile media (especially considering the emergence of touchscreens) or envy towards print designers, who have a much richer palette of materials and surfaces to play with.

Collage of interfaces with textures
Clockwise from top: Gerren Lamson11; Zero12; Amazee Labs13.

Letterpress Link

A Smashing Magazine article from 200914 outlined letterpress as one of the emerging trends of the year and, boy, were they right. The simple effect has gone from strength to strength and is now a household technique for sprucing up typography online. A relatively harmless symptom, letterpress might also have infected designers through other digital interfaces, such as operating systems and games, as early as the turn of the millennium, indicating a very long incubation period.

Scientists disagree over whether the incubation period is due to the infection needing a critical mass before emerging from dormancy or whether the infection simply needed the right conditions — CSS3 text shadows, to be specific — for symptoms to appear.

Collage of interfaces with letterpress
Clockwise from top: Billy Tamplin15; Dribbble shot by Phillip Marriot16; Remix17.

19th-Century Illustration Link

After being released from copyright quarantine, this symptom, favoured by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, was nearly eliminated during the last epidemic due to its inability to cope well with gloss and shine. But in this new vintage-friendly environment, it has found its way back into our visual repertoire. For better or worse, the 19th-century illustration will most likely hang around for a while, emerging stronger from time to time like a flu virus.

Collage of interfaces with 19th century illustrations
Clockwise from top: Killian Muster18; Dribbble shot by Trent Walton19; Simon Collison20.

Muted Tones Link

After a long period of vibrancy, the average online color scheme seems to have been somewhat desaturated across the board. We’re seeing widespread use of browns, earthy greens and mustards and a general leaning towards “impure” colors, although this is generally thought to be a minor symptom of the epidemic. Some scientists will even argue that muted tones are, in fact, not a symptom themselves but rather a side effect of other symptoms, in the way that sweating is a natural response to a fever.

Collage of interfaces with muted colours
Clockwise from top: Dribble shot by Dave Ruiz21; Cognition22; Web Standards Sherpa23.

Justified or Centered Typography (JCT) Link

This symptom is nothing new; in fact, it was pretty much the standard for the first 500 years of typography, until Tschichold and the New Typography showed up and quarantined it on the grounds that it was old fashioned, difficult to read and inefficient. Although we’re not sure at this point, this link with history might be what has made JCT reappear so vigorously under the umbrella of vintage symptoms. We do know that overall reading habits among humans have not changed in recent years (most Westerners still read left to right), and there is no plausible argument that JCT improves legibility; so, whatever the cause of the outbreak, we know it’s rooted in subjective emotion rather than rational thought.

Collage of interfaces with justified or centered typography
Clockwise from top: Grip Limited24; Tommy25; Visual Republic26.

Circular Script Logotypes (SCL) Link

A circle is a basic shape and, in isolation, is no more a symptom of an epidemic than a triangle. However, if you repeat enough triangles in a line, you get a zigzag. Similarly, if you include a circle in your logotype, you end up with a circular logotype. And if that logotype happens to be set in a script font, you’ll get — that’s right! — a Circular Script Logotype (SCL). Not that SCL is lethal or anything, but it is relatively contagious and can be highly detrimental when enough hosts have been infected.

Collage of circular script logos
Clockwise from top: Trent Walton27; Mercy28; Dribbble shot by James Seymor-Lock29.

Skeuomorphic Features Link

Skeuomorphic features — i.e. ornamentation or design features on an object that are copied from the object’s form in another medium — are rife, particularly in mobile applications, and this symptom is one of the defining indicators of the epidemic. Possibly a mutant cancerous strain of mildly skeuomorphic features such as stitches and letterpress, it can sometimes grow to overtake an entire interface, bloating it with redundant visual references to physical objects and materials. However, due to the labor involved in preparing the graphics and the heavy reliance on image resources, some researchers argue that we’re unlikely to see full-blown skeuomorphism dominate our desktop browsers any time soon.

In fact, most scientists regard the phenomenon as a curiosity and predict that some virtual metaphors for physical attributes will prove useful (as tabs have) and some won’t. Interestingly, while Apple has embraced and continues to pioneer the technique, Google seems to some degree to resist the urge to mimic physical reality in its interfaces. Perhaps it has developed a vaccine?

Collage of skeuomorphic interface elements
Clockwise from top: iBooks30; Dribbble shot by skorky31; Dribbble shot by Igor Shkarin32.

How Did It Start? Link

Pinpointing the epicentre of a design epidemic (read: trend) is always hard, especially given the myriad of symptoms and the contagious nature of the Internet. Identifying Patient Zero is virtually impossible, and, to be pragmatic, doing so would serve no purpose. What we can say is that we’re most likely experiencing a reaction to the Web 2.0 aesthetic — a craving for textured surfaces and retro imagery, something tactile and natural-looking, as an antidote to the shiny impersonality of the past — and that this is both healthy and necessary for pushing the design industry forward33. Whatever the sources of trends, they often start with applying smart design to solve a particular problem or, indeed, to counter another trend.

Let’s say that everyone used sans-serif fonts, strong contrasting colors and crisp white backgrounds as a rule. Imagine, in this environment, if a designer went against the grain by using Clarendon or some other warm serif to infuse some personality into their website (which happens to be selling “Grandma’s homemade jam”), and then complemented the personality of their font selection with earthy colors and some brown paper textures. The result would inevitably stand out from the crowd: beautiful, emotional, different.

Incidentally, this aesthetic inspires another designer who happens to be working on a website with a global audience, exposing the new approach to a whole generation of designers who, in turn, apply it at will (often without considering the context). A trend is born. And yet, paradoxically, the potency of the epidemic is under constant threat. The more people get infected, the less differentiated the symptoms appear; and once the infection reaches a critical mass, the symptoms begin to work against themselves. Infusing personality into your visuals is meaningless if everything looks the same.

Is It Dangerous? Link

In today’s open collaborative world, avoiding an epidemic of this scale is difficult; so, in a sense, everyone is affected to some degree. The symptoms listed above are not restricted to small-scale up-and-coming designers, but affect even the elite of the design community. This means that even though some symptoms are harmless — like a light fever or a runny nose from a flu infection — the viral onslaught of trendy features puts constant pressure on our immune system to protect our creativity, and staying vigilant is important to maintaining a healthy dose of original thought.

If you’re displaying a handful of symptoms, it’s really nothing to worry about — catching a cold that’s going around is not hard, but recovering from it is also easy. If, on the other hand, you display most or all of these symptoms, then there’s reason to be extra cautious in your next project. Using all of a trend’s identifiers as cornerstones of your work might make your portfolio look oh so contemporary, but in a way this practice is no different than passing off the work of your favorite designer, artist or musician as your own. Granted, symptoms with no identifiable origin are not protected by copyright, but that’s beside the point — you should be worried not about legal implications, but rather about the creative integrity of your output. The danger is not only that your work will be seen as a passing fad, a popular aesthetic that will look dated in a couple of years’ time, but that you will lose the respect of your peers when they catch on to you.

While nothing is original34, we all need to respect the difference between inspiration and imitation35. As Jean Luc Goddard said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” And if you don’t take them anywhere, what’s the point?

Worse perhaps than the loss of respect and integrity is the effect that epidemics have on clients and, in turn, the design community as a whole. The more designers are infected and the more symptoms they show of the same disease, the less your clients will believe that you’re capable of solving real business problems. Eventually they’ll exclude you from the early stages (where all the real design thinking takes place) and employ your services merely to skin their wireframes, in the process reducing the whole profession to an army of decorators.

What Can You Do About It? Link

Now that we’ve seen how detrimental trends can be, how does one avoid them? Is this even possible? Trends, by definition, are popular, and arguably nothing is wrong with tapping into that popularity to increase the exposure of your product. Convincing a client to accept a design that is off-trend can be difficult, and you run the risk of alienating the audience by going completely against the trend just for the sake of it. On the other hand, blindly following others is never a good idea, and you could severely stifle your creativity, integrity and client base by accepting what’s “in” as a given and copying it without purpose.

So, what’s the right thing to do? Trends are intrinsic to our society, whether in politics, culture, design or even religion, and as the consensus sways in one direction or another, so will your opinion (or “taste”) — to some degree, at least. Alas, avoiding trends altogether seems an impossible and pointless undertaking, but that doesn’t leave you powerless. In fact, you can do a host of things to combat the lemming syndrome.

Ask Why Link

Always question your design decisions (and make sure they are your own), and keep asking the magic question, Why am I doing this? Am I doing this simply because it looks cool or because it suits the message I’m trying to communicate? Why am I using this ribbon? Does the zigzag border add to or detract from the personality of the website? What does this leather texture have to do with the finance app I’m designing? The moment you stop asking questions, you fall prey to the epidemic.

Put Some Effort In Link

In his article “The Dying Art of Design36” Francisco Inchauste asserts, among other things, that inspiration requires perspiration, and I couldn’t agree more. I was lucky enough to attend a college where no computers were allowed in the first year, which meant we had to use physical tools to express ourselves — tracing letters by hand, drawing our photography, stocking up on Pantone pens (remember those?), abusing the copier. Not only did our creativity grow, but we learned an important lesson: good design is not effortless, and the best results come from your own experimentation.

Try Something Different Link

Remember that being distinctive is, for the most part, a good thing. Most great artists in history, regardless of their field, stood out enough for the world to take notice. Who painted melting clocks before Dali? Who would have thought to build a huge wall on stage before Pink Floyd? While mimicking what’s popular might be comfortable and might secure short-term victories, long-term success requires a unique, memorable approach.

Diversify Your Inspiration Link

In order to remain creative, staying curious and looking for inspiration all around you is crucial, not just in the latest showcase of fashionable WordPress themes. Read a book, perform a scientific experiment, listen to music you haven’t heard before, walk through a new neighborhood, or experience a foreign culture. Widening your horizons beyond your favorite websites and finding more than one source of inspiration is critical to making original, lasting designs.

Focus on the Basics Link

Finally and most importantly, study the underlying principles of design in order to understand what is and isn’t defined by style. Grid systems, contrast, legibility, juxtaposing imagery, well-written copy — these are the key components of successful design, yet they are entirely independent of fads and styles.

At the end of the day, design is not so much about style as it is about communication, and all style, imagery and typography should be inspired by the content, functionality and personality of the product, not by what simply looks cool at the moment.

No matter how cool37 something looks, it too shall pass.

(al) (fi)

Footnotes Link

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Espen Brunborg is Head of Design at Primate, a web agency driven by an overwhelming passion for the web industry and a slightly unsettling love for monkeys, and is an advocate of content-led design, simplicity and typographic principles. He writes about his design convictions at 8 Gram Gorilla and his tweets are occasionally worth reading.

  1. 1

    You missed – putting images of people in circles, as you see on your own website, ThinkVitamin, the new BaseCamp, off the top of my head.

    • 2

      yes! circles are everywhere! even when they’re cutting off content/images. now THAT’S an epidemic.

    • 3

      Yeah Joe, it was a tough call. Include all type of circular imagery or just the scrip logos – either way it seem the circle is having a blast nowadays!

      • 4

        Also, I should have generalized to “Apes in circles”

      • 5

        While circles can certainly be overused, the web is a very square shaped place. Straight lines, 90 degree angles, nearly all photos are a square or rectangle… Using a circle provides a nice contrast to this and can make an element stand out. Such as a logo.

        • 6

          True but the point is not to overuse these elements… An oval, ellipse, or irregular shape would provide some contrast yet not be the same old sameold,

          • 7

            You kids! We overused ovals in 99/2000 – I’m so over those. In fact, they make me cringe. =P

            Honestly, I’d take a normal, (small – med sized), website header over these ginormous photo banners and single page parallax scrolling behemoths I’m seeing everywhere.

            I have a hard enough time getting one decent shot from an industrial / small business client.

    • 8

      good one! @joe

  2. 9

    Such an amazing article. The same can be said for the print and digital art realms — trends stick out like a sore thumb.

  3. 10

    Don’t forget the grain!
    The grain! There’s no true Letterpress without the grain!

    As much as I enjoy reading this article, I don’t embrace the negative tone that accompanies it. In my opinion, sometimes inspiration comes from imitation.

    Someone has to set the trend, no matter how vulgar. People will copy and amend said trend to their own style in the end. It’s how design evolves. Just take a look at your own website.

  4. 11

    I enjoyed every bit of your article. I enjoyed reading so much I jumped up and followed the link to your websites ( and I couldn’t wait for the pages to load because I was excited to see how they look.
    Apparently, you’ve been infected!

    Disappointed, I surrendered to the fact that it’s the trend nowadays.

    PS: you have a tendency to apply printing styles and guidelines to websites

    • 12

      Woah – I am indeed infected! Not sure where my SCL or Skeuomorphism is, but admittedly and undoubtedly I am part of the epidemic. Hopefully I also have aspects of my work that sits outside the current trends.

      PS. My background is in print so I’m not surprised. In fact I think web designers can learn a lot from print principles.

      • 13

        Web designers can sure learn a lot from print principles as long as they don’t apply them as is.
        Serif fonts? I still can’t find them readable on screens, unless they’re huge. Most online magazines and newspapers use them (unfortunately).
        Drop Caps? Unless it’s a tale, it looks like another type of SKEUOMORPHIC FEATURES.

        Anyway, good article!

  5. 14

    Michael Meininger

    March 15, 2012 6:39 am

    Good article but these all stem back to ’11 or even ’10.

    I just think that clients are more accepting because of the exposure or these tricks and tools.

    • 15

      Very known and common ways shouldn’t be on the front page of smashingmagazine..

      • 16

        ..perhaps if you mean that these effects are so well known that we don’t need help learning how to execute them.

        But that’s not what this article was about.

        It’s about over-use, which—by definition—can only occur some time _after_ a particular set of effects or styles have become popular.

  6. 17

    Great article! Its hard pressed to keep up with the technology and style changes in the last couple of years, and I only see it getting harder to stay current in the very near future. I feel that “the ability to stay on top” may be going through so much change, so fast, because of all these turn-key web and graphic design shops now that can make anyone into a web designer for just a few dollars a month.

    With out these changes, the web will become flat and web designers will find themselves scrambling for work.

    • 18

      If you try to stay on top by following trends, you are inevitably doomed. If you stay on top by being relevant, you’ll never be wondering how to get work.

    • 19

      “Staying current” with technology is a good thing. Staying current with design fads and pop culture is a utterly useless waste of time.

  7. 20

    I’ll quote what I said on Twitter: I remember using aged textures, ribbons and zig-zag borders back in the late 90s, grunge and retro in web design is not a trend, it’s a style. And that style fits some brands very well, so I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon.

  8. 22

    I love everything that was posted, especially muted colours.

  9. 23

    Things are always going to be ‘cool’ or not, you could argue that all design ‘styles’ are ‘trends’ and as such no one could ever design anything without confirming to a trend.

    • 24

      Overuse of ANYTHING is a bad thing. Salt. Surgery. Even drinking too much water can be harmful to your health. So putting up a list of things that are bad if overused – how about adding to the list: Too many articles about what not to do with your web designs are bad for design blogs?

      note: I’m not buying the Smashing Book, and all the phony editors notes trying to be “cleverly” disguised advertisements are really irritating.

      And, an important correction. “Since Elliot Jay Stocks so poignantly told us to destroy the Web 2.0 look” is a blatant misrepresentation of his message. You have to go further than reading the title of the blog article to know what was actually communicated. Jay even states in the comments on that article’s page:

      “I don’t think that the typical ‘Web 2.0 Look’ elements are a bad thing at all; they just need to be used in moderation and with care.”

      It’s the fifth comment. You don’t have to read very far to find it.

      A good designer can use ANY element, from really any “period” and make it work. It’s how the elements are used. If it’s new within the current trend, it can be labeled as “retro”, and will still be acceptable.

      I think the flock design trend problems stem mostly because of blogs like these. They post a page of “50 fancy sites with stitch elements”. People who get most of their design education from blogs absorb this, then use it. Almost overnight stitch elements are overused around the web, and then the same blog that was pushing it, is now decrying the use of it.

      • 25

        I agree! I think a fair amount of hypocrisy is afoot here.

        I think web design is more about messaging than anything anyway. Certain “styles” evoke certain “feelings” about a brand that one would expect if visiting a particular site. It’s not necessarily bad design if a designer chooses to use tags and stitching for a clothing company, or dirt textures for a mountain-biking site. Its when above examples are arbitrarily used that it becomes tiresome.
        Clients have the final say and if zigzag borders and stitched tagging helps convey the message and feeling of the brand…so be it.

        I can’t stand it when the design police swoop in and decide what is good and bad design. If the audience understands the “message” of the brand and feels good about using whatever product (i.e. website or otherwise), then the design is successful in my opinion. I don’t visit a mountain biking site and say “WELL! The people who designed this site clearly don’t know good design, because said “DesignBlog” says dirty grunge is an overused trend” PLEASE…You design police think too much. Design, when done right should be natural and unnoticed.

      • 26

        I could not agree more. While many of these design styles have populated the web in their 15 minutes of fame, sometimes they really work to fit the brand. These are somewhat ‘elitist’ problems as well. Are we designing for other designers, or for the consumer? I’ve met consumers that request some of these styles; I think sometimes their popularity can improve recognition or give a site some credibility, to a point. The minimal design, clean typography, and saturated colors that are in style today will soon, if not already, be one of the next trends to flood web designs. And I keep seeing the black register tape with white lettering, like on Scoutmob’s hero, everywhere these past few weeks… the trends go on and on and on…

  10. 27

    Realismen is here and it looks awesome. Webdesign is so much more fun to play around with these days and there are many talented people out there comparing for few years ago.

    Thanks :)

  11. 28

    I feel like the term “epidemic” might be a tad sensationalized for the actual “trends” you’re representing in the list, especially since you’ve chosen to include core elements of design such as “texture”.

    It is also not lost on me that you have use a number of these “symptoms” on your own site, which makes me wonder exactly how much you believe in what you’ve written here.

    That being said, I do appreciate (and see value) in not using the same recycled techniques repeatedly/mindlessly – your Ask Why paragraph nails this line of thinking exactly.

    • 29

      Yes, I agree with you Sam, but a well-written article, nevertheless.

    • 31

      I honestly thought that was the direction this article was heading as well. But then in the closing paragraphs, the author says that none of these styles are bad in themselves, and that we simply have to ask ourselves every step of the way whether a given choice serves our design goals. This made it clear to me that he’s merely exaggerating in order to drive home his point humorously.

      I think this article illustrates how far Smashing has come in their editorial policy. Once upon a time they were one of *those* sites — multiple trend roundups in one day, and very little content. I eventually removed them from my RSS reader. Now their stuff is smart, engaging, and a valuable contribution the web professions. So much so that they’re now publishing articles that decry the things they were once known for.

      Bravo, Smashing Mag, for listening to your readers! Needless to say, you’re now in my reading list once again.

  12. 32

    I agree with the sentiment of this article. There will always be competant trend followers / Adobe jockeys but whom lack individuality and artistic flair in their designs. Their sites look clean and fresh but are derivative of what others are doing and therefore become less impactful. You Know Who is a perfect example of this – almost a design cliche. Those who are really artistic and individual are often the minority in this field but I recognise it is harder to be innovative or an iconoclast in designing.

    There are elements of 2.0 styling that I have been influenced by but have interpreted these styles in my own way balanced with the appropriateness of meeting the client brief, artistic expression, site message, aiding clarity and the call to action rather than for the sake of doing something contemporary. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that ‘if everybody else is doing it, then it must be the right process’. Let’s see some individuality back in design.

  13. 33

    You know, I can’t paint all of these techniques with the same brush (ha!). In fact, I believe there is a strong functional motivation underlying the change in style for some of them and that is everything that incorporates a haptic reference. Be it skeuomorphism or textures and faux depth, when done right they are an affordance to touch devices.

    Not that all designers use them with intent and good purpose, many may well just blindly follow a trend, but a case can be made for why those trends pop up at certain times like now. There’s a 500 billion USD gorilla in the room and they totally promote certain design practices to a large audience. But it’s not just Apple, sociological pressure adds to that of functional incentives for choosing certain designs.

  14. 34

    Like nearly every other industry, web design is market driven, hence the trends. As browsers get better and bandwidths improve, the web must not only become more usable, but it must become more aesthetically pleasing.

    We make our money (in most cases) from producing sales tools (websites) for our clients. In my experience, the better they look, the more they sell.

    I find it very bizarre that you are trying to prove a point using some of the best looking design on the web. I would have been more fitting if you have chosen some poor examples.

    • 35

      My point has little to do with the execution of the ideas – it doesn’t matter if your ribbon or skeuomorphed volume knob is tastefully done – what I’m arguing is that we need to question why we use these techniques and whether they actually suit the particular project we’re working on.

      • 36

        The designer’s job is to create something that appeals to the customer. If you don’t like what the designer is doing then you need to question the role of the consumer, not the designer.

        • 37

          I honestly thought the job of the designer was to design, not to appease a client.

          Design (IMO) is about problem solving, psychology, societal fluctuations, economical highs and lows, communication etc. All served in a nice little package of fonts, colors images and form. It’s not about decoration or art.

          I would dare the claim that there’s a distinct reason in society why the above mentioned trends are occurring today. Look at the financial state of the world. How many people are feeling overly secure and safe? (hint: very few).
          By referencing arts and craft – in particular “classic ‘creative’ past times” – that quite a number of people will associate with childhood (which by definition of how the human brain works are painted in a romantic light), you are actually infusing your design with values like, family, handmade, solid and tangible, romanticism, safety and security *.

          Referencing old fashioned items is an easy way to incur this security as you are giving people the mental image of a time in their life where they are likely to have felt safe (or they think they did). Whereas if you are to focus solely on an industrial, clean design, you are suggesting people should feel innovative and you are visually instilling courage, power, innovation and tenacity. However if people are feeling insecure, telling them visually to be courageous and that they should move forward is likely to enforce their feeling of timidity and fear *.

          Albeit the article is on the negative side. There is one very important notion to take away from the article:

          Don’t follow a trend blindly because it’s trendy. Follow it because the trend just happens to fit with the problem you are solving. If it doesn’t, stay very clear from the trend.

          *Insert comments about the skeumorphic design of iDevice software as a means to instill the users with a feeling of familiarity supposedly making the transition to the platform easier.

          • 38

            While I feel your dissection of this article is actually very interesting, I can’t seem to wrap my head around your opening statement. The only time a designer’s job is NOT to ‘appease a client’ is when they are unemployed. I don’t know where you work, but when I design something a client doesn’t like, I get to re-do it.

          • 39

            Maureen Ciaccio

            March 16, 2012 1:55 pm

            I agree with Ida in her method of analyzing the audience and their perceptions and needs while creating a design that works to communicate. Good insight on current mainstream culture. I would add an incidental observation that as we move more and more toward a virtual form of communication, we crave what we left behind — real texture. Most of these trends call to mind that which we miss. Of course, though, these techniques should not be knee-jerk and need to be analyzed for their validity to specific projects.

          • 40

            If you want to pay the bills, then you need to appease the client. I’m sure every designer who’s worked commercially has had to compromise their vision for the sake of their clients. How many times have you presented a client with multiple mockups only to have them choose the one you like the least?

            In the strictest sense the job of, well, everybody, is to appease the client/customer.

      • 41

        I read your article assuming that you were playing with sarcarsm – pointing out the trends while poking fun at how styles ebb and flow – but still celebrating the great work of the designers you showcased.

        Reading your replies though, it seems like you do believe trends are some sort of ‘epidemic’.

        Trends are unavoidable, and while they sometimes carry a short shelf life, I believe they exist as a reflection of our current society, industry and taste. Because of this they should be enjoyed, in the same way I can look back at the delicate ornamentation of rococo and appreciate it for its beauty and timely relevance.

  15. 42

    As someone who uses faux paper texture and letterpress on my own site — this article is great! However, I believe these trends are far more benign than animated gifs or blinking text. Aside from skeuomorphic features, which are prolific, most of these trends appear on many web developer/studio/designer sites, and are microtrends rather than full-blown trends, at least at this point. Personally, I’ve noticed a whole lot of full-screen image background sites lately…

    • 43

      This is exactly how I feel. I definitely notice these trends, but so long as they’re done tastefully (like almost every example the article provides), I think they’re perfectly fine. Naturally I’m giddy anytime I see something new.

      I’m guilty of the circular logo but other than that I think my site is safe. :)

    • 44

      LOL, let’s all start lining up and howling for the return of the MARQUEE tag. :) (Which one of my middle-school students rediscovered last month, to my horror.) I am personally tired of this “Wicked Worn Playbill Poster Hanging on the Side of the Quickie Mart for Six Months in the Rain” look, but you’re right, it doesn’t hold a candle to the animated GIFs or strobing backgrounds that were all the rage fifteen years ago.

  16. 45

    Marcello Damasceno

    March 15, 2012 7:55 am

    Great article, but one thing we should always have in mind when designing anything (and the article fails to mention that) is the lifespan or lifecycle of the work itself – how long it is supposed to live/last for? That is a very important aspect and should drive design decisions. That is something that I learned from Industrial Design – are you designing a toothbrush – something that will be used and discarded in a few months – or a couch – something that your audience/customer will have to live with for, maybe, a couple decades?

  17. 47

    I’m not sure at what point you explained why any of these trends are “bad.”

    “Now that we’ve seen how detrimental trends can be…”

    How did we see that? Everybody who is on Dribbble (or anywhere online) knows these trends very well. You would have been better off explaining why we don’t need them than labeling them as “symptoms” and listing them all out.

    • 48

      Fair comment Luke, maybe I should have emphasised the “why” a bit more. I guess it boils down to this: if we, as designers, embrace aesthetic trends without thinking, all our work will start to look the same and our clients will suffer (after all, it’s our job to make their sites stand out).

      • 49

        I like the overall sentiment expressed in the article which is basically urging people to be “pioneers” in designing. But we have all types of people and trends evolve over a period of time. Not everyone is as great Dali. But that does not make a good painter completely bad.
        In general, I don’t think a “trend” is necessarily a symptom. Many of your “objectionable” design elements actually appeal to people and that is one reason why they are used. I like zig zag borders personally. I think they look cool. And if they don’t interfere in any way with the usability of the web page, what is wrong with using them?

  18. 50

    Kayleigh Rogers

    March 15, 2012 8:00 am

    Comes across as a bit negative and repetitive with the “What scientists think…” humor.
    Outdated really in mind, these trends have been repeated for the past couple of years. Not exactly a fresh insight.

    • 51

      Well, i do agree on the fact that the trends are from the past few years, but don’t you think he’s right about the fact that you should, for example, listen to new music/explorer for inspiration?

  19. 52

    I am definitely infected! I am in love with the vintage design tends happening right now. However, I agree with the points made in this article about striving for individuality and ensuring that our design decisions are based on concept rather than popularity. (Although it’s still okay to appreciate the lovely trends and make use of them once in a while!)

  20. 53

    Dallas McCluske

    March 15, 2012 8:48 am

    I wasn’t a fan of this article. I agree that overuse of any one of the “trends” listed is bad but I think you are making a lot of hasty generalizations. Too much of anything is not good, be it a trend or something original. Yes, the sites with 8 different textures are awful looking but using texture is a powerful tool if done well and in moderation.

    The article is kind of a downer to read and seems more than a little condescending.

  21. 54

    Good read but you’ve covered such a broad range of design principles and samples here that you’re essentially saying to strip design out of everything. Lines, textures, lighting, perspectives… they’re all part of the solutions designers often try to find. In here you’ve denounced the use of circles, disruptive lines (zig zags), textures, period-specific styles and the use of soft color palettes yet ask everyone to be different.

    Yes, nothing is new or original anymore and any great artist is just a thief who knows how to hide his sources but who’s to say if you land on a design that’s textured and period-specific and client-appropriate that you’ve stolen or mimicked a trend?

    Maybe narrowing down the design principles you’d like to destroy would be more helpful when telling someone to not do something.

  22. 55

    This was a great read.
    And just when I was getting tired of all the parallax scrolling.
    I guess being in the web most of the time makes you realize this kind of epidemic faster.

    Thank you. A truly eye opener.

  23. 56

    You forgot the worst trend of them all; ragging on other people’s designs, this trend usually falls in the “look at me I know more than you” category.

    This article irked me something crazy. I understand that there is/has/will be design trends. But to call them an epidemic and refer to them as an illness or something is just ridiculous. Not to mention a good few of these can be found on the author’s website. (Not pointing fingers, just trying to prove these things aren’t as bad as explained in the article)

    I agree that all ‘trends’ or ‘patterns’ or whathaveyou have a time and a place. Throw in some ribbons and stitching all you like, but as long as you’re aiming for a tactile design. Throw in some textured centred League Gothic ’til you’re blue in the face, but only if you’re aiming for a more vintage tongue-in-cheek design (I for one hope you do it well).

    Web 2.0 had it’s place in the internet, and it was a good thing at the time. We’ve moved on from the clean and shiny to the warm and tactile and some designers are pulling it off brilliantly, other’s not so well.

    I think this article would have much more value if it provided a “think outside the box” solution to what is become cliché, not a list of valid design patterns that are popular.

    • 57

      I’ve written an article or two myself, and I know what the author is doing by calling it an “epidemic” and an “illness” (or whatever he says). He’s using a touch of hyperbole to make his point, especially since I’m sure he knew before he wrote this that we would all go trundling over to his site to smirk at his own usage of these “diseased” (there’s some serious hyperbole!) techniques. The whole article is quite tongue-in-cheek, though it has an underlying seriousness — this school of design has become way overused in recent years. The author’s selection of currently popular design techniques can be lumped into a single design schema that we can call, say, “Web Throwback” or “Forward into the Past” or something similarly snarky.

      Jack, you make some good points and I’m not trying to snap your galluses, just making observations.

  24. 59

    This article is silly. Don’t forget, before web design there were magazines and print. And all these elements, zebra edges, textures, strokes, forked ribbons, all come from print design. Letter press comes from print design. It’s the same issue going on with the iPad and other tablets. Bringing the feel of print to web.

    If we remember what the internet looked like before print designers surfaced to web design, it was pretty boring and drab.

    There is a swarm of print designers coming to the field of web design, and these elements have been used for years.

  25. 60

    Great article but you must take in the information here with a grain of salt. Design for things that are relative and avoid trends for the sake of “making it pretty”.

  26. 61

    Warner Hernandez

    March 15, 2012 10:12 am

    Nice Article, well I think that the trends are part of the design work, as designers , we need to solve many problems, one of those is the client alike, so I’m always open to satisfaced him if he likes a special graphical trend as part of the request.
    I think the issue will occur when we forget about the real important things on design, like readability, experience, functionality, etc, for instead, be more focused on the graphical appeareance.
    The trends constantly change, so ok, if this still to long it will be an issue, but not a thing to feel sorry about when you do a art following a specific trend. Actually, even if these trends are easy to find everywhere, I think we’re on a edge where you can find a lot of not trendy websites with a lot of likes from the users. That’s not a sin aymore.
    Also, when you saw old pictures of you wearing baggy pants and shinny shoes is funny,.. so why should people feel sorry about it? about the past? was a trend, i felt confortable and people liked.
    As designers, we need to solve things and enjoy at the same time, that’s why I love my profession.
    Anything in exccess is always a bad idea. :)
    Keep our passion for new things is part of our success.

  27. 62

    So true.

  28. 63

    loved a lot, details pinpointing everything was great stuff, for beginners it can be milestone. I think Rounded borders and Slow Shadows should also be included which emerged in recent years,,, ny way nice stuff.

  29. 64

    The title of this post should have been more along the lines of, “Popular Design Trends to Make Your Websites Kick A$$”. I honestly see nothing wrong with the techniques used here. Web design has come a loooong way over the past 15 years, and the aesthetic quality just keeps getting better over time. That being said, I agree with the conclusions that we should keep trying to improve our designs – don’t settle for mere inspiration, create something new!

  30. 65

    Trends are dangerous in the wrong hands, and very powerful in the hands of those who create with sound judgement. Just like anything creative: music, art, fashion…even cooking.

    One of the problems is that trends are very alluring to those who are not capable of concepting a unique design: All of the tutorials, web design blogs, and designs surrounding them are reflecting the trends right back at them, and even showing them how to achieve the same results. It’s the “weight loss miracle pill” of the web design world, and it’s perpetuated by our own industry.

    It’s very easy to see when someone is relying heavily on a trend to carry a design versus when they’re a great designer that successfully communicates a message — whether or not it includes elements of current trends.

    So for that, there’s no reason to be bitter. Let the shitty designers run the trends into the ground while the talented designers move on and focus on communication.

  31. 66

    I just realized that my website has more than a few of these mentioned trends.
    The interesting thing is that I never designed that to fit a trend but it just happened! I guess we all get influenced by the same things and at one point we commit to what we call trends!

  32. 67

    It’s interesting that I incorporated a bunch of these in my personal site a couple years ago, without any specific inspiration other than the hand-sewn, letterpress cards and stationary I had just invested in (prior to a job-hunting excursion). It’s funny that many of my approaches are mentioned in this release…makes me second guess my work a little :)

  33. 68

    Yeah, gotta point out that the first image you use as an example has almost the exact same texture is the grey sidebar directly to the right of where I’m typing right now!

  34. 69

    Interesting article. And subjective:-) I do love the letterpress and even the stitching! I think they’re fun fads. But like any fad, they must contribute to the message. None of the above can be used in any situation, just for the sake of using it.

  35. 70

    Skeuomorphic Features are awesome. Simulating physical objects in the real world is an easy way to connect a completely digital feature so that a viewer’s real world experience is useful on it.

    Long live the skeuomorphs!

    • 71

      There was a nice article on skeuomorphs in Wired just recently. They weren’t in favour of them – I think it’s interesting to see why.

  36. 72

    Interesting article, but maybe a little hypocritical. If you visit the author’s website you’ll find every trend in use. Vintage illustrations, textures, banners, letterpressed type and imagery.

    • 73


      There is undoubtedly a use of these trends on his company’s website, but they are absent on his personal web site. Just because a designer works for a brand does not mean their design beliefs align with the brand they are working for.

      Which is fine — what we do is not personal work.

  37. 74

    I kinda think the point of this post is mute. Styles are here to stay. One trend becomes popular, dies off a bit, but never goes away because ultimately, that style works really well for certain jobs. Texture, really? That’s a trend? Then what’s flat colour? Or a gradient? Or a pattern? That’s pretty much all our background choices. Are they all trends? Does a rock band have to stop using a Fender guitar because it’s been trending a lot lately? I kinda feel that web designers are a little too elitist sometimes. As a designer and developer, I design things that serve a function, drive results, and look good. If it happens to use one of the above mentioned ‘trends’ in the process, I’m really not going to hate myself for it. Same goes for the ‘web 2.0’ styles. Sometimes, a reflection is going to be useful, in context. Should I avoid that simply because it was a trend?

  38. 75

    Good article. But the cause is very clear once you look at it from a big and wide perspective. We, human beings of the modern world, are in a transitional phase. (as it pertains to technological innovation) As it stands, we’re right in the transition of moving physical, real-life things into digital medium. Things are going onto cloud storage. Pictures that were once developed by film are now digital, as are videos, as are books, radios, music, etc. Trends are indicative of a need for the popular MASSES and as it stands, most people are in the steps of learning what a Kindle (or tablet) reader is. The design of a “knob” or a woodgrain “bookshelf” is merely a symptom of the “disease” or “syndrome” of what I would call “digititis”. MOST people need to see visually on their screen, a physical rendering of the original (i.e. a bookshelf with books with actual covers) to make the transition from reading physical hardback books to reading online. The same concept applies to music, the stitching, etc. all the design elements that are derivatives of physical materials. Design that is trendy will always be one or two steps behind what would be labeled as “innovative” because TRENDY means popular. And POPULAR means the majority. And MAJORITY means.. lag. Afterall, it’s all old people who need to raise the font size to read their phones. :) I believe the popular design trends that are outlined in this article is merely indicative of the times and just reflective of the necessity for baby-steps for most of the populous. “Trendy”, everyday design is like radio music today, i.e. Keri Hilson, LilWayne, Pitbull. Innovative design encompasses original, pioneering techniques analogous to say, Radiohead or Yndi Halda. Both are required and necessary. But the conclusion is spot on. Know when to use em!

  39. 76

    I just caught myself as affected, but reading all comments helped me understand I’m not ill, but inspired with certain style – thanks to all! Keeping in mind the major purpose of website should always lead as to the best design solutions, not our designing habits.

  40. 77

    So I think this is directly related to design, brand design and brand of institutionalism correctly conveyed to the user as many people on the platform of the brand for the future of work to be done, otherwise the negative consequences.

  41. 78

    I think we’re all suffering from at least a few of these symptoms ;-)

  42. 79

    I enjoyed the article, but like some of the commenters above I think the term “trend” is being unduly vilified. It’s a snapshot of the evolution of an era’s collective tastes. On the web these eras are seemingly much shorter than in realms like fashion, but they still serve as a branching off point to evolve new styles, techniques, etc. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just how progress is made.

    Designers that push the norm in new and interesting ways are critical to keep things moving forward, but making your run-of-the-mill designer feel like a mindless sheep for joining in on what currently looks cool, especially to the masses (our clients), doesn’t really add much to the conversation. In 6-12 months new trends will pop up and some old ones will lose favor. Websites aren’t meant to keep the same look for years on end. If they were, we’d have a much harder time finding work.

    Embrace trends and and get noticed by implementing them with loads of quality and your own personal touch!

  43. 81

    I really enjoyed reading this because before I started reading I didn’t realize that I’ve catched a cold the past few years. People luckely do sometimes tell me that they can see it’s created by me.

    But still, I realize that not all of my choices in designs I create are done with a reason. Thanks to this post I realiseren I should think more of the ‘commuication’ rather making stuff look cool. :)

    Thanks again.

  44. 82

    I hated your new design with a passion the first time I saw it. Now, I love it. It looks good on my tablet, phone and computer. Way to stay ahead of the curve!

  45. 83

    Aren’t these “symptoms” just signs of another chapter closing in the web design history. I mean to clearly define these symptoms and write an article about it is a sign by itself. Web 5 years ago was defined through different kind of rules and trends. Many of these trends are now kitsch.

  46. 84

    What a negative and sarcastic article – you come across as someone who likes to belittle designers who may use these styles – yet you use them yourself – im confused.

    Its a very narrow minded look at today’s web styles that make a very small minority in terms of design styles. The effects you mention work for brands that suit using it – and if done well, they look awesome. We should be praising good design and pointing out the bad, not sniggering in the corner thinking we are better than others – this is not what the design community is about.

    Smashing Mag – You are going slowly downhill with your irony.

  47. 85

    Great article, thanks!
    In the other hand I think that in designing like in real life, we can use all that effects and ways to produce such effects, but as designers we need to know how to dose them effectively :)
    Trends always will change, it’s like big loop that’s nothing new, for 10 years the same effect will be in time IMO.
    That dosen’t mean we, designers should blindly use that effects in every work of course, use ’em, mix ’em, experiment with ’em – and maybe we make new trends to follow ;)

    Cheers :)

  48. 86

    Well written article, BUT i think there’s things missing here and most of those things are mentioned in comments above so i don’t intend to repeat them. I think one thing we could all do with trying to remember is just to think about ‘Why’ we are using certain styles and effects and making sure they are fit for purpose. And i think with the rise of responsive design i hope to see more focus on the functionality!

    Thanks for the article sir!

  49. 87

    I really want to see design move towards minimalism and flat colour. The Windows 8 ‘Metro’ UI feels progressive when compared to the iOS skeuomorphism.

  50. 88

    Thank you for these stunning words, it’s been a while I haven’t read an entire Smashing Magazine article.


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