why-does-modern-design-all-look-the-same-(and-should-it?)

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

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

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

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

Headshot of Cliff Kuang, UX design lead at Google.
Cliff Kuang, UX design lead at Google. Image source: Medium/Cliff Kuang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designers are selling themselves short

Photographer Jill Greenberg’s very playful 1995 website ‘The Manipulator.’ Source: http://www.rsub.com/thebluedot/greenberg/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App UIs across the digital world are favoring similar design aesthetics, optimized to be as easy-to-use as possible.

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

“We’ve taken our eye off the ball”

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

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

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

Behind Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Principal Designer Khoi Vinh. Click here to listen or subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as uncover more.

209 comments

  1. I’m no longer sure the place you are getting your info, however great topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or figuring out more.

    Thanks for great information I used to be in search of
    this info for my mission.

  2. Do you have a spam issue on this website; I also am a blogger,
    and I was curious about your situation; many of us have developed some
    nice methods and we are looking to trade methods with other folks, be sure to shoot me an e-mail if interested.

  3. Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I in finding It
    truly useful & it helped me out much. I am hoping to give one thing again and aid others like you
    helped me.

  4. Hey there! This is kind of off topic but I need some help from an established blog.
    Is it very difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast.
    I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do
    you have any points or suggestions? Thank you

  5. hey there and thank you for your info – I’ve certainly picked up something
    new from right here. I did however expertise several technical issues using
    this web site, as I experienced to reload the site many times previous to I could get it to load properly.
    I had been wondering if your hosting is OK? Not that I
    am complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords.

    Well I’m adding this RSS to my email and can look out for a lot more
    of your respective fascinating content. Make sure you update this again soon.

  6. Hi there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to give
    it a look. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m
    book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers!

    Fantastic blog and outstanding style and design.

  7. We are a gaggle of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community.
    Your site offered us with helpful info to work on. You’ve performed an impressive task and our whole group might be grateful to you.

  8. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after
    I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  9. Hi would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m looking to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a hard time making a decision between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S Sorry for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  10. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles?

    I mean, what you say is important and everything. Nevertheless think of
    if you added some great pictures or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!
    Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this blog could undeniably
    be one of the very best in its niche. Very good blog!

  11. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the structure of your website?

    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect
    with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 images.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  12. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The text in your post seem to be running off the screen in Firefox.

    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to
    do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let
    you know. The design and style look great though!

    Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Kudos

  13. I am curious to find out what blog platform you are working with?
    I’m experiencing some minor security issues with my
    latest blog and I’d like to find something more secure.
    Do you have any suggestions?

  14. I get pleasure from, result in I discovered just
    what I was taking a look for. You’ve ended my
    four day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day.
    Bye

  15. Hi to all, how is everything, I think every one is getting more
    from this web site, and your views are nice for new
    people.

  16. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.
    The problem is something that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.

    I’m very happy I found this during my search for something concerning this.

  17. Hi! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.

    Is it difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but
    I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking
    about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do
    you have any ideas or suggestions? Cheers

  18. Hello exceptional blog! Does running a blog similar
    to this require a lot of work? I have absolutely no expertise in coding
    but I had been hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyway,
    if you have any ideas or techniques for new blog owners please share.

    I understand this is off topic however I just needed to ask.
    Thanks a lot!

  19. Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you ever been running a blog
    for? you made running a blog glance easy. The entire look of
    your site is wonderful, as neatly as the content!

  20. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any
    problems of plagorism or copyright infringement? My blog has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot
    of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission.
    Do you know any techniques to help reduce content from being stolen? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  21. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after
    looking at some of the articles I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m certainly happy I stumbled upon it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back often!

  22. I’m really loving the theme/design of your blog. Do you ever run into any internet browser compatibility problems?

    A handful of my blog audience have complained about my blog not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari.
    Do you have any suggestions to help fix this issue?

  23. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Opera.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser
    compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you
    know. The design and style look great though!

    Hope you get the problem fixed soon. Thanks

  24. Hello my loved one! I want to say that this post is amazing,
    nice written and include approximately all important infos.
    I would like to look extra posts like this .

  25. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is fundamental and everything.

    But think of if you added some great images or videos
    to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this website could definitely
    be one of the very best in its field. Very good blog!

  26. Hello there I am so excited I found your site, I really found you by accident, while
    I was browsing on Bing for something else, Nonetheless I am here
    now and would just like to say kudos for a incredible post and a
    all round thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read it all at the minute but I
    have bookmarked it and also included your RSS feeds, so when I
    have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the fantastic work.

  27. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post
    was good. I do not know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if
    you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  28. I have learn several excellent stuff here.
    Certainly value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how so much effort you set to make this type of fantastic informative web site.

  29. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering
    if you knew of any widgets I could add to
    my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like
    this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

  30. Your style is unique in comparison to other people I’ve read stuff
    from. Thanks for posting when you’ve got the
    opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this site.

  31. Hey There. I discovered your blog the usage of msn. That is an extremely neatly written article.
    I will make sure to bookmark it and return to learn more
    of your helpful information. Thanks for the post.

    I will certainly return.

  32. I do not know whether it’s just me or if everybody else experiencing problems with your site.

    It seems like some of the written text in your content are running off the screen. Can someone else please comment and let me know if this
    is happening to them as well? This may be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen before.
    Thank you

  33. Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go
    ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Texas!
    Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent job!

  34. Hello there, I think your site could possibly be
    having browser compatibility issues. When I take a look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening
    in I.E., it has some overlapping issues. I simply wanted to provide you with a
    quick heads up! Other than that, wonderful site!

  35. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everybody else experiencing problems with
    your blog. It appears as if some of the written text within your posts are running off the
    screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me
    know if this is happening to them as well?
    This may be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve
    had this happen before. Many thanks

  36. Hi! Someone in my Myspace group shared this website with us
    so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and
    will be tweeting this to my followers! Terrific blog and great style and design.

  37. hey there and thank you for your information –
    I have certainly picked up something new from right here. I did however expertise several technical
    points using this web site, since I experienced to reload the web site a lot
    of times previous to I could get it to load correctly.

    I had been wondering if your web host is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances
    times will very frequently affect your placement in google and can damage your quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords.
    Well I’m adding this RSS to my email and could look out
    for a lot more of your respective intriguing content.
    Make sure you update this again soon.

  38. Your method of describing the whole thing in this piece of writing is genuinely
    good, all can effortlessly be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

  39. Woah! I’m really digging the template/theme of this blog.
    It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s very hard to get that “perfect balance” between user friendliness and appearance.
    I must say that you’ve done a excellent job with this.
    In addition, the blog loads extremely quick for
    me on Firefox. Exceptional Blog!

    my webpage daftarayam.com

  40. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over
    again. Anyhow, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  41. Hello there! I simply wish to give you a big thumbs up for the excellent information you have here on this post.

    I’ll be coming back to your blog for more soon.

  42. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your
    post’s to be exactly what I’m looking for.

    Do you offer guest writers to write content for yourself?
    I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write concerning here.

    Again, awesome blog!

  43. Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew
    where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m
    having difficulty finding one? Thanks a
    lot!

  44. Hello there! This post couldn’t be written much better!

    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this information to
    him. Fairly certain he’s going to have a great read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

  45. Asking questions are genuinely good thing if you are not understanding anything fully,
    but this piece of writing presents good understanding yet.

  46. Does your blog have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to send you an e-mail.
    I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing.
    Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it grow
    over time.

  47. Thanks for any other great article. Where else may anyone get that type
    of info in such a perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week,
    and I am on the search for such information.

  48. great publish, very informative. I ponder why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t realize this.
    You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  49. Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old one! It’s on a totally different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Outstanding choice of colors!

  50. It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before ending I
    am reading this wonderful article to improve my know-how.

  51. Hi there are using WordPress for your blog platform?
    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and
    set up my own. Do you require any coding expertise to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  52. I pay a quick visit every day some sites and information sites to read posts, except this web site presents quality based content.

  53. I absolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be what precisely
    I’m looking for. Do you offer guest writers to write content in your case?
    I wouldn’t mind composing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write regarding here.
    Again, awesome site!

  54. Hello! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout
    out and tell you I really enjoy reading through
    your posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums
    that go over the same subjects? Many thanks!

  55. Hi there, its fastidious piece of writing on the
    topic of media print, we all know media is a impressive source of information.

  56. Attractive portion of content. I simply stumbled upon your
    weblog and in accession capital to claim that I acquire actually loved account your weblog posts.
    Anyway I’ll be subscribing on your feeds or even I fulfillment you get entry to persistently fast.

  57. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure of your blog?

    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  58. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails
    with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Thanks!

  59. Simply desire to say your article is as amazing. The clearness in your post is just spectacular and i can assume you are an expert on this subject.
    Fine with your permission let me to grab your feed to keep up
    to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the gratifying
    work.

  60. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your article
    seem to be running off the screen in Chrome. I’m not sure if this
    is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser
    compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The design look great though!
    Hope you get the issue resolved soon. Thanks

  61. I truly love your site.. Great colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself?
    Please reply back as I’m planning to create my very own blog and want to find out where
    you got this from or exactly what the theme is named. Cheers!

  62. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs
    really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future.
    Cheers

  63. Please let me know if you’re looking for a author for your blog.
    You have some really great articles and I think I would be
    a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load
    off, I’d really like to write some material for
    your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an email
    if interested. Kudos!

  64. Hi, Neat post. There is an issue together with your site in web explorer,
    would test this? IE nonetheless is the market leader and a large
    part of folks will pass over your excellent writing due to
    this problem.

  65. If you would like to increase your familiarity simply keep
    visiting this site and be updated with the hottest gossip posted here.

  66. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading it, you could be a great author.I will be sure
    to bookmark your blog and will come back from now on. I want to
    encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have a nice afternoon!

  67. I every time used to read article in news papers but now as I am a user of web so from now I am using net for articles or reviews, thanks to web.

  68. Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It truly helpful & it helped
    me out a lot. I hope to present something again and help others
    like you aided me.

  69. I blog often and I genuinely thank you for your content.
    Your article has truly peaked my interest.
    I’m going to book mark your website and keep checking for new information about
    once per week. I opted in for your RSS feed as well.

  70. Hey there, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility issues.

    When I look at your blog site in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it
    has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!

    Other then that, very good blog!

  71. Howdy! I simply want to offer you a big thumbs up for the great
    information you have right here on this post.

    I am coming back to your website for more soon.

  72. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog
    that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.

    I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience
    with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything.
    I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

  73. Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful &
    it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others like you helped me.

  74. I blog frequently and I genuinely thank you for your content.
    This great article has really peaked my interest.
    I am going to book mark your website and keep checking for new details about once
    per week. I subscribed to your Feed as well.

  75. Hey very cool web site!! Guy .. Excellent
    .. Wonderful .. I will bookmark your blog and take the
    feeds additionally? I’m happy to search out numerous useful
    info right here in the put up, we need work out more techniques on this regard, thanks for
    sharing. . . . . .

  76. Hi! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs!
    Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all
    your posts! Keep up the fantastic work!

  77. We stumbled over here different website and thought I may as well
    check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you.
    Look forward to exploring your web page yet again.

  78. Unquestionably consider that which you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be at the internet the easiest
    thing to take note of. I say to you, I certainly get
    annoyed while people think about issues that they just do not understand about.
    You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest and outlined out the entire thing with no need side-effects ,
    other people can take a signal. Will likely be again to get
    more. Thanks

  79. Fastidious respond in return of this question with solid arguments
    and explaining the whole thing on the topic of that.

  80. Fantastic goods from you, man. I’ve understand your
    stuff previous to and you are just too wonderful.
    I actually like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way in which
    you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still care for to keep it
    smart. I can not wait to read much more from you. This is really a terrific website.

  81. What i do not realize is in truth how you are no longer really much
    more well-liked than you may be now. You are very intelligent.
    You know thus significantly in the case of this subject, produced me in my
    opinion imagine it from a lot of numerous angles. Its like men and women aren’t involved except it’s
    something to do with Woman gaga! Your individual stuffs outstanding.
    At all times maintain it up!

  82. I don’t even understand how I stopped up here, however I
    thought this put up was good. I don’t recognize who you are however definitely you’re going to a famous blogger when you
    aren’t already. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.