Conformity is the result of a process by which people’s beliefs or behaviors are influenced by others within a group in the formation and maintenance of social norms..
Conformity is a confusing topic to discuss. Let’s start with high school, where the young and impressionable roam. My high school social scene was probably the same as yours. It was the popular kids vs the non-popular kids. The non-popular kids were made up by the nerds and the goth kids. I was the nerd who was often fascinated by the goth kids. How could I not be? They were ALL so anti-conformity and ALL so unique. They ALL wore dark clothes from Hot Topic instead of bright colored A&F polos made by the evil corporate. Their faces ALL exuded the misery and pain from living in suburbia America. They were the symbols of anti-conformity, because they conformed to rebel against conformity.
I hope you sense where this is going.
Many years after high school, while watching an episode of my favorite TV show, Dr. Gregory House said something that summed up my feeling on conformity during a conversation with a young doctor.
Dr. Spain: You know, I really admire the way you don’t care what anyone thinks. You just do what you want, the way you want.
Wilson: So, you went to Hopkins for both undergrad and med school?
Dr. Spain: That’s right.
House: He’s in a band.
Dr. Spain: You into music?
House: Totally. What kind of music do you play?
Dr. Spain: Um, mostly blues, you know. James Cotton, some original stuff.
House: [pops a Vicodin] Oh, dude. You are so hired.
Dr. Spain: Really?
House: Not a chance.
Dr. Spain: Why?
House: Tattoo. [Dr. Spain turns his right arm to reveal a kanji symbol on his forearm.]
Dr. Spain: Wow. I thought you’d be the last person to have a problem with nonconformity.
House: Nonconformity, right. I can’t remember the last time I saw a 20-something kid with a tattoo of an Asian letter on his wrist. You are one wicked free thinker. You want to be a rebel? Stop being cool. Wear a pocket protector like he[Wilson] does and get a haircut. Like the Asian kids who don’t leave the library for 20 hours stretches, they’re the ones who don’t care what you think. Sayonara. [Dr. Spain leaves.]
Wilson: So should I go through all the resumes looking for Asian names?
House: Actually, the Asian kids are probably just responding to parental pressure, but my point is still valid.
We all have a drive to be different and unique. This is especially true among us designers and artists when it comes to our work. Those who went on creating original work were hailed as masters, and those who merely mimicked them got forgotten along with their mediocrity.
All this set up leads to the main focus of this post: conformity among web designs today.
Web design is a very young design profession. However in its thirteen years of history, web design has gone through a lot of changes. In the mid 90s, the web was a rather interesting place. It was like the wild west. The land was vast and barren and most people didn’t know what to do with the new found real estate. Programmers and people with no design background built houses like this,
while the traditional graphic designers built
This outcome isn’t surprising. The web was a new medium, people didn’t quite know what to make of it or how to use it. They stuck to what they were used to. Designers focused on the aesthetics, their sites were typically unique, eccentrically pretty and difficult to navigate. Their designs catered to themselves or their design peers. People with no design background simply wanted to dump content out there, regardless of how it looked.
Fast forward ten years later. Thanks to advances in technology, focus on usability, accessibility and social networking (wrapped in a bundle labeled web2.0), we rarely see websites with animated status/title text, or fancy mouse cursor trails, or those annoying java applet page counters. Instead, they’re replaced with big types, shiny glass buttons, reflection, drop shadows, gradients and standard grid layout. The good news is these sites are very friendly to use, and the sad part is they’re so painfully, comfortably boring. There’s no individuality reflected in these designs, no soul, none whatsoever. You see one you’ve seen them all. It’s like looking at the cookie-cutter, mass produced houses in suburbia America. Everyone has the same siding, same windows, same doors, same trims, same layout and the same cars parked on the same driveway.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. There have been a number of designers who voiced this concern. Recently Art Javid wrote an article on the American Design Awards web site criticizing css/blog sites are not design worthy. While he incorrectly puts the blame on css(a tool), his main point is very valid. Most “designer sites,” especially design blog sites have very little originality. Art received quite a bit of criticism from commenters in this blog. Interestingly, those who complained the loudest have the very regurgitated template sites Art criticized.
I’ve pondered on this subject for quite a while now. I’ve concluded that this phenomenon of blatant copying(or “highly inspired by”) will continue, there’s simply no end to it. As the writing of this blog, the “web 2.0″ look is already on its way out, new original designs have already surfaced on the web. However these designs are quickly identified, categorized and published on “design blogs” for more Photoshop users to be “inspired by”. That’s the thing with all design fields, more so with web design: The trend happens when someone sets the trend, then the rest follow for lack of their own creativity or hoping for similar commercial success. This totally devalues the original design, to the point where people don’t know who came up with the original work anymore. Bart-Jan can relate:
Crap. Just when I thought I had moved as far away as possible from what’s considered trendy, it now seems that my site yet again is part of a trend. C’mon, give me a break already…
A contributing factor is the vastly available “design blogs.” At first glance, they may appear to be helpful. They offer tons of css tricks, graphical tool tutorials and showcases. However, competence in tools does not equate to competence in design. This is what most people new to design don’t realize. Most of these blog sites see success as number of traffic hits, or how high they rank on Digg. I’d rather see these popular sites offer original, design focused articles than links to other sites that link to other sites.
Is it bad to conform in web design? Not totally. After all, web design is about building a product for end users. Thus, we all conform to design around users’ needs. That’s as far as conformity should go. A great web designer knows how to balance self expression and usability, decoration and design, without being heavily influenced by others.
Be that Asian kid, or wear pocket protector. Actually don’t. Be who you want to be.