Conformity

by Jin, 08-21-08 // 30 comments
Nerd

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.

House

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.

background-image by James Mollison

30 comments

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anna 08-21-08

good stuff. It all goes back to the balance you expounded upon in http://www.8164.org/tao-te-ching-chapter2/

Ananya 08-21-08

I havent read any non-technical blog so far. But I have to say I really like your writing style… This one is a very nice article.

Jin 08-21-08

Thank you Ananya.

Kelley 08-21-08

Interesting that the core of the IT industry is now made up of those geeks and outcasts from days of yore. Socs just have no creativity ;)

Art Javid 08-21-08

Great article… my revised article is set to go back online in a few days.

Jin 08-21-08

Thanks Art. Looking forward to reading your revised article.

Art Javid 08-21-08

Hello Jin, we just posted it minutes ago. I would like to hear your take on it! Thanks.

Jin 08-21-08

Art, I think you did an excellent job of revising it. Kudos for acknowledging the css error.

I have updated my blog for the new article link.

Re-reading my own blog, I can see maybe I wasn’t being too clear on certain issues. I have nothing against web sites offering tips for people new to design. This is a valiant effort. However I feel it’s equally important to provide the “why” with “how.”

PSDTUTS just released a new article on developing originality. I think it’s a good direction.

itsalljustaride 08-22-08

“Interesting that the core of the IT industry is now made up of those geeks and outcasts from days of yore. Socs just have no creativity ;)”

Hate to break it to you but the bulk of those geeks and outcasts are just as aesthetically challenged and creatively barren as the rest of the general population, speaking in ratios of course.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, it’s the backbone of progress, but you certainly can’t begrudge the bulk of the web design community for going with what works already rather than feeling obligated to reinvent the wheel every time they put something between an HTML tag.

Not everyone is trying to be the next Andy Warhol, and I think it’s a bit unfair to judge them by that standard.

There is a concept out there that in any community there are something like 15% of people creating new content, while 85% of people are merely using or reusing that content. It seems pretty true to, and perhaps the ratio is even more skewed. Humans are memetic animals driven by culture and culture is at its core a cannibalistic enterprise, consuming and regurgitating itself indefinitely, and altering itself slightly each time. May as well accept it.

Dan 08-22-08

Evolution can go in both directions, I’ve seen plenty of sites which are ‘original’ yet also ugly and hard to use.

I’ve also seen sites which use or advance ‘trendy’ techniques like shiny buttons, yet they remain functional and most look good.

Just because you didn’t come up with the idea first doesn’t mean you couldn’t have, nor does it mean you can’t use it, save for when respecting copyright.

jarrod 08-23-08

“Excellent, we are now part of the tribe!”

- one hung droid

Fred 08-23-08

it’s an evolutionarily stable strategy to follow trends; it’s what gives you a format for if/when you are able to express your own original thought. There is nothing wrong with being impressed with and following the trends of new, interesting sites, especially if you get paid to work in that medium. If, fact, it shows diligence to consistently keep up with what’s new in your field. I do it because I love it and the inspiration i get serves me well both professionally and personally. I feel great when I see something new and well-designed; so it must be ok.

I also, think you probably whine about a lot of things in life and take a stance just to make yourself seem like you know what you’re talking about exactly because you are impressed with the way trends work completely organically.

Above all your site is not in the least bit attractive or original and the award site you referenced is exactly the problem. It copies an OLD style way past it’s death, and it isn’t compliant. As a web professional, that bothers me way more than people using showcase sites to try and recreate styles. It’s part of an education that ends in eventually understanding the styles and being able to create one too.

Jin 08-23-08

@itsalljustaride, dan and fred,

Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts.

I’m not sure if you got the gist of my post, perhaps I didn’t express them well. I’m not for being unique for the sake of being unique, or following others mindlessly.

I love to look at sites that have showcase, however I value sites that have original design focused articles even more. Yes, throughout history, progress is made built on top of what’s already there before. There’s nothing wrong with being truely insipired, or influenced by someone else’s work. However, there’s a difference between capturing the essence of what makes a design good, understanding that design from the core, than to mimic what’s on the surface.

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

One of the most misunderstood quotes. Dmitry wrote a good article on this similiar subject: http://www.usabilitypost.com/post/7-dont-copy-a-design-steal-it

@Fred, as for the 2nd half of your comment, I’ll just assume passion got in your way of objectivity. But regardless, your comment is appreciated. Hopefully I’ve cleared something up.

Bryan Chain 08-23-08

Nice article, I can really relate to this since in recently redesigning my own blog (with your help) my main goal was to be as unique as I could. I started out with something that looked strikingly similar to everything else out there, and wound up with something amazingly unique.

While the standard grid layout is highly usable, its not the only way to make your site user friendly.

Dmitry 08-24-08

Hi Jin, thanks for mentioning my article.

I think a good way to look at web design would be to equate it with architecture. Throughout centuries we’ve witnessed evolution of architecture — not just in styles, but also in function. Web design is primarily function based — the delivery of information. Similar to great architecture, styles are set, and everyone else adapts them because they work well.

Having said this however, web design is also a lot like art. Here we have generations of artists trying to differentiate themselves by creating something unique — Van Gogh, Picasso, Da Vinci etc — many of whom bringing their own style to the table. Apple is a nice example of a company whose website and style has been copied and “stolen” countless times — from wet floor reflections, to glossy buttons and now to flat metal buttons and subtle gradients.

So essentially there are two forces at work here — function and style.

Function wise we’re seeing evolution of design. Somebody comes up with a better way to display the date label on posts or to arrange advertisements in their sidebar, or to design their tabbed navigation etc etc. and everyone else slowly adapts it in their own designs. I think this is good, as we’ve generally seen an increase in quality of the web over the years. Information is easier to consume and sites are easier to navigate these days.

The second force is style. We’re at the end of the Web 2.0 style era now as you’ve said, and people are trying to differentiate their site from the herd — which is of course important for their brand. Here I think it will continue in the same way as it always has — there will be trend setters, and there will be followers.

Nick Cooper 08-25-08

To me I believe conformity results from convenience and enough familiarity with personal interests that offsets ones creativity.

Jeremy 08-25-08

Thanks Jin, for your thought-provoking article. The responses too, made for interesting reading.

In particular, I was intrigued by Art Javid’s article. The first thing that struck me about its presentation was how hard the text was to read – on my monitor it was way too small. So I cut and pasted the text into an MS Word document, just so I could read it. Sorry Art – your beautifully designed web page was completely lost on me.

Javid also makes the rather pretentious statement: “Graphic and web designers are a rare breed of individuals who possess the ability to envision what is beyond the mundane, allow their creativity to flourish, and conceptualize methods of creativity, that connect the ordinary with a tangible solution that is both beautiful and marketable. A graphical representation of ideas meshed together out of sometimes-ordinary colors, photographs, illustrations, and text situated in a harmonious marriage of form and function, that allows no room for improvement.” Wow!

The fact is, in the real world, web designers are in business primarily to make money. Most of them are probably not true artists at all. While we in this profession love to dream of having unlimited creative freedom, the sad fact is that we are constrained by such inconvenient factors as time and budget. This is also true of the clients for whom we work. For most clients, a website is not a means of personal expression, but a tool to serve the needs of the business. Businesses exist to make money. If a website does not serve this end, then it is a failure, no matter how unique or creative its design may be. I have known of businesses that have really cheap-looking, uninspired designs, yet they succeed in bringing in business for their owners. Conversely I have known companies invest lots of money in beautifully designed websites which yield no return on their investment. A good designer understands this. I’m willing to bet that he most successful web designers (in terms of their income) are not necessarily the most unique or creative.

As artists we aspire to non-conformity, but web design is not purely an artist’s medium.

Ron 08-27-08

I agree with you about the motivation of web designers to make money, and that most aren’t true artists. I also agree that there are limitations placed by the client which prohibit one’s ability to fully go wild with creativity. But that doesn’t mean they should start using templates and blog-software to acheive the objective.

Jeremy, you seem to have missed Art Javid’s point just like so many others who have yet to understand what makes for an award worthy website. American Design Awards gives awards to, and recognizes designers who display outstanding design abilities, not those who move products off the virtual store shelves. Throwing out words like “pretentious” and a sarcastic “wow” to a statement that exemplifies the meaning of what it takes to be a true designer, only goes to prove Mr. Javid’s point that much more.

Designers thrive to create unique, effective, and attractive collateral whether in print or on the web. Once society start accepting pre-made templates and plug-and-go blog software as the new wave of web design, it will put thousands of brilliant and talented designers out of business around the world and devalue the creative industry as a whole – whether you are a graphic designer, web designer, architect, etc. Beautifully designed websites AND cookie-cutter ones do need to serve their purpose – I agree. However, I too know of a lot of primitive, archaic, and unimaginative sites that do not attract the customer, gain their trust, or portray value. Moving merchandise also depends on the type of product you are selling, what type of marketing you have in place, your prices, and who your target market is – attractive and effective design will only help one get that extra edge.

In the field of design, success isn’t necessarily measured by how much money you can charge each client by reselling them the same template – it’s seeing your work awarded by peers who recognize their god-given talent, and appreciate their hard work and imagination. Of course monetary success is very important, but it doesn’t complete the package for the true artist.

If you look at the American Design Awards site, you will see that they grade designs based on four various criteria – Creativity, Effectiveness, Practicality, and Ethics – not just how pretty a website looks. My point is that cookie-cutter websites and designers who produce them should not expect to score any points in the creativity department; so might as well forget about submitting “their” work to any design competition. If there is an award program out there for uninspired business-driven web design, then most of today’s web designers (as you have described them) will definitely come out on top.

Kudos to Art Javid for standing up for what every designer out there stands for, but is bullied to accept by the next wave of wanna-be designers – who underprice and underdeliver.

Ron 08-27-08

Jeremy, I checked the article you had trouble reading, and the text size was not an issue for me at all. I think your time would better be spent addressing the real issue vs. coming up with juvenile ways of belittling the messengers… tisk tisk tisk. Who’s next on your hit list, Jin for using white text on a transparent gray background?

Zinni 08-27-08

I too am glad that Art has chosen to rewrite the article. I Agree 100% that blogs do spread a the “perpetual design trend” cycle faster than other mediums. I actually planned on writing a follow up article to praise the changes that were made and voice my support for the article now that the gray areas have been stomped out.

As long as we realize that the technology isn’t the problem and its the people who take an unoriginal approach to using it, than he has my support.

Jin 08-28-08

Zinni, thank you for your original article, which prompted me to write mine. I’m looking forward to your follow up article.

Art Javid 09-01-08

Zinni, we are definitely on the same page!

NewssyLee 09-05-08

Thanks to you

Jacob Cass 09-10-08

Jin,
Wow, I am angry with myself for not finding your site sooner, you have a ‘knack’ for writing – I was stuck reading the whole way through, which is not good as I need to wake up in 7 hours. I really like your blog design as well, especially with the changing backgrounds. Very non-conformist of you.

I really want to comment on many of your points however do not have the time but I would focus on this one paragraph that you wrote:

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.

I completely agree with you that because of these new sites anyone can now pick up a photoshop brush or pen tip and become a “designer” however I do not agree with you the measure of success based on traffic / digg. Personally, I write what I think will benefit other designers and upcoming artists wanting to improve their skills in design… I do this by offering tips, giving insights and walking through my processes but I also provide those list posts which give further advice. I believe if all design blogs could do this (and write more articles such as this one) the design industry would become a better place.

I’m off now to read the article on ADA and the reply on PostiveSpaceBlog.

Jin 09-10-08

Jacob, thanks for your comment.

I don’t mean sites are successful because they rank high purely based on traffic. It’s a perceived success by site owners.

By list posts, I wasn’t talking about original list items posts. I was mainly talking about list of links to other sites, as the main content of the site. Therefore, a portal site if you will. However, my view somewhat changed regarding this type of site.

I think there are different types of design blog sites within the web design community. Some offer original articles, tutorials while others offer lists of inspirations from elsewhere. Most sites I frequent are a mix of both. Your blog is a good example.

Akkargutt 10-29-08

Hi

I started reading this article because I found the topic interesting, but I must say I lost interest as you derailed from what I thought was the main subject of the text. Sure, your opinons about web-design were somewhat interesting, and you write well, but I think the long intro and the headline was pretty misleading.

Anyway, I’m not posting this to flame or anything, but I reckon anyone’s opinion could be useful to a writer.

Jin 10-29-08

@Akkargutt, your comment is appreciated. I assume you were looking for an article on conformity in general? I believe conformity can be found in every culture and subculture around us. In my case, web design, since it’s tied to my profession. The intro is admittedly long, however I feel it serves its analogous purpose. Thank you for reading.

[...] Conformity I’m choosing it because I feel it addresses a few issues that exist in the web design blogsphere. I feel web designers, especially those who are new to the field, need to learn from inspirations, but not to use them as a crotch. The article also generated some good discussions from readers. Jin Yang [...]

[...] Conformity | 8164 [...]

I’ve had my BFA in graphic design for about 6 years now. Having formal training in design, a range of technical skills and my own eye for detail I found it compelling to explore the “web2.0″ style. (not that all of my work is “web2.0″ it’s just something I’m interested in.)

I always see other “designers” who have no natural design abilities (just a knowledge of Photoshop usually) getting recognition for creating something (a website, logo etc.) that looks attractive and gets attention because it’s in style, yet is so painfully commonplace. I wanted to capitalize on that market and use my skills knowing that I can do it better. Better in the sense that it combines something attractive with a reason behind why it was designed that way.

I guess the difference is, when trends change I know I’ll be fine since I have a true understanding of what design is and not just how to make something look pretty.