Design convergence is not a dirty word

Paul Boag

Is it a bad thing that many websites are looking the same? Or are we seeing a maturing of our design patterns and improving of the user experience.

Imagine for a moment the you are perusing the fiction in your local bookstore. You pick up a novel only to discover that it is a large print book where the lines run across an entire double page spread. Confused you put the book down and pick up the next one.

The designer has laid this novel out more like a magazine than a traditional novel. The pages are full of pull-out quotes, bold headlines and several columns of text. After trying to read a couple of pages you put it down in disgust.

The final book you pickup is the craziest of all. Instead of reading from front to back the designer has reversed the order of the book. You start with the last page and work your way through the story to the front. What the hell is going on? This is not what a novel looks like.

You see we have certain expectations when it comes to a novel. They have a certain layout and designers work within those constraints. They produce beautiful covers, gorgeous typography and an enjoyable reading experience. But they don’t mess with the fundamental layout which is consistent across all novels.

A disdain for design convergence

Why then do we accept this as a sensible design practice for novels and yet reject it for the web? There is a real distain amongst web designers towards the idea of convergence. The idea that all websites are beginning to look the same.

Recently I saw this tweet:

Which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing?

Apparently there are now only two designs for websites.
Apparently there are now only two designs for websites.

Dripping in sarcasm it implied that modern web design has been reduced to two possibilities. Now, I don’t believe this is the case. But even if it was, would that be such a bad thing for the users experience? Would it be bad for design?

Convergence is inevitable

The longer an object is around the more its design standardises. Take for example the automobile or the bicycle. When these were first invented their designs varied. But over time they began to converge. They converged on an optimal design but also on one that the majority of people were familiar with.

Early bike designs were widely different. But as time passed standards emerged.
Early bike designs were widely different. But as time passed standards emerged.

The same is true for websites. As our industry matures so do our design patterns. We have discovered that some things work better than others and so are designs have converged on those. Users of also come to expect certain things from the layout of a website. They have expectations about the position of the logo or search box. They make assumptions about how navigation should work.

Convergence is a good thing

Surely then, convergence is a good thing. It shows a maturing of our understanding and creates a better user experience. The user is no longer required to relearn the interface of every website they visit.

But what about innovation, I hear you cry? How are the interfaces of websites ever going to get better if nobody tries anything new? This is a fair question and I’m not suggesting we should never innovate.

What I’m challenging is the assumption that convergence is lazy design. That using “the same old layout” is a sign that the designer is taking shortcuts or just does not care. That he or she is a bad designer.

Instead I believe we should see sticking to conventions as the sensible option. We should see it as the thing good designers do. That we should have a good reason for breaking with these conventions. A reason better than us tiring of designing within the same old constraints.

After all, good design is about working within constraints. Book designers still get a lot of latitude in their designs without changing the reading experience. Car manufacturers produce stunning designs. All within the best practice which has emerged within the industry.

Why then can’t we accept that web design has some emerging expectations and best practice? Why can’t we embrace those constraints. After all we used to produce some amazing designs with a limited colour palette and a handful of system fonts.