3 ways to make your site stand out from the crowd

Too many websites look the same as their competition. If you want users to remember your site it needs to stand out from the crowd.

I recently gave a presentation entitled the “10 Harsh Truths About Institutional Websites“. One of the point I made was that all Higher Education websites look the same. Nobody is innovating when it comes to design.

Screen captures of 9 higher education websites

However, the problem is not just limited to HE. Almost every sector has a design style. Why is that?

I believe there are 3 reasons:

  • Laziness – It is easy to follow the crowd blindly. To stand out you must innovate and challenge established practice. That takes effort and a lot of thought.
  • Fear – A fear of getting it wrong. What if you upset your users? What if you misjudge what they will like? Its safer to do what others have done because that has been proven to work.
  • Shortsightedness – Too many organisations only look at their own sector for inspiration. They look at what the competition is doing and copy it.

The problem is that if you follow the competition, you will always be one step behind. At best you will be invisible, at worse you will be a poor shadow of your competitors. To create a site design that stands out from the crowd and resonates with users you must take some risks.

Unfortunately this can be hard to do. We can become blinkered in our thinking, convinced a site should look a certain way and have a particular kind of layout. However, there are plenty of examples of sites that break this mould successfully.

Screenshot of Biola Undergraduate website

How then do we join the ranks of designers and website owners who think differently? I suggest there are three ways:

Constantly seek inspiration

The first step in thinking differently is to expose yourself to different types of design. It is easy to only look at your own site and that of your competition. Broaden your horizons.

A lot of people start with CSS galleries and they certainly have their place. However, in my experience you have to work through a lot of crap to find the truly stunning sites. Instead I subscribe to sites like Smashing Magazine, Webdesigners Depot, and Sitepoint who tend to do a lot of “Top 10 inspirational sites” posts. In these posts the author has done all the hard work for you by weeding out the dross and leaving only the best examples.

If you are looking for a specific design style I would also highly recommend Design Meltdown that organises inspirational web sites by categories such as colour, structure, elements and style.

But why stop there? Why limit your sources of inspiration to other websites? What about photography, architecture or print design. ffffound.com is an excellent source of inspiration. It is a massive collection of imagery from every source imaginable, bookmarked by members who consider it interesting. Another similar site is Emberapp which contains illustrations, logos, icons, typography and much more.

Finally, I would also encourage you to carry a camera and look for inspiration in the world around you. Once you get into the habit it is amazing how much inspiration can be found in everyday things. Even sitting here at my desk there are the colours of my houseplant’s leaves, the book cover next to me and the typography on my energy drink. Inspiration is everywhere if we get in the habit of looking for it.

A photo of the houseplant on my desk

But the problem is not just inspiration. It is also the fact we self censor.

Stop designing websites

Part of the reason we struggle to create original design is because we self censor. Recently I shared my personal inspiration library with the designers at Headscape. The response I got back from one of our designers was fascinating:

A quite beautiful collection of elements none of our clients will have the courage to ever use!

It is certainly true that Headscape work for some very conservative clients. However, there is a danger we give up without trying. It is easy to slip into the same old routine because we have convinced ourselves that nothing more is possible. We have a navigation bar, header, footer and content area in the same old places because we know that will get approved.

Even if we believe a client might approve something more adventurous, it can be hard to change our mindsets. After all, websites are meant to look a certain way… aren’t they?

When I was recently discussing this problem with Mike Kus from Carsonified he came up with a brilliant suggestion:

Next time you brief your designers tell them they are designing a poster rather than a website.

Although I am not sure my designers would appreciate being lied to (and I don’t think Mike was suggesting it seriously), it is a superb idea.

Too often we are constrained by the web. The need to add the same old elements and be confined by the same screen resolution. Letting go of that and designing for a different medium (such as a poster) is a superb way of encouraging creative thinking.

In Mike’s article “Web Design is a Journey” it surprised me how long it took his designs to look like an actual website. Where most of us start with a grid or wireframe, Mike starts with an image or other graphic element. He then shapes those elements into a website. It is almost as if he squeezes his design down into the constraints of a website. He certainly does not self censor.

The Stackoverflow website designed by Mike Kus

Of course, sometimes you will loose the battle and a client will insist on a super conservative design. What then?

Surprise and delight your users

Sometimes its just not appropriate to deviate too much from the norm. Does that mean your website is doomed to blend into the crowd? Not neccessarily.

Even when working on the most conservative of designs there is an opportunity to surprise and delight users in such a way that your site is memorable.

Paul Annett from Clearleft gave a stunning talk at SXSW 09 entitled “Ooo… that’s clever!”. He describes it as follows:

My talk was about design delighters and Easter eggs, about hiding clever little gems in websites which people will find, enjoy, and share with their friends. The benefit of this is an intangible viral marketing effect which will help engage your audience and build hype around your product or service.

Adding these little touches makes your site memorable and can be applied to almost any site, no matter how conservative th

e design. One example Paul gave was of innocent smoothies. Although the packaging of these drinks is certainly nice, they do not necessarily strike you as extraordinary. However, look at the bottom of a carton and you will be greeted with one of a number of amusing messages.

View of the bottom of innocent smoothy carton where you can read the words 'Stop looking at my bottom'

Image Credit: Duncan

Once you have read one of these little messages you are unlikely to forget innocent smoothies.

Paul’s talk is packed with examples like this and I highly recommend watching it.

Just by adding some of these little extras you separate your site from the competition in the minds of your users. You become memorable.


At the recent FOWD Tour, Elliot Jay Stocks commented on how boring most websites are, and how we need to innovate. I totally agree. We need to start exposing ourselves to more inspirational design, approaching the design of websites from a different angle and adding features that delight our users. We should not simply settle for what we know works.

“Fresh green apples stacked on top of one another with a red apple on top
” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

  • “Almost every sector has a design style. Why is that? … We can become blinkered in our thinking, convinced a site should look a certain way and have a particular kind of layout. However, there are plenty of examples of sites that break this mould successfully.”

    Go on then, Paul – name some examples of sites in a particular industry that have broken the design mould and are successful (so in most industries that means market share and profit). And I don’t mean web design agencies.

    • Ooo… such cynicism! Check out this Higher Education site that has the guts to stand out from the crowd. They have managed to make it work:


    • A private Christian University Paul? Seriously? Matt quite clearly said “market share and profit”…

      I agree with you in principle. But in practice if we all did what we agreed with in principle, then the world would be an entirely impractical place.

  • What a great topic, When designing a new site I am constantly trying to push myself to try and tap into that “next” great thing…

    However, if I push myself to create a conceptual design I may lose my target audience, or even the client which it will never get to the client. I believe a lot of the “crap” thats out in the world isn’t due to the lack of creativity, but the lack of trust a client has in their designer…

    I guess as long as we try and challenge ourselves and try and push good design through the approval process we may be able to break the “norm”

    Thanks & Regards
    Noel from nopun.com
    a professional graphic design studio

  • chris

    Absolutely true. I was reading a blog the other day, abdulzee something or the other, where the hypothesis was that the way to successful design was via a process of reductionism, where the designer stepped aside and provided a cold ‘solution.’
    If this view prevails we will all be out of a job as soon as some bright spark codes an application that provides design ‘solutions’ for businesses.

  • hotbertaa

    To me the Biola site looks more like a summer camp – looks too holistic, thing’s like ‘financial aid’ are jumping out at me, we do things differently here etc etc – personally I want a university which has a strong history of teaching and teaching well, in terms of a university if they are trying something new, then perhaps what they tried in the past failed?

    • Really good article. I watched/listened to the presentation at the end and that was great. If you have the time it’s well worth watching.

  • Surprising readers with freebies and awesome post will help to get some attention.

  • “Almost every sector has a design style. Why is that?
    I believe there are 3 reasons:”

    And, to be fair, a 4th: they all share similar target demographics

    Definitely not an excuse, or even a good explanation for the trend, but there is some justification from a marketing standpoint. It’s not ALL laziness/shortsightedness. ;)

  • Nice advice… I think another important thing is varying the type of content on the page. The client can do this, but the design needs to lend itself for this purpose.

    In contrast, keep the design simple (not busy), the more you put, the less options you have design wise as there are very few ways of making allot of content look tidy. Hence the institutional sites above.

    Get a nice balance of both and a bit of creative thinking and you should be good. As Noel says, just make sure you can convince your client likewise.

  • Really nice ideas! Will keep those in mind while developing pixmac.com website. Thank you guys for doing this…

  • Fantastic suggestions. Every designer should pay attention to this list.

  • Great article, I couldn’t agree more. Mostly.

    While I’m all for ‘pushing the boundaries’ and innovating, maybe I have to be ‘that guy’ and say it’s all about a) the audience first, and b) learned behaviour.

    With the maturation of the web, its users have become more accustomed to basic site styles. They know nav should be at top or left/right, they know where to look for what you do and where to find your products. If all web design is effectively an extension of ecommerce, all that really matters is ensuring your leads convert to sales (sorry, but it’s true). Innovation is always needed, but it’s never going to progress at a rate that’s too fast for the general user (not the users who read this blog and are basically alpha-users).

    Companies won’t innovate their site designs b/c it’s seen as too risky. With the web maturing, there’s money to be made. None of the ‘safe’ industries like HE want to rock the boat when the thing they’re doing now ‘just works’.

    That said, I totally agree with the ‘ooh, that’s clever’ thinking, as it nicely bridges the gap between risky and safe.

    • meg

      ((i enjoyed this post quite a bit. thanks!))

  • Breaking boudries is an important aim, and is often tricky to pull off. I think institutions like schools and banks have always had certain ways of portraying themselves as the level of trust required to gain customers is higher than say a brand such as a supermarket.

    The most important thing of all is knowing when to break those boundries.

    • Well written Guys. We at mimmin.com work with the ideas of creating “mindsnaps” – something that the users memorize. We all need to step out of “the comfort zones” and start beeing innovative. Lead not follow.

  • Ade

    While I do agree with what you’re saying with websites in general, I don’t agree with the Higher Education idea.

    Having recently completed my BSc and now moving on to study for a MSc at a different university, I have to say that my decision of where to study was not even slightly swayed by the website. I do not care whether their site is innovative, I care about the content. Facts and figures. The fact that the sites follow a similar pattern is, if anything, a bonus. It means that I can quickly find the information I need without agitation.

    The decision of where to study for three/four/five/more years is such a big one, I doubt anyone would be swayed by a clever use of colour.

    Having said that, I would be put off by an amateur looking or broken website.


  • Great post. Giving users surprises is a great idea. The point of a website is to keep people coming back and using your products or services. Every business enjoys some loyalty. What a better way to keep visitors coming back than giving them surprises through out the website. Trying never hurt anybody, clients may just love your web design ideas! Thanks Paul.

  • Fantastic & inspiring post, Paul. Would be interested in hearing about any public library websites that have “broken the mould” — most of these truly do seem to be locked into a fairly uniform design style.

  • By using a minimalistic style you can stand out by not trying too hard to standout. I an effective minimalistic design does not simply lack substance, it achieves balance and attractiveness without the need for excessive design elements.

  • Great article with really brilliant ideas. You picked up such a nice and interesting topic to present. Love it.

  • Saira Younus

    Excellent article. I agree with your points. In order to have a website that stands out from the rest, you must adhere to the basic principles of
    effective communication such as: simplicity; objectivity; color; and
    tone. thanks for your post. Keep up the good work……stay blessed


  • Leeds Web Design

    Great article – love the ‘stop looking at my bottom’. Innocent are great at those little personal touches.

  • “if you follow the competition, you will always be one step behind.” strongly agree with this point. But it is not easy to create a totally new style for common folk. I believe slightly changing the boring trend and integrating with other styles will help the website stands out.

    For example, when more and more websites using Pinterest style endless scrolling and nearly abusing standard grid listing, we are already stand out if we use uneven spacing circles instead of neatly arranged grids.

  • shruti

    I so agree with you. I am just a beginner with a lot of ideas i am learning to implement but you should check my website idea at http://www.behance.net/gallery/Website-design-wireframes/10175083

  • Maya Elious

    I actually really love the “Stop Designing Websites” reasoning. We get so caught up in the structure of what a website should look like and let our creativity go. I’m far more creative when I design a poster, and I will us that approach from now on.