3 ways to make your site stand out from the crowd

Paul Boag

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? It’s 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 works 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 lose 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 the 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.

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