For a profession that so frequently espouses the idea of “thinking outside of the box”, we designers sure do love them. Web and application design has become a world of stacked grids where all too often variation equates to the number of columns we allow one of those boxes to occupy. Design in 2019 often feels closer to a game of Tetris than it does an organic creative process.
In fairness to designers, there are good reasons to love the box. It’s deceptively powerful and time-honored; a way to master a 2-dimensional space and exert scalable control over the mountains of content we’re asked to present. In a world of screens of all sizes and shapes, it’s an adaptable and responsive way to ensure accessibility.
It’s important to note, however, that utility is generally highly impersonal. Our grids and hero images do serve a utilitarian function, but how much of the art do we sacrifice in the name of functionality?
It’s not an academic question. The choices we make in design have real ramifications for the way our products are received, and the amount of success they’re capable of.
I suspect that much of today’s homogeneity in design is a function of fear, and that fear comes from a few different angles simultaneously.
Firstly, and perhaps most insidiously, is a fear from within. Too often we don’t even bother trying a cool design idea because we tell ourselves it’s too different. Our fear of having it rejected or our inability to execute it the way we envision turns us back towards more “normal” designs time and time again.
These are valid fears; no one wants to hear “no”, and no one wants to waste their time, but we need to alter our perspective some and begin to see the value in these perceived failures. For the creative process to render it’s best results requires rejection and failure, but those can be tools. As Ryan Holiday is fond of saying “The Obstacle is the Way”, and it’s through creative iteration that we can fully realize the potential of our vision.
Clients, product/project managers, team-leaders, CEO’s, and CTO’s are another big source of fear. The people who control our paychecks have expectations, and frequently aren’t creatives. We find ourselves stuck in the dual-role of both trying to meet their expectations, while also hoping to expand their vision beyond them. At times this can feel like needing to “sell” your design idea, and we didn’t go into a creative profession to be salespeople. It can be overwhelming for many, and frequently results in choosing not to push the envelope and simply acquiesce to their wants.
There’s also the fear of failure. Even if we overcome our internal fear, and then manage to overcome our fear of pitching something new to our bosses, there’s always the fear that our great idea won’t work. Partly attributable to the ever-pervasive “Imposter Syndrome”, there’s also a grain of truth to this fear. Sometimes our great ideas do fail. We have to learn to accept these failures and the lessons they provide. Those lessons in failure are indescribably valuable, even if they do hurt while we experience them.
Ultimately, we can let our fears define us and inform our choices, or we can be willing to take risks that help us and the greater web community grow. Your cool ideas will spark other designers cool ideas. You can be, and are, part of the inspiration cycle we all benefit from.
So design for your vision. Take risks, be bold, and have faith in your talents. Your work is valuable and could be the start of the next great web-trend, or it could inspire others to find new and better ways of interacting with users. By being open to failure, you unlock your potential to do truly great things.