Appropriate design

High street

Nearly every industry has trends. Walk down the high street and you’ll see similar clothes in every shop, hear similar music in different record stores, and see the same movies coming out in the cinema.

We see the same in visual design. Several years ago we saw the rise of skeuomorphic design, with its leather stitching, torn pages, and chrome switches. It became a trend. Now we’re seeing the rise of what is called flat design.

Windows 8 aside iOS 6
Skeuomorphic iOS6 alongside flat Windows Phone 8

Trends keep the industry moving, show us that new things can be done, and keep us on our toes. However, it’s easy to fall into the habit of blindly following a trend without understanding the consequences. It’s better to have a deeper rationale behind a decision than ‘I want it flat’, or ‘I want to use a gradient’.

It’s easy to give your design a label, or rationalise it by saying ‘this is trendy at the moment’. But trends, by their very nature, do not last. Jumping on a trend is a good way to make a website look dated very quickly. Instead, we like to advocate Appropriate Design.

What is Appropriate Design?

Appropriate Design could be flat, skeuomorphic, or something totally new. It doesn’t blindly follow a trend. When thinking about design, we take a look at the objectives, the audience, and what is appropriate.

Mapping application

When working on concepts for an upcoming mapping application for Landmark Information Group, the flat style of Windows 8 was mentioned. Once we delved into the project requirements it became clear that a flat interface was inappropriate. Maps are made up of flat colours, lines, and text. If the interface was flat it would be difficult to use. The interface needed a simple, subtle sense of depth to contrast with the map layer – something difficult to achieve with flat design.

Defining ‘appropriate’

One of the earliest stages of the visual design process is the design workshop. This workshop allows us to discuss the visual design requirements for the project. We also get an insight into the company culture, the existing brand. In short, the workshop helps us to define the look and feel of the design.

Design workshop

Before the workshop, we ask attendees to bring with them some websites they like and are a good representation of what they want their new site to be. When the designs are presented, we ask what is good about the designs, what is bad about the designs, and whether the design is appropriate for the project.

For example, if we were designing a new school tours website and somebody brought along the Tough Mudder website. We could take some visual cues but, when we ask if it’s appropriate, we would likely discover that it wasn’t. Parents would feel uncomfortable with the tone of voice, the colour palette, and the informality of the site.

We help our clients take a step back and look at a website objectively. To question each design choice and how appropriate it is for a project helps us to design and build a better, more unique website for our clients' customers.

Following a trend might mean having a beautiful website, but it may not work for you. Appropriate Design is designing something suitable, meaningful, beautiful, and functional – something that works for many reasons.

Luke is an esteemed former member of the cxpartners team. His articles are still here to enrich us.