What Happened To Web Design?

The WP Crowd
Published: August 15, 2016

Let me start off this post (rant) by saying I am not a designer.  I did receive a full scholarship to Auburn University for oil painting.  That painting in the featured image is a commission I did of a scene from The Life Aquatic.  I have sold many paintings and prints of my paintings.  I’ve designed logos for companies that have been in use for 10+ years at this point (TRO Logo still in use, designed in 2004).  Art has always been a big part of my life and yep, I have designed a lot of web sites.

Travel Research Online - LogoI’ve stopped designing web sites.  It’s just not my schtick.  I can paint an impressionist painting all day but doing detailed margins, responsiveness, UX and so on just isn’t something I have the patience for.  And to be completely honest with myself, I probably don’t have the eye for it either.

But as a visual artist in general I can tell you when I see something that doesn’t work.  And I can tell you when something is being done to death.  The current web design trend is incredibly over-saturated.

The Template

Here it is:  The Template.  In the graphic below you can see a handful of screenshots I took browsing the first page of the WordPress theme repo featured and popular sections.  What do they have in common?


They are all the same.

The Elements

  • Header has logo/site title and horizontal navigation menu.
  • Follow that with a big ass picture or slider.
  • Let’s throw some ketchup on this sucker with a three or four column area.  Each column has a nifty icon and links to a primary section of the website.
  • If you’re lucky you get a nice inspirational quote or testimony just above or beneath.

Who invented this template? Does it have a name? Is this layout not reaching its peak of abuse?

What Was Happening Before

I’d argue variation.  Websites were unique.  When the internet was young there was crap littered every where.  We all remember the days of animated gif skulls and scrolling, blinking text.  The web was brand new media and artists had neither the skill to develop it nor interest in learning it.  Computer programmers were designing.

Then, graphic designers started becoming programmers.  Beautiful, gorgeous designs began to blossom.  Flash was giving people the ability to do amazing works of art (and convoluted, over-animated crap at the same time).

There were masterpieces spawning up all over the place.thefwa-loading-2005  I spent hours browsing FWA which was full of gorgeous sites made in Flash.  In fact, the FWA was built in Flash! Trying to look it up in archive.org and it’s stuck “loading” because the entire site is flash and I suspect the resources it used aren’t in the archive.

Flash opened the door to endless possibilities.  I built a freaking a mini OS in it in 2005.  The problem was it was resource intensive, easy to create broken apps and locked into an executable .swf file.  Then came HTML5, CSS3 and jQuery.

Back to Basics

Flash was dumped for native browser technology that was easily as powerful and far more capable and extendable.  Designers who dedicated years to mastering ActionScript were sent back to junior dev level needing to learn a whole new set of tools.  I was one of these people.

It took some time but people got good.  Things being built in JS/CSS frameworks now are beyond amazing.  Have you seen the walking, laser shooting AT-AT that’s pure CSS3?

The Flanny Theory

I have a theory.  It’s my theory so it could be completely wrong, but I think it has some legitimacy.

Flash & ActionScript didn’t have frameworks or plugins as extensive or popular as what’s being used today in the JS/CSS world.  People were forced to be creative in their production down to the finest detail.  If you wanted a perfect grid that had animated stacking you better be good at geometry and know some calculus.


Now we are all bootstrapped and gridlocked.  It’s industry standard to use design frameworks.  I totally get the redeeming value of this:

  • User experience is similar across the majority of the web and results in standard users being able to navigate new web sites with ease.
  • The web looks better overall.  It’s clean, consistent and runs faster.

But we are losing our identity.  The web is becoming a massive entity with a single (exaggeration) core.  Users have expectations now, not just functionality but in aesthetics.

Flash Was Bad

In no way do I suggest Flash should still be around and popular.  It was buggy as hell and like I mentioned earlier, easy to make broken crap.

I’m saying developers and designers are abusing the npm.  I read a great satire article on node packages the other day.  The sad thing is I thought it was true until someone pointed out it was satire.

I want to see designers breaking away from the mold.  The Template world is getting out of control.  With WordPress running over a quarter of the www, The Template is creeping in and becoming the de facto design layout standard.  It’s forcing people to say “OK, we have to have three columns with icons and important links so what should those be?”

No! You don’t have to have three call out items with icons! If that doesn’t make sense for your website structure then don’t use it just because the template shows it looks best with those elements in their screenshot.


And this is bringing me to my final thought on the situation.  Instead of building a design around content, we are building our content around design.

Let us not forget that a website, typically, is to present information and useful services and UX is there to make it easily usable:  Structure first, UX second.

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xavier JinanmikGraham BarnesNora KramerRoy Sivan Recent comment authors

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“… as a visual artist in general I can tell you when I see something that doesn’t work”.
Sorry to say, but in my opinion your TRO Logo does not work at all.
Other than that, I agree a template should not be chosen first and text made to fit in there. But this is the same with any template.
There are visual crimes in endless number of powerpoint presentations too.
Picking any template and just filling it up will never represent the spirit of an organization. That’s obvious.

alessandro costa

That’s true, templates are all the same. I always try to make something different in my works, I’ve made this last template that allow users to apply clip masks to featured images. Take a look to http://www.svgthemes.com/hpd/ .

John Locke

Hi Chris: This article expresses what a lot of people have been thinking for a couple of years now…that everything looks the same and the creativity of the web is slowly dying. Andy Clarke talks about this a lot in his talks and on his podcast. Remember the CSS Zen Garden? When designers would show how you could take the exact same piece of HTML markup and by applying different CSS files, you could create entirely different pieces of work? You see glimpses of creativity like this from time to time, if you know where to look, or on individual… Read more »

Joe Hana

Well, I can agree with you in general, but there are still some valid points which speaks for templates, and if you consider similarities to our living space then you might see that it is indeed similar: Imagine just living space. A house, a villa, a shack, a flat or an apartment. Maybe even include hotel rooms. House can look pretty different, but usually they’re also more expensive. And flats in a city? Maybe the house “around” it is somehow unique in terms of size, color, materials, decoration – but the flats inside always look the same in general. All… Read more »

Suzi Brown

I do agree with this article (I’m sick to death of big header sliders for example) but the web isn’t all about looks these days. Companies have to think about budget, ease of use for them and their end user, SEO/content and responsiveness. Half the time people are just trying to get a site online that works in all of the above areas without having the time (or budget) to make it unique. I think there are some stunning examples of creativity about if you look, tbh – but like the world of fashion there’s Haute Couture and there’s off… Read more »

Todd Dawson

YES! I’ve been saying this for some time now. I’ve seen clients demand this look and feel so they’ll be perceived as ‘current’ and ‘trendy’ and ‘modern’. No one attempts to design a unique solution within this ubiquitous layout. It’s really sad. I think a large reason for all this is the demand for responsiveness, and all of us are still trying to wrap our heads around that, and seeing what we can do vs what we need to do. The demands of so many varied viewports and the need for flexibility with each and every device all create limitations… Read more »

Andrew Eastman

Templates have their place and they are often structured in a similar fashion for a reason… They work and they provide a cost effective solution for a certain portion of the market.

It’s a little bit like saying “All cars look the same…” They do. They all have 4 wheels attached to a long rectangular shaped cabin. They work well that way, so why change them?

Nora Kramer

I think one of the issues is that more and more people are going the DYI route and NOT hiring graphic designers to assist with their websites (think WIX, SquareSpace, Webs.com). They are grabbing an off the shelf template and making a go at it themselves. A graphic designer should be able to still work within a template framework to create an appealing and branded website, but that is going to be much harder for a lay person to do.

Graham Barnes

Interesting article and I couldn’t agree more, I started in the days of flash and spent many hours learning Adobe Photoshop, illustrator and dreamweaver amongst others and built a small side income and a career making custom sites however with templates I have seen that my side income has become less and less k we the years purely because some organisations cannot afford a custom site design anymore. I have also seen my career change in ways I didn’t want or plan to due to these changes, it’s sad but we all have to accept it.


What exactly we have to accept? I don’t think we have to accept anything.

xavier Jinan

Great writing! I recently got my website form hostnoc and a friend share your blog with me, and indeed i am going to keep every point you mentioned in the blog in my mind. Thanks a ton! I also subscribed to your email list.