Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!
I've realised that the sustainability maxim "reduce, re-use, recycle" is a great way to describe my web design philosophy.
- Design more simply. Use the simplest solution to achieve your goals.
- If a problem has been solved before, and the solution works for your design problem, use it.
- Never throw anything away. Designs, or design elements, that you created which didn't work in a specific context may be great somewhere else. Share your solutions.
I’ve written at length on this site about the benefits of simple design.
Less can be more. A simple solution to a problem is usually better than a more complicated one. Plus, simple solutions are easier to implement, manage, explain, re-design, and adapt.
To summarise, get clear on your goals and your visitors’ goals, visualise a neat solution that achieves them in a direct, honest, clean way, and JFDI.
In The Pursuit of the Original, I set out my thoughts on originality. I argue that web designers and everyone else, should re-use existing solutions where there is one, avoiding reinventing the wheel wherever possible, thus saving your creative energy for the juicy bits where it’s really needed.
Are you advocating copying other people’s work?
I’m in no way saying that designers should copy other designers’ work and pass it off as their own. There’s definitely a line.
On the safe side, you may browse other sites for inspiration, take leads from design solutions, and reinterpret the solution for your particular scenario.
On the wrong side of the line is the practice of taking someone else’s creativity, applying it to a different product, and passing it off as your own.
I would also draw distinctions between conventional design solutions and mechanisms, versus original creative material.
Many things deserve to be standards or conventions. For example, tabs work great on Amazon, and can work great on your site. There’s no reason at all not to copy a design convention you see on another site.
What’s a convention?
In general, any of these things could be copied wherever they suit the problem at hand:
- Overall page layouts
- Colour schemes
- Type styles
- Button styles
- Icon styles
- Marketing messages
- Navigation mechanisms
- Form layouts
- Graphical effects
It’s good practice to save time and energy by re-using common visual components that work elsewhere.
This is good for you, and it’s also good for your users, as designs that work well on one site are probably in use on hundreds of sites, so your visitors will find them more intuitively easy to use.
The great things is that you can use the energy saved by not reinventing the wheel and apply it to your own original creative material.
What’s original creative material?
By this I mean the results of original thought and creative effort, in the form of logos, splash pages, content imagery etc. The stuff that really stands out on a site, and gives your design its own personality or soul.
Designers should not steal the “soul” of another site.
That’s the best way I can sum it up. Yes, look at other designers’ work, learn why it works and how it works, then take these lessons and apply them to your situation. But don’t take another design wholesale and shoehorn it onto your site design.
Apart from being unethical, this is also not good design practice. Because visual design is the process of creating a solution to a problem through visual media. Nicking someone else’s work means you don’t go through the design process, so while you may end up with something that looks great, how will you know it meets your needs?
Never throw anything away. Your old designs may contain the makings of a good solution to what you’re working on today.
The best design solution isn’t always totally new. You may have solved it already, you may have solved part of the problem, or someone else may have.
The trick is to go through the design process afresh, with boldness and clear vision, and get clear about what combination of features and properties will best solve your design problem.
Then sometimes it’s good to look around for inspiration. I often do this when starting a new design. Once I’ve got clear about what the design needs to do (how much information will be on a page, what personality I want to present, what the brand values are, how the navigation needs to work etc.), I’ll scan dozens of sites, templates and snippets of nice images I’ve collected on my computer. These artefacts may give me clues that point to possible solutions for my design.
Design Recycle Bin
One of the places I look for inspiration is my own “Design Recycle Bin”. I keep a directory where I store the Photoshop documents of old designs that may have been unfinished, or candidate designs rejected by a client. It doesn’t matter how old they are. They may contain nuggets of gold, which I’ll recognise if I’ve got under the skin of my design problem sufficiently.