The Future of Web Design May Be Ugly

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We’ve seen a variety of disastrous web design trends over the years. Remember splash pages? All-Flash sites? Frames? We may be on the cusp of a new trend: unstyled ugliness.

The Death of Design?

The big factor driving the move away from visually appealing, highly designed sites is the proliferation of devices used for viewing websites. In Device Fragmentation — The Death of Web Design?, Benjamin Spiegel notes that it isn’t just mobile phones that threaten design. New devices like Google Glass and smart refrigerators lack conventional interfaces like keyboards and browsers but may still be used to display web content. He argues that we are headed for a browserless world in which more and more content is delivered by APIs. This content will be in the form of unstyled data, not web pages.

Spiegel says he’s “extremely excited about the changes and challenges” that will ensue, and predicts the end of web design as we know it.

Google and Starbucks have an ugly baby

I’m a bit less thrilled with the prospect. We’re already seeing a little movement in that direction, and the results aren’t pretty. Starbucks recently dumped their AT&T alliance in favor of Google (at least in the shops I frequent) and went from a nicely styled hope page from which one could launch news and other screens to a weirdly Spartan Google-Now-ish look. (The distinctive, albeit wimpy, font is Roboto Thin.) Here’s what the Wall Street Journal content looks like as presented now:

This display’s only unique feature is the WSJ logo. The articles listed look the same as the articles on similar pages for the New York times and The Economist. There’s no emphasis on individual articles, and there are no images to draw one in. Clicks to the content are entirely dependent on the headline text.

Of course, this kind of display is great from a technical standpoint as it translates easily to mobile. Looking at the mobile screen, other than changing to a single-column display, there’s essentially no difference. I’m sure it would look about the same on an iPad, a Surface, or just about any other device you might show up at Starbucks with.

Unfortunately, these barely-styled pages are so ugly that only a minimalist like Jakob Nielsen could love them. They convey no branding, no emotion, no texture, and no guidance to the viewer.

Not only that, these pages look a lot like other Google Now content. So, if there’s any branding involved, it’s Google’s own.

Contrast the minimally styled list of articles with‘s own home page. Using varied fonts, sizes, images, and placement, the visitor can easily scan the page and be guided by the editor’s decisions as to which stories are more important, which article works best with a visual hook, and so on.

I’m seeing this trend replicated to various degrees on other sites. In a quest for device independence, designers are employing minimalist designs that offer little branding and little guidance to the visitor.

Flexibility with Style

Not all highly flexible styling is ugly. I use Flipboard on my Samsung Note 3. Like the Starbucks/Google page, it pulls in content from diverse sources – the “News” section featured adjacent articles from the New York Times, The Telegraph, and TIME. This content was presented in the Flipboard mobile wrapper, but each article had a color photo and retained key branding elements from the source, a logo and distinctive fonts. The Flipboard interface is a pleasure to browse, and the articles retain the texture of their sources.

What do you think about this minimalist trend? Will the proliferation of devices force us into an undesigned future? Or is minimalism a valid design approach that simply needs to be appreciated? Share your thoughts in a comment!

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