The risk of homogeny when following positive trends in design

Trends constantly come and go in visual design. Some explode on to the scene and see mass adoption only to fade into obscurity as quickly as they arrived – remember burning text gifs? Others are slow burners that eventually become mainstays once proven to provide a verifiable benefit.

Inclusive design is probably the most important “trend” I’ve seen rise to prominence recently and I think you’d struggle to find a designer to argue the contrary! In fact I believe (and hope) this to be an example of one of those trends that both rises to prominence rapidly and becomes mainstream.

One problem with trends, especially those that become popular quickly is that they can lead to homogeny as designers focus too hard on following them. I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone of the “web 2.0” phase that hit the design community a few short years ago!

But inclusive design isn’t about reflective surfaces and glossy buttons. It’s a more philosophical approach to design and presents genuine benefits for both businesses and consumers. But that philosophy applies an additional layer of complexity and it’s own set of challenges we have to work with as designers.

Challenges like; cultural perception of design. Appropriate representation of race, gender, body type, age, ability. Accessibility, both from a physical perspective and a hardware/network one. Considering all of these factors in our work in addition to current visual trends and best practises can make creating a truly unique, inclusive design hard work! Especially when faced with many unknown unknowns.

Interestingly you could probably argue that inclusive design is actually an anti-trend. It encourages you to design for everyone and that should be interpreted differently by each individual company. But it’s easy to fall into a trap of simply working through a checklist hoping for a satisfactory result. While that can be a great starting point, it’s not going to add soul to design.

All of this got me thinking about how following trends too strictly can lead to homogeny and groupthink. In addition to being inclusive, I want visual design on the web to be as rich, diverse and expressive as we are as people! When homogeny sets in design feels less genuine and we lose empathy with it. This is kind of ironic given empathy is the key component of inclusive design! So what can we do as designers to battle homogeny, preserve character and personality in design and embrace a genuinely positive trends?

Nobody cares about the Stormtrooper until we learn about the personality inside the uniform.

Know your audience

One of the most important things is actually getting to know your audience. Deep knowledge of your customers enables you to make informed, positive design decisions that are immediately relevant to a business. But to be truly inclusive one should also consider prospective customers. Personas can be a useful tool here.

Just remember to be careful with averages when creating personas! You may have heard the cautionary story about when the U.S. airforce designed aircraft cockpits based on pilots average measurements only to later found out (after many seemingly unexplainable accidents) that of the 4063 pilots used to gather those averages, not a single one of them actually matched the average measurements used in the final cockpit designs! This lead to the invention of adjustable seat/pedal positions etc – a perfect example of inclusive design. A small group of diverse personas will probably work better than just one or two ‘averages’.

The simplest and most effective way to deepen customer knowledge is to expose oneself to the most diverse range of people possible. Talk to them face to face. Learn deeply about the problems a service aims to solve. Only when one fully understands the extent of the problem should they start shaping the solution. Start with broad, high level problems like “I need to sell online but don’t have the time” before working down to more granular problems like “I don’t know which design will work best for my store” or “My customers can’t find the checkout”.

At Automattic we’ve been ramping up our Customer Research endeavours in 2017. We’ve conducted many customer interviews, opened our Design Feedback Group for WooCommerce and plan to host a Product Research Lab at this years WooConf where we excitedly get to meet so many of our customers.

Create a styleguide

A simple and effective method that can be used to foster a consistent design tone and preserve a brands personality is to create and employ a style guide.

Generally style guides are formed to promote visual consistency by defining a palette of reusable design components. For inclusive design one might choose take this a step further by creating an illustration style guide complete with a set of characters that represent your audience. These could be based on personas or used to help create them.

We did this recently for, you can read an interview with the illustrator and view some of the results here.

As a non-web example (and because I wanted to add some pretty pictures to this post) take a look at the land scape artist Bob Ross’s work. By using a clearly defined painting technique he was able to produce consistent, instantly recognisable artwork and form his own style guide.

Bob employed a simple template for painting cabins

It’s ok to pixel polish, in the end

Don’t be afraid to polish the pixels occasionally. They say “the Devil is in the details” – I’d say character and personality can be found (or at least enhanced) in there as well. While not as fundamentally important as, for example, ensuring a design is functional on hand-held devices, having a highly recognisable brand is not without merit and value. Getting down in to the weeds of a design when creating a style guide can help set a brand apart and stand out in the crowd.

Go the extra mile

Our best work is achieved when we go the extra mile. Not only is it objectively inclusive but it also possesses the character necessary to create strong brand recognition and personality. It’s easy to take a brief, open up Sketch and dive right in. But the value found in taking the time to really think about the problem you’re attempting to solve, and the people you’re trying to solve it for first will speak volumes in the end result. Our work should be as unique and full of character as the folks who use it.

By James Koster

Product Designer