Has the Web Become a Monoculture?

Has the web become a monoculture?When I began creating websites in the mid-nineties, the (vastly smaller) web was populated by some laughably ugly websites. Many of us can today recall the aliased animated gifs, scrolling marquees and garish web-safe palettes. The early web offered something refreshing, however: a bit of variety. The primordial Geocities era wasn’t particularly diverse – early browser technology didn’t exactly encourage innovation – but when Flash became mainstream, designers had an absolute field day with it. Flash offered easy-to-learn tools to produce animation, sound and vector graphics. More importantly, it offered the era’s de rigueur buzzword: interactivity.

As Flash picked up steam, bloated, unusable content began to flood the web, and it quickly became fashionable to trash Flash. The rise of web standards and CSS gave Flash a cold; the rise of Google and SEO wrote its epitaph. Today, it is easy to overlook the innovative designs of yesterday, Flash-based or otherwise. Sophisticated effects and designs remain cool, but coolness has been rightly superseded by usability, utility and search engine visibility. But why did creativity get pushed so far down the list of priorities?

For starters, UX designers must continually devote time to keep up with ever-evolving technology – as I write this, I am working on flexbox and CSS grids layouts that could arguably be achieved with floats. Like it or not, responsive web design created a set of design concerns that significantly increased development time. Additionally, clients and designers alike are ever drawn to replicate the “look” of their competitors. As WordPress and Bootstrap became more ubiquitous, the drive to copy only intensified. After all, when every website looks the same, it becomes psychologically risky to try something different. 99% of the web can’t be wrong, can it?

As Tim Berners-Lee and others have long lamented, the open web itself has become jeopardized by the rise of gated monopolies like Facebook. A frighteningly small number of proprietary web apps are consolidating the vast wealth of information available on the world wide web, and controlling how that data is created, stored and accessed. The insidious implications of this stretch far beyond concerns of design. One obvious effect is this: when an organization is pressured to maintain visibility on an increasing number of private platforms, fewer resources are available to put toward that organization’s website.

There is reason to believe the pendulum will swing back, however. Web standards are adopted to solve problems, and as problems are solved, design becomes easier. Gone are the days, for example, when IE-specific styles had to be included in every layout. It is reasonable too to conceive of a slowdown in new layout frameworks, and backwards-compatibility should keep legacy designs working far into the future. Even animation is clinging to life, as new javascript libraries and frameworks are enabling dynamic websites that stand apart from the crowd.

This is the crux of the matter, and the true reason for optimism: the drive for novelty is as strong as ever. Paradoxically, as websites grow more similar, it actually becomes easier to stand out from the crowd. A non-standard navigation, a field-of-tension layout, some sensible parallax or animation – these things take relatively little effort to implement, and each serves to differentiate oneself effectively. Clients and designers should always consider the importance of creativity, and feel comfortable to try new things. Doing so benefits designer, client and the industry as a whole.