Design businesses, from architects and interior designers to brand and web agencies, are very often challenged by how they present themselves. The company’s website can be a focus, as it takes a lot of time and constant refinement to make a site which represents and promotes the business well. In 2019, we plan to refresh the Univers website (again).
This post is about the thinking behind the visual experience of our site, which will make it different to others. Or, to put it another way, ‘why do design business websites all look so similar?’ If you’re running any kind of professional service business or any endeavour where design is important, the things I cover in this post will help you make your website stand out to your site visitors too.
Many websites look similar
The people who run design businesses have almost always come to that position by being a designer, not by being a business person. I include myself in that. Once a designer is running a business they want other business people to take them more seriously. Evidently, that means creating a website with an image carousel and bold position statement as the first thing the user sees. Scroll down to uncover the folio of case studies, team members and the all important contact form. Common Office and Tomorrow Lab do this well, but the internet is full of less successful examples. The typical model looks like this:
We do X for Y
Meet the team
Please, contact us
It’s interesting to see how people present themselves online and how general user expectations change, slowly, over time. You can see well resolved, current website design on inspiration sites, like siteInspire, Awwwards, and Typewolf. I look at a lot of websites and over the last few years, most of the design business websites I’ve seen are very similar. Even the really good ones on those inspiration sites take up similar models, though there are a few exceptions.
This observation is purely about the visual outcome: how it looks and what it’s like for the user to experience. It seems likely to me that this outcome is reached because so many brand strategies are trying to position the design business as a high-level advisor to clients. The design business these days wants to be trusted at the top levels of client hierarchies, in order for their design to be well implemented. Subsequently they put an offer of strategic services to clients, which requires credible evidence online, leading to the use of the model above.
It’s usually about the business owner
Sadly also, the people in charge of design businesses have their own human limitations. I’ll try to make this not too harsh, and don’t exclude myself completely from this description, but here goes… Many people who own and run design businesses now are in their 40s or older. A great age to be because you have likely gathered significant skills and personal connections, and are reasonably confident in your professional position.
Not such a great age if you missed the initial and subsequent developments which the internet has brought forward since you graduated. If you’re a designer who isn’t that interested in design for screens (and there are many out there), you’ll likely be guided by others in the visual design of your own business website. This could take the form of being overly influenced by peer and reference sites, or trying to exert directorial control but actually assigning most of the design role to someone in your business who’s more interested. Either way can easily lead to same-same design.
Also, my fellow 40 year old+ design directors are hopefully implementing a brand strategy for their own business, and may have read the outstanding Win Without Pitching. (You can buy this invaluable little book here). Keeping all that in mind may well lead to a desire to have an important statement of words prominently positioned as the first thing seen on your website. Typically this statement takes the form of “we do X for Y” and I see it everywhere. The better ones are short and natural. The worst ones are just a collection of jargon and stilted phrasing.
Designers feel insecure, too
The third and final factor that channels design business websites onto similar paths is optional and a bit speculative. Designers can sometimes be quite sensitive creatures, and are prone to feeling like imposters deep down. If that surprises you, consider the typical designer’s position: your job is about understanding, communicating and making things look nice; it’s actually fun to do; you don’t need to be real smart to do it; and it can seemingly be mastered by almost anyone with the time and passion. Of course we can be sensitive and insecure!
When that’s your disposition, you’re less likely to step out with a website that might expose your shortcomings by looking too different.
How to be different
Over time we have experimented with an array of concepts for the Univers website. You can see our site over time using a very cool website archive tool called The Wayback Machine, here.
Our current site uses many elements of the all-to-common designer’s website model that I've described in this post. Isn’t admitting you have a problem the first step to recovery? :-) I still love our site and am proud of the work we put in to making it. And, I’ll be even more happy when our new site launches this year.
At this preliminary stage, we’re working with the core idea that people engage Univers because we create very high quality visual outcomes, and are a responsive, professional brand and digital studio. With our visual design being so important, we’re looking at ways to highlight and use that in favor of a lot of words.
Arriving at an understanding of that core is a process in itself, and will be different for different businesses. But it’s the essential element, guiding you away from the pitfalls I’ve detailed, and into creating a website which stands apart.