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Old Trends, New Face? Patterns of Behaviour in Web Design

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 22, 2011.

In this post, I would like to consider the recent article “Are Current Web Design Trends Pushing Us Back to 1999?” and consider the possibility that the similarities and parallels drawn in this article are actually symptomatic of basic human behaviour that drives either designers or the clients that those designers are working for. And yes, we’ll touch on the new HTML5 logo too.

I’m guessing that a lot of my readers have probably been out to the recent Six Revisions article “Are Current Web Design Trends Pushing Us Back to 1999?”. I actually first came across it because of the inbound link to my “Are We Taking CSS Too Far?” post, and was very interested by what author Louis Lazaris had to say on the subject. He made some very interesting comments about trends that we were seeing in 1999 (and earlier) and seemingly related trends that we see popping up today.

The article actually starts out on a brave foot, singing the praises of the counter-cultural rock band turned music icon, Nirvana, then goes on to compare them to an explosion of post-grunge acts, with the main target being Nickelback. That’s a bold step, that inspired me to throw a little Unplugged In New York on as I started writing this post. However, while I think that Lazaris ultimately makes some interesting point, I have some trouble with the scope of his metaphor.

He posits that the emergence of Nirvana and the other iconic grunge bands (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and, unmentioned by Lazaris, Alice in Chains) marked a kind of Avante Garde of the rock world, breaking away from the “superficial” trends of mainstream “glam rock” and ushering the music world into a brave new world. Except, these bands themselves started to become… popular. As they became popular, they started to inspire copycats who did not share the ideological and philosophical roots that ultimately shaped the original.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

There was a time, probably back around 1999, when this kind of thing mattered to me. Today, it’s not nearly as important. Why? Because I’ve come to realize that it’s just a pattern in basic human behavior. Nirvana’s ushering in of a new era in music is hardly unique. The Beatles did it several decades earlier, and jazz fulfilled a similar role, emerging out of an African American sub-culture, to have an incredible impact on the evolution of popular music, even to this day.

When something emerges from obscurity (whether previously unknown or just being born) and into the popular consciousness, it is only a matter of time before it starts being emulated in ways that bear only a superficial resemblance to the original. In some cases, it may be a blatant attempt to capitalize on a trend for personal, political or economical gain. In others, it’s likely the proverbial imitative flattery of those who may legitimately admire or respect the forerunners through whom the new trend ultimately emerged.

It’s a cycle that has been happening for centuries, and I think we can see the same thing occurring through design trends on the web. But that’s another discussion altogether. What I find even more interesting, and what I would like to touch on here, is simply the continuing influence of human behavior. I think that Lazaris’ article begins to touch on this subject, but I would like to flesh out some ideas as to why the parallels he highlights might exist.

Popularity

The notion of being popular is both an attractive and appealing thought to many people—probably most people, at some level. Even many of those who shun anything that is deemed “popular” ironically desire to be known for their unpopularity.

In Lazaris’ comparisons, we can see this natural behavior emerging predominantly through the now infamous site counters of the early internet. Back in 1999, these appeared as the numerous hideous and ugly variations on the same basic concept, wherein some type of server side script (Perl?) both maintained an access count and substituted poor quality GIFs (some were even animated) for individual digits, resulting in some of the ugliest web design elements to ever grace a screen.

Except for some of the dustier and more obscure corners of the web, such counters appear to have mercifully vanished, but how far have we come, really? As Lazaris very rightly points out, many of our sites are still displaying certain key metrics for the measurement of our popularity. The only real difference is that, instead of showing the world how many “hits” our site has had (which can be an incredibly skewed and even somewhat meaningless number, anyhow), we display subscriber, Twitter follower and other “social” counts.

The Feedburner chicklet generator allows users to generate a graphic displaying the number of subscribers they have

The Feedburner chicklet generator allows users to generate a graphic displaying the number of subscribers they have

By and large, our displays look better, but the basic behaviour remains unchanged. We still want to be popular and we still want to demonstrate that to others (even if we’re not conscious of those desires). The method may have changed, but the basic, driving behaviour remains much the same, and as the Web continues to grow and evolve, I would expect to continue seeing different kinds of counters.

Credibility

Another thing that the modern day counters do (or perhaps that we assume they do), is to bring credibility to our sites. If we have X thousand RSS subscribers and another X thousand twitter followers, the logic is that those numbers will help legitimize us in the eyes of new visitors. At least, that’s likely the driving intention behind their enduring presence.

But counters aren’t the only trend that has to do wit credibility. Lazaris also points to the use of validation badges, as a means of signifying to users that a site’s code—HTML, XHTML, CSS—has passed the processing test of one of by the W3C’s validators. Ultimately, of course, this only means that the code is syntactically well structured, and says nothing (or at least very little) about the driving logic, structure and semantics that exist behind the code.

Regardless, while many will state that their use of the badges is primarily to support and spread the message of web standards,  more often than not they are probably also used as a means of bringing a certain level of credibility to a site. The idea is that visitors will see the badge and, as a direct result, think to themselves: “oh these guys know what they’re talking about! They have a validated page.”

Of course, as with the counters, the effectiveness of this technique is probably questionable, but there can be little doubt that the driving behavior behind them is, at least in many cases, to help add that extra level of credibility.

Interestingly, while the presence of validation badges has significantly diminished over recent years, this past week the design community was abuzz with the release of the new (and in my case, totally unexpected) HTML5 logo.

Suddenly, there's a new HTML5 logo. Who knew?

Suddenly, there's a new HTML5 logo. Who knew?

Why does HTML5 need a logo? I haven’t a clue. As far as I know, none of is predecessors did. But that’s hardly the point. The point is that, if you visit logo site you will notice that they now have a badge builder. Yes, dear reader, it is happening again, and if history tells us anything (which I believe it does), we will start to see these fancy new HTML5 badges badges popping up all over the web—likely sooner rather than later—as designers and developers strive to establish their credibility as industry leaders.

Now, who wants to design the CSS3 logo?

Attention Grabbing

Two of the other trends that Lazaris points to are the use of splash pages and scrolling marquees. I’ll confess to having created a flash intro or two back in the day, but I’m proud to say that I do not recall having ever actually implemented a marquee.

So what are the modern equivalents?

Well, the splash page example is a little bit of a stretch (as noted in some of the comments), and I’m really not sure that the CSS Spider Man experimental animation is really quite the same thing as an old school flash intro. They achieve a similar effect, through animation, but appear in a strikingly different context in terms of the user’s approach to content. In the case of splash pages, they are the irritating obstacle that comes before the content that really matters, while in the case of these kinds of CSS experiments, the animation is the content.

That’s not to say, however, that there is no contemporary equivalent, because I think there is. The perpetrator is the annoying, automatically opening modal box that appears on many websites when you visit them for the first time (or even the second, third, fourth and fifth times), asking you to sign up for a newsletter or purchase an ebook.

Like the splash animation, this modal window attempts to corner me, pinning down my attention by isolating itself from the rest of the content. To my way of thinking, this is just as much of a usability and UX faux pas as the splash animation, and I think that they both have their roots in the same basic behavior: capturing and retaining user attention.

Many website owners can obsess over capturing and maintaining attention, so much so that they are prepared to use certain diversionary tactics to get it. I believe that this is the driving motivation between both the flash animation 0f 1999 and the unwanted modal boxes that I keep seeing today. Both attempt to isolate you from the rest of the content, thus focusing your attention specifically on a singular message.

Something similar is happening with the marquee. It attempts to draw your attention through its constant animation, a feature which Lazaris has compared to some of the modern, automatically updating Twitter feeds. Maybe it’s an indication of the sites that I visit, but I haven’t actually seen to many of these lately. Still, on the sites that do incorporate this kind of effect, it seems to me that the underlying behaviour is still an effort to grab the visitor’s attention.

Normalizing Divergence

The last of Lazaris’ ideas that I want to touch on is the “best viewed in” disclaimer. I think this was one of the most interesting of all to me. I specifically remember creating similar disclaimers years ago—actually the one I’m thinking of went right below the aforementioned Flash animation (yes, you may shudder now). As a young creator, just getting my feet wet in the world of web design and development, I can remember feeling frustrated by the range of different resolutions and browsers that could so easily undermine my carefully crafted, tabular design (shudder again).

I resisted divergence and attempted (vainly, of course) to normalize the experience by putting some (very loose) constraints on the user. Of course, it probably didn’t work all that well, and I doubt that very many people took the time to change their browser or display settings to match my “best viewed in” disclaimer.

Interestingly, though, I think that this self-education is a matter of rewiring our natural behaviours. We are born into something of a concrete world, where we learn to expect things to repeat themselves in a predictable manner. When we open a book or magazine, we can be reasonably certain of what are going to find. More importantly, if we we open the same book or magazine, or even a different copy of the same edition, we can confidently assume that it will look pretty much exactly the same.

On the Web, however, this is simply not the case. The same page will render differently from browser to browser. In some cases, this may be as slight as a pixel or two difference in spacing. In other cases, it can mean a completely different type of rendering. Back in 1999, and even for years after that, these differences were often symptomatic of the ways that browsers interpreted the box model. Today, it generally has more to do with varying levels of support for more advanced CSS rules, such as rounded corners, gradients, transitions and so forth.

Here was see Survdapp.com in Firefox (Mac) and Internet Explorer 8 (Windows Vista)

Here was see Survdapp.com in Firefox (Mac) and Internet Explorer 8 (Windows Vista)

When we create something awesome that looks super slick in on particular browser (usually Webkit these days), our natural instinct seems to be to want to share our new creation at its fullest, which means having it viewed in that one browser, or a browser that supports a particular rendering engine. For many, one apparent solution is to publish with a disclaimer, in hopes that it will entice visitors to configure the way they access the web in order to optimize their experience with the design.

My personal expectation with this trend is to see it come and go in a cyclical fashion. As one browser leaps forward, then fresh implementations favouring its new offerings will begin to emerge, and people will use disclaimers in this same sort of effort to normalize the user experience. Then, as the other browsers catch up, the disclaimers will become increasingly irrelevant and slowly fade away until the next great advancement emerges.

That’s my perspective, anyhow.

Conclusion

All told, I think that perhaps this article tries to answer Lazaris’ title question. No, current web trends are not pushing us back to 1999. Instead, I believe that the noted similarities exist because they are related manifestations of enduring human behaviors. While we have moved past ugly “hit” counters, marquees IE5 optimization badges, many people are still looking for ways to broadcast their popularity, enforce their own credibility and ultimately even normalize divergence. The tactics may have changed (some more than others), but the underling behaviours remain very much the same.

What about you? What do you think of the interesting links and parallels that Lazaris’ article raises? Do you think they have any significance? Do you think we will see similar trends in the future?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Jan 23, 2011

Marlon Mantilla says:

Very nice article! i’m totally agree, the web is evolving as it reinvent itself… and i don’t spect a css3 logo at all XD

Jan 23, 2011

Jordan Burke says:

Your articles always tend to get me thinking, Matt.

With Mr. Lazaris’ article, one of the biggest contentions I had was the idea that “Best Viewed With” badges were just another incarnation of the old browser wars. I think your assessment is closer to the reality; we want all users to experience our sites as we’ve striven to design and develop them. I’d even go further to say that the more we implement newer CSS and HTML markup, the more that older, stodgy browsers (I’m looking at you IE – you’ve come a long way, but you’ve got a CRAZY long development cycle) will implement support for those element with a shorter turnaround. It’s a bit like voting with your wallet: the more market share lost by the browsers who don’t support newer standards, the more they’ll attempt to get it back by introducing support in a timely fashion.

Jan 23, 2011

JoeShon Monroe says:

I agree that most people are wanting to put up the HTML 5 logo on their site to validate that they are using the new technology and want to get noticed for it. I think anyone would have to agree that because HTML is now going to become a living language that adds new features more on the fly the developers and the clients will benefit.

Sure browsers will always have to play catch up, but you can’t deny that browsers have been doing an exceptional job at making sure that they accept these new features. Even Internet Explorer.

Jan 23, 2011

kadiks says:

You actually posted what I was thinking of Lazaris’ post. (However I still don’t get the music metaphor on both parts :-p)

Jan 23, 2011

Eddie says:

I agree. We’re not going back to the 90′s, we are evolving.
Today we use and do things that were used and done on the 50′s (cars, airplanes, tv, listening music, falling in love, etc.) but that doesn’t mean we’re going back to that time. We have evolved ourselves and our environment improving everything that works and changing everything that doesn’t.
(forgive my bad English please)

Jan 24, 2011

Matt says:

There already is a CSS3 logo, check the HTML 5 logo page in “the technology” area, you’ll see its logo, the last class of the eight(bottom right side).

Also the purpose of the logo is to show support for HTML 5(and also raise awareness), saying something like “powered by HTML 5″. For more details please check the FAQ page: http://www.w3.org/html/logo/faq.html

Jan 24, 2011

Matt says:

Just to clarify, the logo is NOT at all meant to symbolize that a website is “valid”

Jan 24, 2011

IT Professional says:

Nice article. I am looking forward to see more wonders from html5/css3.

Jan 26, 2011

Cyborg_572 says:

Most of the “best viewed on” badges I’ve heard of lately are fighting off IE6, and you know what? I think it’s fitting that you have to deal with a trend from the nineties when you’re using a browser from the nineties.

Jan 27, 2011

Louis says:

Matt,

I just noticed this article today. Good read. I like how you analyzed the concept a little more deeply in relation to human behaviour. Very good points.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Mar 22, 2011

Brett Widmann says:

I think its fun to compare patterns and trends of design. I really like to see how far things develop yet the vintage design always comes back.

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