Familiarity is important when it comes to an effective, usable website design. However, it’s an all-too-common mistake to think that originality must be sacrificed to achieve it.

Upon reading a recent article on this very topic, I noticed the writer making the argument that it’s actually a good thing for your website to look just like the plethora of websites “with a full-width photo or video background, centered H1 text overlaid on the hero header, logo on the left, and hamburger button on the right (revealing a full-screen overlay menu).”

The article goes on:

The user is now very used to this kind of layout. Being recognizable and familiar, it feels comfortable to use. A designer, knowing that this formula works, keeps applying it, repeating the loop and avoiding innovation. Sticking too much to the same patterns over and over again ends up limiting creativity, and we’d all like to avoid it where possible. However, user expectations are something that have always to be considered when designing a website, because in the end, they are the ones who matter.

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Themes and templates are being built, sold, bought, and used more now than ever. Nowadays, you can find really good, well developed and flexible templates that you can use and adapt to a variety of different designs and purposes, allowing designers (or even non-designers) to build websites without having an in-depth knowledge of web development.

In a way, frameworks and templates are just helping to skip a step in the process of building a website. Think of it just like using a packet sauce for pasta: it won’t be as good as handmade, but it’s still delicious.

While using a “multi-purpose” template or theme makes life easier for the developer or the designer, it removes the single-most important part of building a website: the end-goal.

Part of the argument, aside for ease of creation for the designer, is to ensure that by following many of today’s design patterns, you’ll ensure your site delivers an “expected” experience for users:

I might’ve just described Airbnb, your website, or even my own. This is also, in a way, a reflection of what users expect from a website. Design patterns exist to give an interface a proven and recommended layout for its function and controls while bearing in mind the expectations of its users.

While there’s an element of truth to this (especially the placement of a logo in the top left or using a hamburger navigation button on mobile), it doesn’t mean your site has to follow the same flat, massive photo “hero” look common across so many sites today. For example: would a gradient button be any more difficult to find and click compared to a flat one?

Context and content should determine the design, not the other way around.

Placing the Focus in the Right Place

The problem with focusing upon a trending “look” isn’t so much a problem with the look itself (there’s nothing wrong with having a flat-looking site) as much as it is the focus.

https://twitter.com/ThomasEMcGee/status/650059911196336129

When picking a theme or preferably, having one built for your site, it’s important to place your readers and your brand in the forefront.

Rather than making a point to consider what you like or think looks good, consider rather what is most fitting for your particular brand. What fits the content? Is the correct, most important content being emphasized by the design? Does the layout properly accentuate the type of content your site contains as well as the actions you want your users to take?

All of these are important questions to ask and ones that go far beyond whether the buttons are square or round.

The all important point to keep in mind when creating a new site (or getting a redesign) is, as the author of the article accurate referenced, to put the user first.

Do this, and your website will be well on its way to helping you achieve the goal for which you’re having a website created to begin with.

What Do You Think?

What’s your experience with using flat websites? Have you come across sites that use it well—or not so well? Feel free to leave a comment to share your thoughts!

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Thomas is a Graphic Designer, Web Developer, and founder of Rightly Designed. For over a decade, he’s had the privilege of working with a wide variety of individuals and organizations, spanning from traditional publishing houses to numerous independent professionals.