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SxSW 2017: The digital designer! Fine if you’re going to steal, but at least be a distinctive copycat

Sapient Nitro is giving two talks at this year’s SXSW, both about copying. What makes it even more interesting is that they are contradictory to each other.

On the one hand it’s been stated that the digital design landscape is beginning to look a bit like Plato’s cave (or: the allegory of the cave). Prisoners are sitting chained to the floor of a cave and are looking at a wall. Behind them is a big fire. Their guards place objects in front of the fire, and the shadows of these objects are projected onto the wall where the prisoners are sitting. This is the only thing the prisoners see. Consequently, the shadows become their reality.  Not until someone escapes and runs outside into the real world, does he realise that the world is much bigger than just the shadows.

What does this have to do with the online sector? Apple, AirBnB, and Google project their (design) shadows onto the wall, and everyone else copies them.  Not only designers in their design proposals, but also our customers in their briefings. And that’s how usability patterns develop, but also visual trends like flat design.

On the other hand it’s been argued that copycat behaviour in itself is pretty normal, even outside the world of design.  One sees that something works and wants to copy that success.  This can be very functional.  For example, if we were all to agree that the login button should always be placed in the top right-hand corner, then interface designers wouldn’t have to think about it anymore and users could navigate a lot quicker.  It’s also efficient considering you can just copy something that already works, eliminating any investment towards research.  If you have a low budget or a short timeline, it can be pretty convenient.  Moreover, we often see people innovate from the ideas they’ve copied.  Some of the most successful innovations of the 20th century were actually incremental innovations stemming from a radical innovation of someone else (this is true for many Apple products). The benefits of copying so far.

But there’s also a flip-side to copying.  At a certain moment, everyone, particularly within the same sector, is going to look the same.  If you look at the websites from ten different insurance companies, they all look the same: a hero image of a smiling model with three columns below it (except www.asr.nl of course).  If your products are virtually the same, how do you distinguish yourself from others if you also look the same?

The standard lay-out of a homepage

Using patterns makes designers lazy.  Of course, it’s easy to use an existing interface pattern or visual pattern.  However, the pattern you choose may not be the best solution for this specific client or her users.  A little more research, testing and concept developing can lead to a much better solution.  But yeah, “just like Apple” was stated in the briefing.

Both speakers have developed a model so as not to fall into the “pattern trap”. In principle, the model requires the designer or strategist to keep asking: Why? At Studio Dumbar, we do this constantly: why this shape, this colour, this interface pattern?  Of course we always make use of existing patterns.  However our goal is to always design a unique visual identity and associated touch points which fall in line with the needs of the client.  Here is where we always find a balance between pattern and distinction. And yes, briefing, ambition, and budget definitely play a role as well.

Like Gary Vaynerchuk said during his talk at SXSW: your brand is the differentiator (and in between he said fuck three times). You don’t differentiate yourself by looking, acting and sounding exactly like your competition.  This last point is going to become more and more important.  With new interfaces such as Echo and Home of Alexa, you’ll have virtually no visual contact anymore with pure online brands. It’s all about audio; voice user interfaces. By that time, more sound designers and copywriters will probably work at Studio Dumbar than visual designers.