A much-shared article on Mashable by Jason Abbruzzese set out to explain 'why every media website redesign looks the same'. It's right in one, blinkered sense and wrong in many others. Here's why.
The article says that due to a number of factors - responsive design, fixed ad units sizes and a growing consensus between designers - sites across news, sports, entertainment, technology and other sites are using similar designs. It has a very narrow view of what design is, mistaking the graphic design of the, well, graphics for the wider concept of design - which online also includes art direction and interactive design. These can which vary wildly both in terms of editorial and commercial design.
Yes, overall site templates are becoming more similar in graphic aesthetics and grid layouts. The former is for flexibility - because the more you simplify the chrome, the more it works with whatever content you pour into it, including ads. However, there are sites doing more interesting things in appropriate places: The Guardian's interactive infographics, Wired's new desktop homepage, Pitchfork's Cover Stories and our own multi-page, image-led features. These example also use different interaction models, which I'll come onto in a bit.
It's worth noting that even the choice of typeface can make a important difference. Alongside editing Digital Arts, I also oversee the experience design of the websites of our parent company IDG UK's Tech Media division. With the even-more-successful-than-we-dreamed relaunch of Macworld (above) earlier this year we established a framework that we'll be taking to other sites across IDG in the near future. While comp-sketching ideas for PC Advisor's redesign, I quickly changed the Macworld template's colours and the fonts - and the brand difference was immediately noticeably.
Fixed, flexible frameworks
In some ways, by doing this - and by establishing the framework in the first place - I'm proving Jason's point. Soon our sites will have very similar grids, breakpoints and simplified colours. But web design is much more than just that and fonts.
Across media sites, art direction - including the style and use of photography and video - can be very different, just like it is in print. Even within tech sites, there's a lot of difference between the 'humanisation' of tech in The Verge or Mashable's use of photos and Pocket-Lint's very proscribed product-front-and-centre usage.
Many sites still separate video and articles - which is as much a design decision as colour schemes, as it affects how readers 'read' your content. Sites like ours think of words, photography and video as part of a coherent whole - with each used to its best advantage: words (and many of them) are for giving readers depth, video is to replicate the experience of using a product or service, photography's a winner for comparisons.
Lastly - and perhaps more importantly - is the interaction design. Even the major media sites vary wildly in what they try to get readers to do when they arrive on the page. Most sites still primarily focus on getting readers to read more editorial or click on ads. Others focus more on promoting commercial content - Buzzfeed being a leader here - or affiliates where they take a cut of any following sale (such as TechRadar on its smartphone reviews, where sometimes the deals are higher up on the right-hand column even than the ads. Where these sites place and priorities these elements - and alter them to fit different users on different platforms - is also design, based on each site's business model.
Every media website's redesign looks the same only if you ignore it's typeface, art direction, content and how you use it. Which is probably true for every newspaper, magazine, book, DVD or other form of media you can think of.