Designers! You Should Have a Signature Style

Lea Alcantara

Is the web industry in some sort of existential crisis? From comparing web work to design machines to lamentations about web design losing its soul, it’s as if we’ve entered some sort of dystopian future where thoughtfulness and originality have collapsed under budget constraints, locked-down CMSs, and misguided data informing user experience.

In a storm of client and project expectations, many of us have lost what is considered a signature design style. This is my call to bring it back to life.

What Is a Signature Design Style?

A signature design style is all about design originality. How your design aesthetic reflects your unique personality, tastes and even world view. How you translate client problems into design solutions.

Before Bright Umbrella, there was Lealea Design. When I started my company, I wanted to stand out from the crowd. I chose a palette of unapologetically feminine colors, and was liberal with my use of floral flourishes — none of which was happenstance. I wanted to be bold, I wanted to be identified with my femininity — “The girl who designs with color.” These design decisions were deliberate.

Lealea Design
Lealea Design, circa 2009-2010. Read my ALA article about it.

The entire point was when someone visited my site, I wanted people to recognize that “Lea Alcantara designed this.” Ego wasn’t the driving factor — this was part of self-branding, a way to differentiate myself in a competitive marketplace.

It worked.

While a lot more researched and nuanced, this motivation is what drove Bright Umbrella’s own brand and aesthetic.

The Current Design Climate

But since 2005, the landscape of the web drastically changed. User experience is paramount, accessibility should be a de facto baseline, and style guides are not only embraced, they’re being deployed by government and Fortune 500 companies (e.g.  Salesforce’s Lightning Design System)

It’s no wonder many designers opt for a less-than-ideal, often limited solution

“Web design” in 2016 encompasses various specialties that include product design for mobile and desktop, information sites that demand fast and accessible interactive elements, and full-blown ecommerce suites that can scale as necessary.

Personal websites are no longer in vogue, and templated pre-fab site services are popular due to their simplicity and ease of deployment.

Add all that in an ever-competitive business climate, with launch dates fast approaching, it’s no wonder many designers opt for a less-than-ideal, often limited solution. The result usually ends up being less creative or original due to drowning with these constraints. It’s understandable. It might even be laudable.

The result, unfortunately, is that design originality falls by the wayside.

Designer Perspectives

I asked a few of my design friends to give me their opinions on signature design style and its place on the web. Their responses were quite enlightening.

But first, what did they consider a signature design style?

  • Katie Kovalcin: “What you love to produce when there are no constraints.”
  • Dan Mall: “People know[ing] it’s your work before they actually know that it’s your work.”
  • Samantha Warren: “The broader repeated values and principles [you] bring to every design.”

Nuanced definitions, certainly, but they all are about what you, the designer, bring to the table. At the same time, these designers noted that signature design style is also based on the goals of the designer. This, though, can come with mixed results.

Mall observed that a signature design style can be, depending on the person and execution, equally successful and unsuccessful. He noted that many designers purposely avoid a signature design style for various reasons.

If you’re interested in marketing yourself, though, Warren points out that “having a signature style makes it easier for you to market your services as a web designer, because a client or company has a clearer picture of what they are going to get... It provides clarity. A client can look at the style of another project you have completed and can ask for something similar.”

Kovalcin agrees:

In this era of Bootstrappy Material Design Squarespace aesthetics, a lot of sites look very similar, so it’s especially important to have a unique site to stand out amongst other job applicants (or for any other reason)."

Katie Kovalcin

Does It Matter?

And yet, all of this may be for naught. There is even debate in the industry regarding whether a portfolio site is even necessary.

Kovalcin’s opinion “comes with a caveat that there’s a time and place for a signature style, and in [her] experience client work is more about the client’s brand and personality and less about yours. So, it’s less important for client work to have a signature style.”

Warren, who has worked on various high-profile products, laments “as a product designer you have to adapt to a lot of different styles depending on the product” which is marketable in of itself, but doesn’t necessarily align itself with a signature design style.

So, the answer is, “It depends.”

And yet…

Looking to Other Design Industries

“That chair’s from Herman Miller.”

“That building was obviously designed by Frank Ghery.”

“Those are classic Loubotins.”

Signature Designs
Signature design style is a competitive advantage in other industries

Other industries praise a designer’s personal aesthetic and style being the entire point. Interior design, fashion design, logo design, publication design, architecture, and industrial design to name a few. All of these industries have client constraints, user experience priorities, deadlines, and the need to marry form and function.

While these examples don’t owe all their aesthetic (and success) to the identifiable name — there are teams, products and companies here — their success is largely attributed to the way they position themselves uniquely… part of which is based on their signature design styles.

Every time you pick up an OXO widget or a Global chef’s knife, you’re looking at something utilitarian and common, and yet is identifiable with a signature aesthetic. When you open up Fast Company next to Martha Stewart Living next to Vogue, they all have the same form factor — the standard of magazine sizes — and yet they each manage to stylistically differentiate themselves even with similar constraints.

Why not web design?

Herein Lies the Irony

The interesting thing when reading my colleagues’ opinions is the consistent emphasis on client work and the priorities for their client. However, does that negate the need for originality? Does that negate the value of your personal interpretation of client goals?

Patterns emerge for similar tasks and purposes on a web page or app, but patterns don’t remove the need for an identifiable style or unique voice. Standards for form design, good practices for typography and whitespace, and other design rules are not mutually exclusive to a signature design style. I fear that more designers are hiding behind patterns and standards as a veil against originality instead of a starting point for innovation.

For example, Lyft and Uber are similar services that have patterns for maps, address forms, and calls to action for pickup. However, both services apply different style, layout, tone and voice to the experience. Newspaper sites follow conventional rules for typography and whitespace, and yet the Guardian website doesn’t look like The New York Times. Target’s website has an iconic style that doesn’t match Wal-Mart, though they are both in retail.

There absolutely is a need to balance impulses and outcomes. But I think that in our effort to balance technology and client goals, we as an industry have veered too far on the side of safe and predictable. And because of that, more sites are starting to look alike.

Are Similar Sites All that Bad?

Foundation vs. Bootstrap
Similar, but Different? Or Similar and Similar?

I agree with Warren’s assessment that clear user-centric patterns are good:  “Users shouldn’t always be always trying to figure out some design patterns. They should feel natural, so the reuse of those patterns is important to the usability of all sites.” I feel that’s the point of those who defend the practice of homogenous designs. But as I explained earlier, focus on standards does not mean letting go of originality or experimentation.

Mall makes a distinction between a site’s audience: 

"I think it’s fine when two sites that sell jewelry look alike. But when a site that’s supposed to sell jewelry to millennials looks like a site that’s supposed to sell jewelry to senior citizens, it shows that someone didn’t properly do their homework. That’s a disservice to someone that hired you to help their business grow.”

And therein lies the rub: while user-centric patterns are there to establish design standards, some sites seemingly miss that point and ignore the underlying audience that site is targeting. Warren takes this further:

Those patterns can still be executed within the context of broader style differentiation in brand. People are spending less and less time on thinking creatively about how to apply brand  attributes to larger user interfaces.”

Samantha Warren

Kovalcin expands on what she feels is a lost opportunity to differentiate:

"There’s so much personality and cool technology out there to play around with. In this day and age there are very few things we can’t do on the web, and I don’t think we take advantage of this enough.”

Time to Break the Rut

There is a crisis in web design — it’s a young field, one that’s ever evolving. Considering the rapid pace, more designers are foregoing originality in favor of what’s convenient.

Design constraints are a reality, but it is our duty as professionals to take the time to make sure that brand and style are not ignored.

Having a signature design style does not negate client goals. It does not mean forcing your favorite font or color where it isn’t appropriate to a client’s brand or business. It does mean, though, that you should be intentionally creative in both your thinking and output. It means — to a client, to an employer — that you’re not just another designer.

Design constraints are a reality, but it is our duty as professionals to take the time to make sure that brand and style are not ignored. Otherwise, we become a commodity. The same way more of us are employing style guides and standards within our companies, we should also begin to establish practices that push us beyond what a framework provides.

Go pick up a book on graphic design and choose a design to apply to different UI patterns, Samantha Warren suggests, simply to get you into the habit of thinking outside of the box. This doesn’t mean you will use it, but it forces you to try something that isn’t obvious.

Leave the computer and go out — around a beautiful neighborhood or a museum, Katie Kovalcin advises — to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day UX aspects of the web. If your baseline inspiration is other websites, then your output will look like other websites.

Dan Mall’s words resonate the most with me:

If you want to do something different, you gotta do something different.”

Dan Mall

The main message I want my fellow designers to take away is that design standards are just a starting point. Be creative. Innovate. Experiment. Don’t be complacent!

Stay tuned for a follow up article on the client perspective: how they benefit from a designer with a signature style. And subscribe to CTRL+CLICK CAST, so you don’t miss episode #71 when we’ll discuss tips, resources and processes to help designers to develop their signature styles.

In the meantime, I’m curious what you think! Signature design style: yay or nay? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!

Want to Know More?

Podcasts

Design that Stands Out
Developing a Signature Design Style
Tech Made Simple
Demystifying Web Design

Articles

Design that Gets Results
Clients! You Need a Signature Design Style

Case Studies

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Family Friend Poems
Sophisticated Southwest Style
Sutin, Thayer & Browne

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