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Creative design and industry maturity

Some time back I wrote about what makes Doom II special and why it feels as good and fresh now as it did 25 years ago. In 2016 id Software, creators of the Doom franchise amongst others, launched what came to be a reboot of the series. DOOM or Doom 2016 is again an exceptional example of design. It probably has the best combat system ever designed for a video game, an epic soundtrack and it shines in many aspects. But while Doom II is brilliant in level design and the levels are a constant display of creativity, the reboot feels way more conventional and unsurprising.

I’ve been thinking about why this is the case and the answer seems now obvious to me. On the original game the creators went wild in the design of every stage. From one level to another there was little to no cohesion. Most of the levels are strange and don’t make much sense from an architectural point of view. Back then there were great technical limitations that pushed the designers creativity to new levels. At the same time the medium was still young and there wasn’t an expectation to be realistic or coherent within the game’s world.

Evolution of car designs

This applies to much more than video games. It’s something that extends throughout all the possible spectrum of design. If we look at the cars that were designed, 30, 40 or 50 years ago we will find crazy, extremely creative designs. Cars like the BMW Isseta are unthinkable today.

The car industry has reached a higher level of maturity and there are proven concepts that are common across brands. Shapes, lights, sizes… There is less space for creativity because the industry knows what works, knows what is practical and knows what is logic to do. That doesn’t mean there’s no space for innovation but there is less experimentation – at least when it comes to commercial cars – than a few decades ago.

Data-driven design for the web

The same applies to my field: the Internet. Looking back at when I was at University, the Internet was full of crazy, wild designs. Flash was the trend and people were constantly experimenting with layouts and navigation. You could see all types of things that could make – or not – sense. But the web industry has also reached a new stage of maturity. There is less space for creativity because we have data that tells us what works and what doesn’t. When users see a hamburger menu, they know what it is and how it works. Users will look for the search icon/bar on the right side of the header, because that has become a de facto standard. These and other conventions bring cohesion to the web as a whole and make for a better user experience.

Design systems like Material Design by Google help us have a cohesive experience, defining key aspects like navigation and component interaction

This can’t be criticized. If I have to design a website today I’m going to follow most – if not all – of the proven conventions. It just makes sense. Not only that, it also gives me the freedom to work on other design elements like animation that could bring a higher meaning to the user actions. Design systems and component oriented design have pushed the industry in that direction and I think everyone will agree that it’s been a very positive turn.

But I wonder if maybe we are losing on variety and innovation by limiting the creativity of our designers. Guidelines are great, but sometimes I feel that we take this guidelines as hard, unbreakable rules. And that will keep us from having a better, more creative and meaningful web experience.

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