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I'm currently thinking about a redesign of my personal website. One of my goals for the redesign is to add to my perceived authority as part of my chosen industry. One option for achieving this is to mirror common attributes of other sites in the same area (in this case, UX design - though to clarify, I'm asking the question in a general sense rather than specifically addressing one industry).

Questions of "ripping off" designs aside, is there significant value to borrowing design patterns that seem to be common in that industry, for example colour schemes and layout patterns? Alternatively, what (if any) value is there in striking out on my own to get a distinctive look and feel?

Related to this, is it ethical to use common design elements to artificially increase authority in this way?

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The 'UX Design Industry' doesn't seem readily identifiable by any particular design pattern. Can you show some examples of what you mean by that? –  DA01 Jan 21 '13 at 19:12
    
@DA01 Well, that would be the next step (identifying them). I'm more interested in whether it's a good idea to try. –  dhmholley Jan 22 '13 at 8:43
    
Are you asking if its bad, for example, to buy a template off themeforest? –  icc97 Jan 25 '13 at 10:53
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I think your question is too general. A navigation bar is a design pattern for a website - do I think it is a good idea to copy that pattern, yea, sure. Can you be more concrete or give a concrete example? –  kontur Jan 29 '13 at 13:19
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Well, a design pattern has a certain connotation. It typically refers to the interactions and flow. Those can and should be standards of some sorts. However, visual design--colors, typefaces, layout, etc, that's really about graphic design and branding, and that's a different issue and where you will encouraged to use 'design fundamentals' but NOT actually borrowing visual elements. –  DA01 Jan 30 '13 at 20:46

13 Answers 13

up vote 15 down vote accepted
+50

In my previous job, a big part in recruiting new employees was to test their business sense. We got a lot of UI and UX designers that wanted to focus on the new and nifty, rather than the true and tested aspects of the web. When faced with questions where they would need to make a choice, the ones that stood out most were those who were able to get over their sense of style and usability, and go for the essence of our job: the user experience.

It seems a lot more obvious than it is: your opinion doesn't matter, the opinion of your client doesn't matter, your boss' opinion doesn't matter, the only thing that matters is the end user. It's our job to make their experience (User Experience) sublime.

Sometimes that means choosing to go with an ugly design, using elements that are not necessarily the most user-friendly, but are the most recognizable.

A funny, albeit anecdotal, thing I noticed over the years was that the UI/UX-designers that came up with a standard blank template as their CV were the ones making the logical decisions, whereas the people behind incredibly creative CV's were too focused on making things pretty and fit their own sense of style.

In my current job it is no different. Despite our focus on mobile interfaces (responsive design and more buzzwords like that) we still want to cater to the masses; we prefer UI-recognition over innovation. We'll leave the innovation to those who can afford to train our users. We will adapt our UI accordingly, a few years down the road.

So, to come back to the original question, and please note this is purely anecdotal:

How much value is there in using “industry standard” design elements?

Depending on your market: a lot of value. In an e-commerce market where the target audience isn't mostly composed of tech-savvy individuals, you will want to follow industry standards, because that simply makes business sense.

On the other hand, if the purpose of your website is to land yourself a job at a design agency where innovation is key, and they cater to an audience that appreciates this, then I would advise against conservative design elements.

Is it ethical to use common design elements to artificially increase authority in this way?

I don't know that this is "artificial" at all, honestly. I would argue that recognizing common design elements shows a level of understanding of the market. The very fact you even contemplate all this shows me that you do have some level of authority, though a better word would be "seniority", on the subject matter.

Ideally, a contrast of old and new might be interesting to see, depending on your intended audience. If your website is a showcase for job-applications, then I, as the guy doing the interview, would be interested in seeing your familiarity with the old and familiar standards, and I'd love to see that you are still capable of innovative thoughts.


TL;DR:

One of my goals for the redesign is to add to my perceived authority as part of my chosen industry.

Never hide your knowledge.

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From a UX perspective: Wouldn't it be better to place your last paragraph at the top of your answer? Beginning with TL:DR; ... –  DKOATED Jan 31 '13 at 15:36

I am going to break this response down into two parts :

  1. Following design principles : The fact that you are redesigning your own personal website allows you creative freedom with regards to how you want to convey information or content. However you must note that your website is often used as determine your design skills or even your UX skills with regards to the design decisions you have made. If you stick to standard design layouts, you are less likely to confuse users about the navigation processes and user flows since users might have seen that before and understand the flow. Also if asked to explain your design process, you can call upon the design of your site as an example of how you used design principles to communicate your thinking process.

  2. Being radical : The advantage of being radical is that it helps you stand out in a crowd of cookie cutter designs which all follow the same layout.While this might win you some admirers, you might also end up having users who get confused by the unusual layout or a navigation pattern and you might also be called to justify your reason to go for such a design layout and not being able to do so might not reflect too well. However if you can justify your design decisions then you should be good to go though you might confuse some people initially.

Hence my suggestion would be to go for a design which is fairly individualistic and allows you to showcase your personality but also follows design principles (note: I said design principles, not layouts ) so that your users can still find their way around the site and not get confused.

With regards to the use of design patterns to convey your experience and authority on the subject, I hardly would call it unethical since the fact that you are aware of these design patterns,layouts and color schemes makes it obvious that you follow the subject intently and aware of the latest trends

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Why the downvote ? –  Mervin Johnsingh Jan 21 '13 at 18:51

Most designers would rather give up designing than blindly copy someone else. Copycat design

There are few things to consider when you copy:

  • You are always 2nd.
  • You are aware of the latest trends but you do not make trends.
  • Majority doesn't mean that the solution to the problem is right.
  • If you copy why should the user choose you and not other designer

Take a look at the mobile industry, Nokia used to be what all the companies copied, no questions asked, not thinking, because it's easy. Then came iPhone and became one of the most popular devices, going against the trend, introduction of touch screen.

Who are you trying to impress with the design? Who is your target audience? Are you trying to make it on any CSS galleries?

The design(pretty things) solutions would come when you answer these questions.

Using patterns is fine as long as you understand the WHY. Patterns became patterns because they were able to solve the problem well. Distinctive look and feel will elevate you from the people that offer the same solutions.

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If you're strictly talking about visual design/graphic design, I think you have a point. But in the broader context of UX design or Interaction design (ie, design patterns), I think this is off base. A big part of design is knowing what works and what doesn't. 'Borrowing' is a huge tool that should be used whenever it's applicable. –  DA01 Jan 28 '13 at 19:19
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@DA01 I totally agree, borrowing is a huge tool, and should be used. But you have to understand why this pattern became successful in solving particular problem. I have noticed that sometimes complicated patterns have been used without thinking why they were created. Patters are not a silver bullet that solves all problems. –  Igor-G Jan 28 '13 at 20:04
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I agree completely with that! –  DA01 Jan 28 '13 at 20:23

Focusing on whether its ethical, but I think encompasses what you are trying to achieve, there's quite a good piece from Daring Fireball about Homage vs. Rip-Off on Samsung copying Apple copying Braun:

But to me, it’s about the difference between drawing inspiration to create something new, versus slavishly copying to create something derivative.

The beauty of the internet is that you can re-mix and re-combine the ideas of others to create something new. Its similar to Isaac Newton's comment of 'standing on the shoulder of giants'. But you always have to come back to Daring Fireball's comment of whether you are taking inspiration or creating a derivative.

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The point of your Web site is to encourage someone to do business with you. You want to portray authority and an established membership in your market. The sites allows you to support an argument that those are two of your qualities.

Common design elements

No, using design elements isn't unethical. We use common elements to portray our affinity for or membership in a group all the time. Sports jerseys, alumni bumper stickers, business cards, flags on the porch—all of these are marketing to demonstrate our association with a particular entity or community.

The same is perfectly acceptable in designing a Web site, IF:

  1. Those design choices make sense for the argument you want to communicate,
  2. They're implementation is the best choice for functionality and aesthetic locally to your site as well.

Decide what your elevator pitch is to a prospective client, and distil that into values. Make your design choices based on those values and the points of your pitch.

  • Do you want to be seen as exciting in a world of drab UX body shops?
  • Do you want to be seen as a luxury or bespoke up-sell over generic package providers?

Those needs surpass industry-standard design.

Your choices have to past muster with your UX experience. Don't add nested hover navigation menus, just because others do, if you know that it makes navigation harder. Don't use splashy, hollow buzzwords, just because others are, if you know that it will cloud your message.

Ultimately, make design choices that best support the argument you want to make to your audience.

Ethicality

Please reevaluate your feeling that explicitly making non-verbal communication choices is artificial or unethical. There is nothing artificial about using a particular color because it's associated with trust, or implementing a style of call-to-action because it's shown to increase lead conversion.

It's probably unethical to build a website portraying you as a doctor if you're not. But if you're in the UX industry, and are looking to practice UX design/implementation for clients, then why not identify yourself as part of that community?

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Highlights of Authors Notes in his Question:

  • Redesign of my personal website
  • Goals for the redesign is to add to my perceived authority as part of my chosen industry
  • Mirror common attributes of other sites in the same area
  • To clarify, I'm asking the question in a general sense rather than specifically addressing one industry
  • Borrow design patterns that seem to be common in that industry, for example colour schemes and layout patterns?
  • What (if any) value is there in striking out on my own to get a distinctive look and feel?

This needs to have a bearing of Brand positioning & Identity, Corporate Identity etc. and how Design influences are driven by the WHO THEY ARE, WHAT THEY WANT TO CONVEY, WHO IS THEIR AUDIENCE

This is not a question of using HTML5/CSS v/s Flash v/s Silverlight.

It's about the the person wanting to get ESTABLISHED as an AUTHORITY in his INDUSTRY (or any industry per se) for existing and prospective clients / other audience.

Therefore it is important to note the following:

  • Brand Identity - What do you want to convey about yourself?
    • There is a major difference in the sites of a Strategy Consulting/ Banking & Finance firm as compared to an Advertising Firm and another extreme is something like an MTV / VH1
  • Audience - Who do you want to impress?
    • If I am an Executive Consultant to major banking corporations in NYC walking into their offices in a jeans or pair of shorts may not be ideal
    • It might work for a Startup or High tech firm like Google whose corporate culture is different
    • What may be important to/ impress Steve Jobs v/s John Sculley would be different
  • Comfort & Intuitive easy to use vs Radical & Exciting to use are two Extreme ends of how you want to convey and what you convey in the details of elements
    • Design Elements such as Colors & Combinations, Patterns, Information Representation, Visualizations, Movement, Experience.
    • Its the difference between using a Simple & Clear UI like the iPhone or some kind of radical skinned interface in funky new Circular or Polygonal design. Sometimes radical new designs are amazing and exciting and be appreciate by creative and technical/ geeky/ power user types, but may become not so intuitive and easy to use and even confuse some basic users
    • It's the difference between a souped up street racer, an off-road 4x4, a porsche/ bmw or an elegant classic car. They are all good.. What do you want to be? What is your Brand Identity
    • So, do you pick design elements common to McKinsey, Deloitte, BCG or design elements common to MTV/ VH1 or a Rock/ Hard Rock/ Heavy Metal Band etc. The variety and spectrum is endless
  • Spiritual Question to ask.. Who am I.. Who am I.. Who am I.. :)
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I've slightly reordered your answer as I feel this way it is clearer - it explains what the issue is first and details the solution / thought process after. Hope it is still in keeping with the spirit of the answer. –  JonW Jan 29 '13 at 11:41
    
No issues Jon - I appreciate your earlier effort and response. I am rather new to StackExchange & SO so formatting everything and organizing it in the Text Box is a little cumbersome. PS: I can't understand how the other gentleman was so stupid & self-righteous that even though my answer was related to the subject he just put negative points when the answer was clearly related to DESIGN. I can understand it was a bit brief but to the point. –  Alex S Jan 29 '13 at 12:23
    
Hi Alex, a lot of these notes seem like basic branding advice - I'm looking for something that specifically addresses the effect of borrowing existing brand associations. –  dhmholley Jan 29 '13 at 12:23
    
To clarify, I'm asking the question in a general sense rather than specifically addressing one industry This is what you mentioned. Its a generic question related to how a website represents you, your skills & experiences as a brand, independent of the industry - and you have not mentioned any specific existing brand associations. A generic open question, where in my answer I have even cited examples of extreme ends of brand representation. i.e. Consulting/ Banking v/s MTV/Fashion & Music –  Alex S Jan 29 '13 at 18:01
    
To get more specific I'd have to deeply understand your experiences & client portfolio (past, current & target). In conservative industries stick within certain norms, in creative & liberal ones there is more room to 'innovate'. Either way, it did not warrant a negative rating. If this kind of random negativity is the norm then I'll refrain from sharing from my extensive experiences in branding (mainstream & new media) –  Alex S Jan 29 '13 at 18:02

There are some very thorough answers here so I'll just add my quick take.

You have to ask yourself an important question:

“Am I a leader or a craftsman?”

A leader tears things down to the essential structures and then rebuilds them based on big ideas intended to maximize the potential outcome. He's a risk taker. It might not work, but it might blow your expectations out of the water.

A craftsman cross references the problem at hand with known patterns which he has studied and perfected in past experience. He's reliable and his methods are relatively safe. Until a leader knocks him off the block ;)

Which one are you? If you're a leader, you'll know what to make of industry standards. If you're a craftsman, do what you're best at and apply standards with the greatest of skill.

If you don't fit into either camp (at least a little), then you're probably not particularly valuable at this point in your career. The process of looking for work is a numbers game for you. Just get something out there and bring as many people to it as possible until one bites.

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I see what you were aiming at, but I'm not sure I'd be using those two terms. A craftsman is someone who's an expert at their craft. I craftsman could certainly be a leader and vice-versa. –  DA01 Jan 28 '13 at 23:30
    
It's a matter of where your focus/aptitude is. Ansel Adams, important as he was, didn't lead the world of art photography. It was his craftsmanship that set him apart. –  plainclothes Jan 28 '13 at 23:36
    
Again, I see the point, but the terms aren't that defined/distinct. Many would say Adams was absolutely a leader and innovator as much as a fine crafstman. (So, not trying to argue your points, just that we probably can find some better terms...I just don't know what those are) –  DA01 Jan 29 '13 at 0:30
    
I'll have to think on that one. The two terms have always worked for me (realizing that they are a continuum) but maybe there's something more universally descriptive ... –  plainclothes Jan 29 '13 at 0:58

I will answer starting from my personal experience. Fighting off old fashioned copywriters and art directors I realized how UX design needs standards and common patterns. Sometimes you just need proofs to support your design, something that is universally known as the standard or optimal solution for a sepcific type of problem. Patterns and common schemes should bring with them some "scientific" evidence that shows why and how they are better than other solutions (for usability, conversion rates, navigation...). I would say standards are a plus in this field according to problems you need to solve.

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I think being radical is what good design is about, but not in terms of just visual cues. Take a look at this tweet from Jason Fried:

enter image description here

Its about what a particular thing is, and not what it does. Using industry standard design elements helps the user recognise objects, but how you're using those elements is what sets you apart.

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Design your website in the style of those you want to create.

There are tons of websites and other designs around us. What is best is circumstantial. Sometime a simple proven design will do and other times you need something boldly excentric. I would not expect a bank and a musician to have a website of the same style, yet they can both be considered great designs.

Now, you are creating a design to promote yourself. The best thing you can do is to show the type of work you want to do because that is what you want to be hired for. Let it speak for you!

Now, following principles still matter because your clients will also have to use your site contact you. Make sure navigation is clear but style as you like.

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So, this answer is in some way an answer to the answers...but will try and answer your question as well.

The confusion about the question is the term 'design patterns'. At least in UX, that will typically refer to the interactions and flow more than a particular visual treatment.

For instance, here's a design pattern for an OK/Cancel button:

----------
|   OK   |   Cancel
----------

And part of the pattern might be some interaction notes (hover style, etc)

A particular visual design treatment would then apply graphic design/branding elements. For instance a client may specify a particular green gradient for the OK button to coincide with its overall branding guidelines.

The former is something that definitely would benefit from 'borrowing' industry standards. User interfaces use familiar widgets and it benefits the user if you use a similar, familiar widget for a similar task.

However, the latter--especially as you get closer and closer to emulating another companies trade-dress/corporate branding, that's typically a bad idea. There's the ethical argument, but then there's also the legal argument. If your site design could be construed as confusing in any way with another brand, then you're opening yourself up to legal trouble.

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I think knowing the industry standards and abiding by them is valuable, but knowing which to throw out is more valuable.

E.g. those image carousels at the top of every website are in very high demand, although usability testing shows that users tend to ignore them on most sites. To me, seeing an image carousel on someone's page gives the message, "I'm a follower and I like to be trendy" rather than "I actually understand industry standards".

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I would say that there are two factors in play here:

  • Being understandable
  • Being original

You need to weigh these two factors against each other. While you probably don't want to invent your own language (and thus become totally incomprehensible), you have to find your own style.

So, you need to ask yourself what kind of response you are looking for.

  • Do you want to communicate?
  • Do you want to invoke emotion?
  • Do you want to provoke?

Study the arts. There's nothing wrong standing on the shoulders of giants. That's not the same thing as plagiarism.

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