If you browse a web design gallery or two you’ll notice a pattern—something that the design of my own site shares as well. The visuals of many sites recreate physical media. This is done by using paper textures for backgrounds, grungy or handwritten fonts, paper edges, wrapping labels, paint strokes, cardboard textures and so on. Even though the design is that of a website, which only exists in the digital world, the designer chooses to utilize familiar visuals of the physical realm.
This is a trend that appears to be growing. Look around on CSS galleries and you’ll see a lot of such techniques in use. Websites are starting to feel like they’re made out of paper, with painted headers and printed letters. The inspiration behind this trend is clear. The physical media looks and feels good, and we’re all familiar with it. It’s comforting and pleasing to see the nuances of that media on the screen.
But…I’m not convinced that this trend is a right direction for web design. You see, while the trend is aesthetically pleasing, the idea behind it closes off some great opportunities for the designer.
By recreating the physical media, you’re not only recreating something that already exists—and so is not new or innovative—you’re setting limits on your own creativity, limits imposed by an older media. The computer screen is free from the many restrictions of paper. There is no limit to what color you want to use or how thin a line you wish to depict (limited only by the pixel density). Things don’t have to be static on a computer screen. Sure, digital images still have their limitations, but these are not the same limitations of physical paper, and the opportunities for creating something new and unique are far greater.
When you follow the trend of recreating the physical media on the digital screen, you’re not only copying its strengths, you’re copying its flaws. The digital screen is an evolution of paper, and yet here we are going back, trying to recreate what we’ve had before. Sure, the old media like paper has character—indeed, the flaws also help make it what it is—but there is absolutely no reason why digital should lack character as well, after all, it’s up to the designer to create it.
So my thought really is this: when you find yourself working on a new design and are making it look like the physical media—paper, paint, dirt, wood, etc.— why not take a step back and ask yourself if this design can be made differently. Can you utilize the full potential of the digital medium that your website lives in by creating a look that is unique? Why submit to the limitations of an older media? Can you design something that we haven’t seen before? If you can, why not do it?