Familiarity in design usually beats out the exceptional

by Kelly Hobkirk

People tell me there are only so many ways to design a website. They say familiarity in design is preferable. Of course, I flatly reject this idea. We can design sites in any of countless ways. The limitations are usually imposed by familiarity and risk factor. How open you are to presenting a primary marketing tool that dares offend the visual sensibilities and familiarity of your market places parameters on design possibilities.

If you tell us to go wild, we’ll design something that you may never have seen before. I’ll be honest, though, in saying that this happens once in a blue moon. (Of course, I LOVE IT when it happens.) Clients who say, “You’re the experts, design us something exceptional,” are among my very favorite people. The more common occurrence is the client who sticks to what is familiar (don’t worry, we like you too).

We present ideas in the vein of uncharted, familiar and a mix of the two, and most of the time it’s familiar or mix that gets the nod, while uncharted is left to dejectedly pout in a far corner of the room.

There is a reason uncharted design territory typically is discarded in the design approval process. That reason is familiarity. In our society, familiarity is rewarded, while standing out is often (but thankfully not always) discouraged.

Remember the odd, confusing story of the “ugly duckling”? I recall the first time I heard that story as a young impressionable child, thinking, ‘They’ve got it all backwards! That black duckling is the coolest one.’ But the story’s message is clear. Standing out is dangerous and will get you shunned. However, it also clearly tells us that we have to be who we are, and if we are good the world will eventually appreciate it.

Consumers — especially in a social media connected market — often operate like the white ducklings, shunning what is different in favor of fitting in with a group or tribe. Businesses have been attuned to this behavior for decades. It is why they take little risks instead of big ones when it comes to design.

Designing for familiarity is both safe and risky. The bigger the marketing initiative, the more risky it is to stay safe with conservative, familiar design because you risk looking old and outdated, or worse, being invisible. If the initiative is smaller with a commensurately small budget, taking risks can be more appealing. However, the same does not apply for smaller businesses, who must make nearly every marketing initiative count with at least a partial goal of immediate sales. This dictates that design stays safe and familiar.

The need for high response is also why some small businesses choose to design their own graphics. They figure they know their market better, and it’s a good way to save some money. What they often do not realize is that their own familiarity imposes lack of objectivity, resulting in designs so safe that no one notices them.

Familiar designs have the advantage of known appeal. For instance, many websites veer towards a big visual, with smaller visuals and text below, followed by an even smaller smattering of product or service elements. It’s an easy bet that such a layout will enjoy a certain level of success. Look at Apple, Amazon, or any other of thousands of sites out there following this formula. If you are selling a commodity item with a broad target market, it works. The formula is familiar to both our clients and their customers, so clients often pick familiarity.

When the niche is tighter, however, risk-taking becomes more important. That’s where clients start breaking out of formulaic designs and let us set new standards. Ironically, it is the less familiar designs which stand a much greater chance of success. (It’s ironic because businesses tend to veer away from the non-familiar or new.)

As competition tightens in nearly every market, fitting in often does more harm than good. Familiarity in design tends to make you less visible at precisely the moments when you need to stand out. Although familiar design is safer in terms of virtually guaranteeing a known response, exceptional design is more likely to differentiate your brand and make it stand out in ways people can connect with.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 9, 2012 • Tags: ,,