Evolution and the pattern of design

12 Jan 2012

Gareth Dunlop

Design patterns are everywhere. Ironically, the reason we don’t notice them is because they are so pervasive; if they were less prevalent we would take much more heed of them.

Look at a photo of a wedding from a previous decade or watch a movie from the Sixties or Seventies and the first thing that will strike you is that the design of everything is different. In the case of embarrassing suits and hairstyles, design differences can be superficial, however, the more functional the item the more material the design changes.

For instance, throughout the decades, design patterns in cars have been evident; to anyone with any degree of knowledge of cars, a car’s decade of manufacture can easily be guessed from its overall look and feel. As the years have gone by, a combination of factors, such as improvements in engineering, enhancements in raw materials, and changes in how people use cars have driven distinct patterns and styles. SUV and MPV style vehicles are common nowadays, whereas two decades ago most families drove saloon, hatchback or estate cars; form has changed to accommodate function.

A trip to a folk museum will reinforce this. If the museum includes homes from the 19th century, you will notice that the door sills are about a foot lower than they are nowadays. Why? Because the average height of people a hundred years ago was about a foot shorter than it is today. As people have got taller door sills have been raised; the overriding design form has been driven by function.

From clothes to cars to seats to computers to televisions, massive aspects of design are driven by patterns and those patterns in turn are driven by function.

The concept is important because it subsequently defines the creative process within a clearly understood set of pattern parameters.  You are unlikely to mistake a Skoda for a Ford, or a Range Rover for a Mini, although they all have four wheels, doors, seats, windscreens and a gear stick. What’s more, all of these things are in the same place. The creative process is layered on top of the pattern.

Drivers wouldn’t think it was cool or creative for the manufacturer to put the handbrake in the boot, or the pedal on the passenger side of the car, they would just find it annoying and inconvenient.

Design patterns on the web

Unsurprisingly, design patterns are everywhere on the web. The evolution has been gradual, so you may not have noticed, but today’s web looks very different to the web of 2002. The intervening decade of research and understanding of how customers expect to use the web massively informs the design process.

Our customers expect our logo on the top left of our website, a search box (if we have one) on the top right, global navigation horizontal across the top, section menus vertically down the left hand side, the key message towards the centre of the screen, and footer menus at the bottom of the site. We are also seeing the appearance of “mega-rollover-menus”, particularly for large sites with huge numbers of pages as a simple means of navigation, the depth of pages increasing all the time, greater use of white backgrounds and larger, more confident fonts.

Just as the needs of families have driven car evolution from hatchbacks to MPVs, so the functional needs of users have established a “best practice” style of website layout. If you put your logo where your customer doesn’t expect it, or your search box in the bottom left instead of the top right, your customers think you are as creative as the guy who put the handbrake in the boot. Even Wikipedia had to learn this lesson; the major design change on their site in the last 12 months has been the change in position of the search box, from bottom left to top right.

Use every opportunity you can take to differentiate your business, products and services online. Take all advantage you can with words, photography, imagery and design. However, in this pursuit, never compromise the function-driven design patterns which your customers cherish.

Gareth Dunlop has been fixated by the internet since 1996 and has extensive commercial experience advising the senior management teams of blue chip organisations in Ireland, the UK and Europe on internet strategy, usability and best practice. Specialist areas include digital strategy development, usability and user journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Confetti, Irish Internet Association, WeddingsOnline.ie, Enterprise Ireland and the Digital Marketing Institute.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

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Why Michael O’Leary should run your website

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New Media Opinion: Online reputation optimisation

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The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

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The real reason the recession is good for marketing

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Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

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Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.