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“So, you do nothing all day.”

That’s how many people would respond to someone who says they spend the day with a pen or pencil in their hand. It’s often considered an empty practice, a waste of time. They’re seen as an empty mind puttering along with the busy work of scribbling.

But for us designers and artists, drawing pictures all day is integral to our process and to who we are as creative people, and despite the idea that those who doodle waste time, we still get our work done. So, then, why are those of us who draw pictures all day even tempted to think that someone who is doodling or drawing pictures in a meeting or lecture is not paying attention?

What does it mean to be a doodler, to draw pictures all day? Why do we doodle? Most of all, what does it mean to our work? It turns out that the simple act of scribbling on a page helps us think, remember and learn.

What Does It Mean To Doodle?

The dictionary defines “doodle” as a verb (“scribble absentmindedly”) and as a noun (“a rough drawing made absentmindedly”). It also offers the origins of the word “doodler” as “a noun denoting a fool, later as a verb in the sense ‘make a fool of, cheat.’”

But the author Sunni Brown offers my favorite definition of “doodle” in her TED talk, “Doodlers, unite!”:

“In the 17th century, a doodle was a simpleton or a fool, as in “Yankee Doodle.” In the 18th century, it became a verb, and it meant to swindle or ridicule or to make fun of someone. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt politician. And today, we have what is perhaps our most offensive definition, at least to me, which is the following: “To doodle officially means to dawdle, to dilly dally, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks, to do something of little value, substance or import and,” my personal favorite, “to do nothing.” No wonder people are averse to doodling at work. Doing nothing at work is akin to masturbating at work. It’s totally inappropriate.”

It is no wonder, then, why most people do not have great expectations of those who “draw pictures all day.” Or perhaps they are inclined to think that those who draw pictures all day are not highly intellectual and are tempted to say to them condescendingly, “Go and draw some of your pictures.” As designers, many of us have heard such comments, or at least felt them implied, simply because we think, express or do things differently.

Why Do We Doodle?

Consider that even before a child can speak, they can draw pictures. It is part of their process of understanding what’s around them. They draw not just what they see, but how they view the world. The drawing or doodle of a child is not necessarily an attempt to reflect reality, but rather an attempt to communicate their understanding of it. This is no surprise because playing, trial and error, is a child’s primary method of learning. A child is not concerned with the impressions that others get based on their drawings or mistakes.

An Example of a doodle
An example of a doodle.

Their constant drawing, picture-making and doodling is a child’s way of expressing their ideas and showing their perceptions in visual form. It comes from a need to give physical form to one’s thoughts. Similarly, an adult doodles in order to visualize the ideas in their head so that they can interact with those ideas.

Visual Learners

According to Linda Silverman, director of both the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development and the Gifted Development Center and author of Upside-Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner, 37% of the population are visual learners. If so many people learn better visually, we can expect, then, that some of them learn better by putting a speech, lecture or meeting into visual and tangible form through pictures or doodles, rather than by being provided with pictures or doodles (which would be the product of another person’s mind).

37% of the population are visual learners

Humans have always had a desire to visually represent what’s in their minds and memory and to communicate those ideas with others. Early cave paintings were a means of interacting with others, allowing an idea or mental image to move from one person’s mind to another’s. The purpose of visual language has always been to communicate ideas to others.

Secondly, we doodle because our brain is designed to empathize with the world around us. According to Carol Jeffers, professor at California State University, our brains are wired to respond to, interact with, imitate and mirror behavior. In an article she wrote, she explains the recent research into “mirror neurons” which help us understand and empathize with the world around us.

A cave painting
Cave paintings were our first means of communicating ideas to others.

Think of it this way. When you’re at an art gallery and find a painting that intrigues you, what is your first reaction? You want to touch it, don’t you? I thought so.

When I was a ballroom dancer, I used to sit and watch those who I considered to be great dancers, tracing their forms in space with my index finger as a way to commit them to memory. I used to go to galleries and museums and, at a distance, trace the lines and forms that I saw in the paintings and designs. I did this out of curiosity and a desire to physically record what I saw to memory.

Nearly 100 years ago, Maria Montessori discovered the link between physical touch and movement and learning in children. Montessori education teaches children to trace the letters of the alphabet with their index finger as a way to commit their shapes to memory. My son used to trace forms that he found interesting in space. It’s safe to say, then, that we doodle to visually commit to memory a concept that we want to both empathize and interact with.

An experiment conducted by Jackie Andrade, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, demonstrated the positive effect that doodling has on memory retention. In the experiment, 40 people were given a simple set of instructions to take RSVP information over the phone from people going to a party. The group of 40 was divided in two. One group of 20 was told to doodle (limited to shading in order not to emphasize the quality of the doodles), and the other 20 would not doodle.

The doodlers recalled 29% more information.

Doodling a lightbulb
Doodling helps us retain information.

The study showed that doodling helps the brain to focus. It keeps the mind from wandering away from whatever is happening, whether it’s a lecture, reading or conference talk.

Still, we have become bored with learning.

Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, Joseph D. Novak argues that this is because we have been taught to memorize but not to evaluate the information being given to us. In many traditional settings, the pattern is simple and dull: sit, receive and memorize. Many traditional educational systems do not encourage active engagement with the material. Doodling, drawing and even making diagrams helps us not only engage with the material, but also identify the underlying structure of the argument, while also connecting concepts in a tactile and visual way. Jesse Berg, president of The Visual Leap, pointed out to me in a conversation that doodling is a multisensory activity. While our hand is creating what might seem to be random pictures, our brain is processing the stimuli that’s running through it.

Many of us are the product of traditional schooling, in which we were made to numbingly memorize dates and facts, and many of us continue this pattern later in life. While some of us were avid doodlers (I used to fill the backs of my notebooks with pictures and draw on desks with a pencil during class), some of us stopped at high school, others in college and others once we settled into a job. At some point during the education process, doodling was discouraged. Teachers most likely viewed it as a sign of inattentiveness and disrespect. After hard preparation, educators want nothing more than unwavering attention to their lectures. The irony is that, according to Andrade’s study, doodlers pay more attention to the words of educators than we think.

In her TED talk, Sunny Brown goes on to explain the benefits of doodling and even offers an alternative to the definition found in the Oxford Dictionary:

“Doodling is really to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think. That is why millions of people doodle. Here’s another interesting truth about the doodle: People who doodle when they’re exposed to verbal information retain more of that information than their non-doodling counterparts. We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a preemptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”

How Can Designers Use This To Their Benefit?

As designers, we have a unique advantage when it comes to doodling. We don’t just doodle to keep our minds focused — we also deliberately sketch ideas in order to problem solve and to get immediate feedback from clients and peers. Designers such as Craighton Berman and Eva-Lotta Lamm are two of the biggest proponents of the “sketchnotating” movement. Berman states that sketchnotating “forces you to listen to the lecture, synthesize what’s being expressed, and visualize a composition that captures the idea — all in real time.”

In 2009, I came across a book titled The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. Roam is a business strategist and founder of Digital Roam, a management-consulting firm that uses visual thinking to solve complex problems. He uses a simple approach to solving problems visually. Every idea is run through five basic questions to encourage engaged thinking and to ensure a meaningful meeting. The process takes the acronym SQVI^. S is for simple or elaborate, Q is for qualitative or quantitative, V is for vision or execution, I is for individual or comparison, and ^ is for change or status quo. These simple choices are worked through with simple doodles in order to better understand the problem and find a solution. In his book, Roam says:

“What if there was a way to more quickly look at problems, more intuitively understand them, more confidently address them, and more rapidly convey to others what we’ve discovered? What if there was a way to make business problem solving more efficient, more effective, and — as much as I hate to say it — perhaps even more fun? There is. It’s called visual thinking, and it’s what this book is all about: solving problems with pictures.”

After discovering Roam’s book, I decided to doodle again. Once a prolific doodler and drawer, I had become inactive in lectures and similar settings, often forgetting what was said. Taking notes felt too cumbersome, and I often missed words and ideas. I decided to give doodling another shot. Instead of focusing on specifics, I would focus on concepts, key words and ideas.

Since 2011, I have been actively promoting doodling in my design classes, making a deal with my students, saying to them, “Doodle to your heart’s content, but in return I want you to doodle the content of my lectures.” They are skeptical at first, but they soon realize that doodling is better than having a quiz. I reap the benefits of doodling, and by allowing them to doodle — with the requirement that it be based on the class’ content — they become more informed of the topic and they engage in more meaningful conversations about design.

A sketchbook
A designer’s best friend: a sketchpad.

The typographic novices in my classes naturally start to apply the principles of visual hierarchy and organization, grouping ideas either by importance or by category. They will group ideas with lines, boxes, marks and more. Headings and lecture titles might be made larger, more ornate or bolder, and key concepts might be visually punctuated. It is fascinating how natural and almost second-nature the idea of visual hierarchy is to all of us. The learning curve of typography is steep for some of us, but doodling and sketchnotating really makes it easier to grasp. Below are some doodles by students in my classes.

Introduction to Typography lecture doodle by Alisa Roberts
Doodle by Alisa Roberts from my “Introduction to Typography” course.

By picking out concepts, ideas and topics, the students start to establish a hierarchy by making visual groupings and start to use visual punctuation. By the time I assign work on typographic hierarchy, the sketches tend to show more astuteness. Transferring these sketches to the computer is a challenge for those new to typography, but once they naturally understand the relationships in what they are doing, they start to make smarter design decisions.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Doodle by Aubrie Lamb from my “Identity and Branding” course.

Identity and Branding class lecture doodle by Aubrie Lamb
Another by Aubrie Lamb from the same course.

As we have seen, doodling has many benefits, beyond what designers as visual communicators and problem solvers use it for. Doodling also helps our brain function and process data. Those of us who doodle should do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. We are in good company. Historically, doodlers have included presidents, business moguls and accomplished writers. Designer, educator and speaker Jason Santa Maria says this:

“Sketchbooks are not about being a good artist. They’re about being a good thinker.”

Doodling, drawing pictures and sketchnotating are about using visual skills to solve problems, to understand our world and to respond effectively. So, what are you waiting for? Doodle!

Further Reading

Unless otherwise stated, images are from Stock.XCHNG.

(al) (il)

© Alma Hoffmann for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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The internet is disrupting many content-focused industries, and the publishing landscape is beginning its own transformation in response. Tools haven’t yet been developed to properly, semantically export long-form writing. Most books are encumbered by Digital Rights Management (DRM), a piracy-encouraging practice long since abandoned by the music industry. In the second article of a two-part series in this issue, Nick Disabato discusses the ramifications of these practices for various publishers and proposes a way forward, so we can all continue sharing information openly, in a way that benefits publishers, writers, and readers alike.

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Pimpin’ ain’t easy; neither is self-critique. If you are passionate about what you create, it is impossible to completely disassociate yourself from your work in order to objectively evaluate and then improve it. But the ability to achieve “artistic distance”—that is, to attain a place that allows you to contemplate your design on its own merits—will enable you to improve your own work immeasurably and, ultimately, to cast off the immature shackles of ego. Learn to let your work shine by letting go of it. Acquire the knack of achieving artistic distance.

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Since Elliot Jay Stocks so poignantly told us to destroy the Web 2.0 look, we’ve witnessed a de-shinification of the Web, with fewer glass buttons, beveled edges, reflections, special-offer badges, vulgar gradients with vibrant colors and diagonal background patterns. The transformation has been welcomed with relief by all but the most hardened gloss-enthusiasts. However, design and aesthetics work in mysterious ways, and no sooner does one Web design trend leave us before another appears.

The Symptoms

So, exactly what is this new epidemic? Well, let’s start by looking at some of the most common symptoms, many of which you have probably noticed. They are easy to spot, and as with many other conditions, they often appear in conjunction with each other. (This is why the contagion spreads so effectively — seemingly independent symptoms grow more infectious when combined with others.)

Please note: The following list appears in no particular order and does not indicate the level of infectiousness or severity, which seem to be stable across the board. Note also that the instances given often exhibit more than one symptom, making classification more difficult.

Stitching

Stitching appears gradually, often as a result of the designer playing too long with borders and lines, particularly of the dotted variety. A full-blown stitch is evidenced by the subtle shift from dots to dashes, augmented by drop shadows and other effects to give the impression of 3-D. The purpose of the stitch is somewhat elusive, but it seems to thrive in environments where certain textures are applied, most notably fabric and leather, but also generic graininess.

While determining the exact cause of stitching is difficult, scientists are certain that it belongs to a larger strain of the infection known as “Skeuomorphism.”

Collage of interfaces with stiches
Clockwise from top: The Journal of Min Tran; Dribbble shot by Mason Yarnell; Dribbble shot by Liam McCabe.

Zigzag Borders

Borders are common elements of Web design, and as such, they are difficult to avoid; luckily, they are usually harmless and often have a positive effect on the layout. However, for some reason, a particular type of border — the zigzag — has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now threatening the natural habitat of more benign border specimens. Exactly why this is happening is unknown, although some researchers claim that the pattern created by the repeating opposing diagonals has such an alluring effect on designers and clients alike that straight borders have somewhat lost their appeal.

Collage of interfaces with zigzag borders
Clockwise from top: You Know Who; Dribbble shot by Christopher Paul; Dribbble shot by Meagan Fisher.

Forked Ribbons

Like borders, ribbons have long existed in various forms. What we’re seeing now, though, is the near dominance of a particular style of ribbon, easily identified by a fork at one or both ends. Some ribbons are also folded over twice, creating a faux effect of depth and reinforcing the diagonal lines in the fork. Whether the fork is related to the zigzag effect is unknown, but it seems that diagonal lines are the key to the ribbon’s survival, along with its ability to evoke memories of times past.

The danger of the ribbon lies mainly in its ability to exist independent of other symptoms (although it thrives in the company of vintage typography), meaning that it could date your design long after the epidemic ends, even if the symptom itself appears dormant. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “special offers” badge of the Web 2.0 look.

Collage of interfaces using forked ribbons
Clockwise from top: Ryan O’Rourke; Cabedge; Jake Przespo

Textures

In the age of all things digital, it’s a conundrum that textures should dominate our illustrations and backgrounds, and yet they are indeed one of the most common symptoms on our list. Manifested by subtle grain, dirt and scratches, paper-esque surfaces and fold marks, they seem to embrace the spirit of the handmade. But ironically, they’re often the complete opposite: computer-generated effects or Photoshop brushes.

Possible explanations for the widespread use of textures include a yearning for tactile media (especially considering the emergence of touchscreens) or envy towards print designers, who have a much richer palette of materials and surfaces to play with.

Collage of interfaces with textures
Clockwise from top: Gerren Lamson; Zero; Amazee Labs.

Letterpress

A Smashing Magazine article from 2009 outlined letterpress as one of the emerging trends of the year and, boy, were they right. The simple effect has gone from strength to strength and is now a household technique for sprucing up typography online. A relatively harmless symptom, letterpress might also have infected designers through other digital interfaces, such as operating systems and games, as early as the turn of the millennium, indicating a very long incubation period.

Scientists disagree over whether the incubation period is due to the infection needing a critical mass before emerging from dormancy or whether the infection simply needed the right conditions — CSS3 text shadows, to be specific — for symptoms to appear.

Collage of interfaces with letterpress
Clockwise from top: Billy Tamplin; Dribbble shot by Phillip Marriot; Remix.

19th-Century Illustration

After being released from copyright quarantine, this symptom, favoured by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, was nearly eliminated during the last epidemic due to its inability to cope well with gloss and shine. But in this new vintage-friendly environment, it has found its way back into our visual repertoire. For better or worse, the 19th-century illustration will most likely hang around for a while, emerging stronger from time to time like a flu virus.

Collage of interfaces with 19th century illustrations
Clockwise from top: Killian Muster; Dribbble shot by Trent Walton; Simon Collison.

Muted Tones

After a long period of vibrancy, the average online color scheme seems to have been somewhat desaturated across the board. We’re seeing widespread use of browns, earthy greens and mustards and a general leaning towards “impure” colors, although this is generally thought to be a minor symptom of the epidemic. Some scientists will even argue that muted tones are, in fact, not a symptom themselves but rather a side effect of other symptoms, in the way that sweating is a natural response to a fever.

Collage of interfaces with muted colours
Clockwise from top: Dribble shot by Dave Ruiz; Cognition; Web Standards Sherpa.

Justified or Centered Typography (JCT)

This symptom is nothing new; in fact, it was pretty much the standard for the first 500 years of typography, until Tschichold and the New Typography showed up and quarantined it on the grounds that it was old fashioned, difficult to read and inefficient. Although we’re not sure at this point, this link with history might be what has made JCT reappear so vigorously under the umbrella of vintage symptoms. We do know that overall reading habits among humans have not changed in recent years (most Westerners still read left to right), and there is no plausible argument that JCT improves legibility; so, whatever the cause of the outbreak, we know it’s rooted in subjective emotion rather than rational thought.

Collage of interfaces with justified or centered typography
Clockwise from top: Grip Limited; Tommy; Visual Republic.

Circular Script Logotypes (SCL)

A circle is a basic shape and, in isolation, is no more a symptom of an epidemic than a triangle. However, if you repeat enough triangles in a line, you get a zigzag. Similarly, if you include a circle in your logotype, you end up with a circular logotype. And if that logotype happens to be set in a script font, you’ll get — that’s right! — a Circular Script Logotype (SCL). Not that SCL is lethal or anything, but it is relatively contagious and can be highly detrimental when enough hosts have been infected.

Collage of circular script logos
Clockwise from top: Trent Walton; Mercy; Dribbble shot by James Seymor-Lock.

Skeuomorphic Features

Skeuomorphic features — i.e. ornamentation or design features on an object that are copied from the object’s form in another medium — are rife, particularly in mobile applications, and this symptom is one of the defining indicators of the epidemic. Possibly a mutant cancerous strain of mildly skeuomorphic features such as stitches and letterpress, it can sometimes grow to overtake an entire interface, bloating it with redundant visual references to physical objects and materials. However, due to the labor involved in preparing the graphics and the heavy reliance on image resources, some researchers argue that we’re unlikely to see full-blown skeuomorphism dominate our desktop browsers any time soon.

In fact, most scientists regard the phenomenon as a curiosity and predict that some virtual metaphors for physical attributes will prove useful (as tabs have) and some won’t. Interestingly, while Apple has embraced and continues to pioneer the technique, Google seems to some degree to resist the urge to mimic physical reality in its interfaces. Perhaps it has developed a vaccine?

Collage of skeuomorphic interface elements
Clockwise from top: iBooks; Dribbble shot by skorky; Dribbble shot by Igor Shkarin.

How Did It Start?

Pinpointing the epicentre of a design epidemic (read: trend) is always hard, especially given the myriad of symptoms and the contagious nature of the Internet. Identifying Patient Zero is virtually impossible, and, to be pragmatic, doing so would serve no purpose. What we can say is that we’re most likely experiencing a reaction to the Web 2.0 aesthetic — a craving for textured surfaces and retro imagery, something tactile and natural-looking, as an antidote to the shiny impersonality of the past — and that this is both healthy and necessary for pushing the design industry forward. Whatever the sources of trends, they often start with applying smart design to solve a particular problem or, indeed, to counter another trend.

Let’s say that everyone used sans-serif fonts, strong contrasting colors and crisp white backgrounds as a rule. Imagine, in this environment, if a designer went against the grain by using Clarendon or some other warm serif to infuse some personality into their website (which happens to be selling “Grandma’s homemade jam”), and then complemented the personality of their font selection with earthy colors and some brown paper textures. The result would inevitably stand out from the crowd: beautiful, emotional, different.

Incidentally, this aesthetic inspires another designer who happens to be working on a website with a global audience, exposing the new approach to a whole generation of designers who, in turn, apply it at will (often without considering the context). A trend is born. And yet, paradoxically, the potency of the epidemic is under constant threat. The more people get infected, the less differentiated the symptoms appear; and once the infection reaches a critical mass, the symptoms begin to work against themselves. Infusing personality into your visuals is meaningless if everything looks the same.

Is It Dangerous?

In today’s open collaborative world, avoiding an epidemic of this scale is difficult; so, in a sense, everyone is affected to some degree. The symptoms listed above are not restricted to small-scale up-and-coming designers, but affect even the elite of the design community. This means that even though some symptoms are harmless — like a light fever or a runny nose from a flu infection — the viral onslaught of trendy features puts constant pressure on our immune system to protect our creativity, and staying vigilant is important to maintaining a healthy dose of original thought.

If you’re displaying a handful of symptoms, it’s really nothing to worry about — catching a cold that’s going around is not hard, but recovering from it is also easy. If, on the other hand, you display most or all of these symptoms, then there’s reason to be extra cautious in your next project. Using all of a trend’s identifiers as cornerstones of your work might make your portfolio look oh so contemporary, but in a way this practice is no different than passing off the work of your favorite designer, artist or musician as your own. Granted, symptoms with no identifiable origin are not protected by copyright, but that’s beside the point — you should be worried not about legal implications, but rather about the creative integrity of your output. The danger is not only that your work will be seen as a passing fad, a popular aesthetic that will look dated in a couple of years’ time, but that you will lose the respect of your peers when they catch on to you.

While nothing is original, we all need to respect the difference between inspiration and imitation. As Jean Luc Goddard said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” And if you don’t take them anywhere, what’s the point?

Worse perhaps than the loss of respect and integrity is the effect that epidemics have on clients and, in turn, the design community as a whole. The more designers are infected and the more symptoms they show of the same disease, the less your clients will believe that you’re capable of solving real business problems. Eventually they’ll exclude you from the early stages (where all the real design thinking takes place) and employ your services merely to skin their wireframes, in the process reducing the whole profession to an army of decorators.

What Can You Do About It?

Now that we’ve seen how detrimental trends can be, how does one avoid them? Is this even possible? Trends, by definition, are popular, and arguably nothing is wrong with tapping into that popularity to increase the exposure of your product. Convincing a client to accept a design that is off-trend can be difficult, and you run the risk of alienating the audience by going completely against the trend just for the sake of it. On the other hand, blindly following others is never a good idea, and you could severely stifle your creativity, integrity and client base by accepting what’s “in” as a given and copying it without purpose.

So, what’s the right thing to do? Trends are intrinsic to our society, whether in politics, culture, design or even religion, and as the consensus sways in one direction or another, so will your opinion (or “taste”) — to some degree, at least. Alas, avoiding trends altogether seems an impossible and pointless undertaking, but that doesn’t leave you powerless. In fact, you can do a host of things to combat the lemming syndrome.

Ask Why

Always question your design decisions (and make sure they are your own), and keep asking the magic question, Why am I doing this? Am I doing this simply because it looks cool or because it suits the message I’m trying to communicate? Why am I using this ribbon? Does the zigzag border add to or detract from the personality of the website? What does this leather texture have to do with the finance app I’m designing? The moment you stop asking questions, you fall prey to the epidemic.

Put Some Effort In

In his article “The Dying Art of Design” Francisco Inchauste asserts, among other things, that inspiration requires perspiration, and I couldn’t agree more. I was lucky enough to attend a college where no computers were allowed in the first year, which meant we had to use physical tools to express ourselves — tracing letters by hand, drawing our photography, stocking up on Pantone pens (remember those?), abusing the copier. Not only did our creativity grow, but we learned an important lesson: good design is not effortless, and the best results come from your own experimentation.

Try Something Different

Remember that being distinctive is, for the most part, a good thing. Most great artists in history, regardless of their field, stood out enough for the world to take notice. Who painted melting clocks before Dali? Who would have thought to build a huge wall on stage before Pink Floyd? While mimicking what’s popular might be comfortable and might secure short-term victories, long-term success requires a unique, memorable approach.

Diversify Your Inspiration

In order to remain creative, staying curious and looking for inspiration all around you is crucial, not just in the latest showcase of fashionable WordPress themes. Read a book, perform a scientific experiment, listen to music you haven’t heard before, walk through a new neighborhood, or experience a foreign culture. Widening your horizons beyond your favorite websites and finding more than one source of inspiration is critical to making original, lasting designs.

Focus on the Basics

Finally and most importantly, study the underlying principles of design in order to understand what is and isn’t defined by style. Grid systems, contrast, legibility, juxtaposing imagery, well-written copy — these are the key components of successful design, yet they are entirely independent of fads and styles.

At the end of the day, design is not so much about style as it is about communication, and all style, imagery and typography should be inspired by the content, functionality and personality of the product, not by what simply looks cool at the moment.

No matter how cool something looks, it too shall pass.

(al) (fi)

© Espen Brunborg for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Over the last months we have seen a strong trend towards more individual web designs. These designs use realistic motifs from everyday life, such as hand-drawn elements, script fonts, pins, paper clips, organic textures and scrapbooks. That’s not a big surprise as they serve the function that faceless, shiny, glassy 3D-buttons completely fail to deliver: individuality and personality. “Personal” designs appear more familiar and more friendly. Used properly, such elements can give a human touch to design and communicate the content in a truly distinctive manner.

However, apart from visual design elements, one can also get creative with the layout of the site – its structure and the way the information is presented and communicated. To give you some ideas of how exactly it can be done, we have been collecting examples of creative design layouts. Design was more important to us than a concrete implementation of some creative idea. We also weren’t interested in whether the code validates or not. Below are some examples we have found so far.

In the showcase below we present 40 creative out-of-the-box layouts that break the boring 2- and 3-columned, boxed layouts. We have collected pure CSS -designs, CSS+JavaScript -layouts as well as Flash -designs. Most designs presented below risk their site structure and content presentation with unusual approaches. That’s what makes them different. Hopefully you will find some creative ideas that you can develop further in your future projects.

We strongly encourage designers to break out of the usual boxed layout conventions, experiment with new approaches and risk crazy ideas. Show what you are capable of!

20 × Getting Creative With CSS

Pavel Buben
Pavel Buben uses a magazine cover-style layout for his one-page-site. Unfortunately, there are no internal pages — it would be interesting to seek how they would be designed. An interesting and unusual approach.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Pavel Buben

AIGA Los Angeles
AIGA Los Angeles uses boxes in a creative way. All design elements are placed according to the underlying grid, however they clearly break out of the boxes. This approach creates tension within the design and looks truly distinctive.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - AIGA Los Angeles

SpaceCollective
For its gallery section SpaceCollective uses a five-column grid. Text and images are perfectly placed on the grid giving the layout a complete form and a sense of order. Notice various font sizes and text styling in the design — they introduce a profound visual hierarchy into the layout that works perfectly within the complex, unpredictable layout.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - SpaceCollective

Jason Santa Maria
Jason Santa Maria has taken a truly different route with his site layout. Each article is laid out differently, with strong focus on typography and visual clarity. Below three of the layouts are presented. You may have a hard time finding similar layouts on the Web.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Oh, Snap @ Jason Santa Maria

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Explain Yourself | Jason Santa Maria

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Jason Santa Maria

Checkout: Point of Sale for Mac (POS)
At the first glance, Checkout looks like an ordinary Apple grid-layout. What makes the layout interesting is not only the position of its visual elements, but the fact that each section of the page has its individual (although consistent) design. Still, the layout is very scannable and intuitive.

 Point of Sale for Mac (POS)

NOFRKS.design
NOFRKS uses JavaScript to slide between various parts of the site. What we found more interesting was the way the content is presented. Most elements are placed within a context, giving the content a secondary meaning.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - NOFRKS.design

SMS Parking
At the first glance SMSParking has no layout at all. The design appears to be one single illustration — all elements fit perfectly with each other, creating visual harmony and a sense of balance and closure.

 Welcome

Tri-Win
Sometimes a background image is enough to make the layout stand out. Although one can recognize a conventional layout structure here, the design looks distinctive and memorable. The background image of the site perfectly fits the company, which offers mailing services.

 Serving as the leader in Direct Mail and Mailing Services in the Dallas Texas metroplex area.

Matriz Communicacao
This Brazilian company delivers a perfect example of how design and content can seamlessly be integrated within a complete yet simple layout.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - MATRIZ COMUNICAÇÃO

Mihmorandum
Mihmorandum uses a common 3-column-layout in an unusual way. Although the structure is quite usual, the design itself looks distinctive and resembles a pile of paper put inside a folder.

 The Small Business Web Design + Local SEO Blog

3rdM
3rdM uses icons to indicate various navigation options. This is not a type of layout you will find in many other web designs. And that’s what makes the layout creative.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - 3rdM

Nile Inside
Many portfolios use vertical layout to showcase their works. Nile.ru displays its works in a chronological order as if it was a horizontal blog.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Nile Inside / years-2008

Rockatee
Rockatee uses asymmetry to position content blocks in an unusual yet appealing style. Notice that the left block perfectly aligns with the navigation option “Home” at the top of the page. The screenshot in the middle of the page spans exactly two navigation options and has the same width as the description block on the right side of the page.

The distortion in the layout is caused by the underlying organic texture. Although the design is perfectly aligned according to the grid, it seems to be chaotic at first glance. The tension between order and chaos creates tension in the layout and looks very appealing.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Rockatee Home

Get London Reading
An effective background image can help a layout stand out. The effect achieved here fits with the objective of the project — to encourage people to read more.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Get London Reading

BL:ND ( blind )
At the first glance, the layout looks underwhelming. What distinguishes it, though, are the choice of images sizes and a good use of white space. Notice how well negative space is used in the sidebar, where individual elements are clearly separated and properly aligned. The width of the images equals the width of the content blocks. Yes, the layout is boxy, but the wise use of whitespace makes it far from boring.

ND ( blind )

The portfolio of Hannibal
Usually, navigation menus are placed in the sidebar or at the top of the site. William F. Leffert does it differently. His non-linear layout literally breaks out of the boxy structure and offers something quite different. Sometimes it’s enough to simply experiment with the position of design elements to achieve striking design solutions.

 WFL

URLshrinker
Creative design solutions can be as simple as this one. An elegant and attractive layout by URLshrinker.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - URLshrinker

15 × Getting Creative With CSS+JavaScript

ShopComposition
ShopComposition offers a sliding navigation at the top of the site. Users can choose the content they would like to read and select the width of the content blocks. This store has an integrated blog and some further projects (such as picture-a-day) to attract customer’s attention. JavaScript in use.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - ShopComposition | Composition | Outfitting Designers Since 2003

forgetfoo
Forgetfoo uses an almost minimalistic, simple layout with a sidebar and a content area. Designers removed all necessary and unnecessary details focusing only on last blog entries. The design doesn’t contain any category navigation options. That’s unusual, but may be a little bit too much of the minimalism. Navigation through blog posts is realized with Javascript.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - foo // it\\

Include
On Include one content block and the corresponding navigation block seem to “hang in the air”. Essentially the page has two columns; however. the layout seems to be quite original — maybe because of the cows placed on the background for some reason. The navigation on the right-hand side is realized with Javascript.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Include

Kobe
The navigation options at the top of the site are slightly animated yet creating an appropriate atmosphere. Once one of the sections is clicked, the main content area slides vertically — first the background image, then the content. If the content area also has some navigation options, they are slided vertically as well. In this situation it might be a slightly better design decision to use horizontal navigation instead to make it easier for visitors to distinguish between the primary and secondary navigation.

Kobe

tap tap tap
tap tap tap uses a bold and eye-catching layout to deliver the message to its visitors. The layout, although basically consisting of the sidebar and content area, is not boring at all and looks attractive. The left-hand side navigation and further effects are created using JavaScript.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - tap tap tap ~ Groceries

youlove.us
The layout on youlove.us is definitely very vibrant. It uses a large vivid background-image and a the scroll-effect to enable users to quickly jump from one section of the site to another. Notice that the navigation area is repeated four times, in each of the categories. Sliding effects are also used for each of the categories. Instead of using 20 separate page, the layout combines them all on one single page. The result is compact and user-friendly.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - youlove.us

Method: A Brand Experience Agency
This design agency uses a flexible JavaScript-based layout which updates its size depending on the browser window size. The content is “packed” in boxes is usual for such a grid-based design; however, the alignment of the boxes makes the design literally stand out.

 A Brand Experience Agency

Viget Labs
Viget Labs also uses a sliding navigation and a horizontal scroll-effect to make the user interaction more dynamic and hence more appealing. However, more importantly, the layout itself stands out: the layout is invisible and resembles interactive Flash-interfaces. CSS+JavaScript in use. Smashing says: five out of five stars.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Viget Labs

Lucuma
Lucuma also uses horizontal layout as well as a horizontal slider-navigation. The simple yet effective integration of background images, navigation, videos and content makes the layout unusual and distinctive.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Lucuma

Axel Peemoeller Design
On this page all design elements are draggable and some of them are clickable. Images seems to be thrown on you in the first moment, but in the end they all make sense. This is an unusual portfolio which is memorable and interesting to explore.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Axel Peemoeller Design

IDEO
IDEO presents everything on its main page. The navigation options are placed in the black boxes and somehow arranged among other content boxes. Once one of the black boxes is hovered, related content blocks are highlighted. That’s not something most users would expect from a layout.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - IDEO

Bohdan Levishchenko
Bohdan Levishchenko uses the same approach as IDEO, but presents all navigation option at the top of the page. Single works are presented as images under the navigation and spread throughout the layout.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Bohdan Levishchenko

MelissaHie.com
Melissa Hie places all deign elements on a single large page. Visitors are basically driven from one site are to another using a scroll-effect.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - www.MelissaHie.com

Hotel Oxford - Timisoara
A single-page-site with a very calm and comforting layout. All navigation options are available at the first glance. Once some of the options is clicked, the content block on the left is dynamically replaced. The logo of the Hotel Oxford always remains on its place.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Hotel Oxford - Timisoara

thruSITES / Portfolio
In this portfolio the illustrations of a designer’s works seem to somehow be loosely placed on an invisible rope. When one of the illustration is clicked, all other elements arrange themselves in such a way that the content which this illustration represents becomes dominant.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - thruSITES / Portfolio

Erwin Bauer KEG
The portfolio site of Erwin Bauer takes a different approach to using a pannable user interface, but implementing in JavaScript rather than in Flash. The site allows users to click and drag to pan the canvas, or to use links positioned around the content to move around. The design is clean, and mimics a design document with regisration and crop marks, and visual cues about the directions the canvas will pan to when you navigate. [via]

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Erwin Bauer KEG – Designbüro für Konzept & Gestaltung

5 × Getting Creative With Flash

The Secret Location
The Secret Location, a media agency based in Toronto, Canada exemplifies their work, by providing an immersive flash experience around a conjured up story leading a character to follow a mysterious path that leads to the secret location. Very interactive approach, a very unusual site layout. [via]

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - The Secret Location - 416 849 5298 - Interactive Media Production, Ideas, Experience Design, Tangible Media, Animation and Motion Graphics

Kamil Gottwald
In his layout Kamil Gottwald enables users to define the width of site columns manually. To navigate vertically users need to scroll horizontally. Hence no vertical scrollbar is necessary. Multiple site views are possible.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Kamil Gottwald - interactive developer

Grooveshark Lite
Grooveshark seems to imitate an iPod-interface and does it indeed very well. Although it may be not very creative, such layouts are hard to find on the Web.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Grooveshark Lite

Jeremy Levine Design
Flash offers many creative possibilities for an interactive navigation design. Jeremy Levine uses dynamic paper strips which seem to hang in the air.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Jeremy Levine Design

SeymourPowell
SeymourPowell has come up with an interesting idea to provide its visitors with some intuition of how good its work is. Click on the pile to find out.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Product Designers

Muku Studios
“Let Muku Do You”: this friendly buddy just wants to remain visible and hence he tries to find some place on the screen to keep an eye on site’s visitors. The layout of the site is simple yet memorable — well, Muku makes sure he’ll be remembered after the browser window is closed.

Showcase of Unusual Layouts - Muku Studios | Let Muku Do You

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