Josh Kelly: Stop Making Websites That Party Like It’s 1999

Josh Kelly is Managing Partner and Chief Strategist, FINE

Recently, a venerable design publication rebuffed our firm’s website design award submission with the tart reply “we try to look for sites that are able to use the digital space in an innovative way.”

Ouch. Licking our wounds, we visited the publication’s site to see which innovators put us to shame. What we found was not so much a tour de force of digital innovation as a wayback machine; a celebration of the code gimmickry that characterized the early web.

In the early days, transforming a cursor into a doughboy mitten or a flaming dreamcatcher was the height of innovation. Long periods of loading were justified by the assumption that it’ll all be worth the wait when users marvel at how you turned a simple product matrix into a 4-dimensional chart, or imbued each click with the sound of a lasergun. A 30-second, musical animation of your logo was a great intro to your wares. Back then, the novelty of the medium meant showing off digital chops was an end in itself. Heck, no one had much bandwidth anyway.

20+ years on, not only are people still designing sites like this, publications are still giving awards for it. Right before they hit you with their paywall.

Now, lest you assume all this is sour grapes, few at my firm care much about awards. It’s a modest feel-good thing. But we’ve been designing and building websites since the ‘90s, tracking trends in design and development and user behavior, and felt what we’d submitted was elegant, beautiful, usable, with subtle dynamics flourishes and compelling messaging – most importantly, it’s driving measurable business results. We thought it was award-worthy, but more importantly we knew it would be a great brand asset for our clients.

Therein lie all the points. Digital long ago graduated from its novelty phase. It’s woven into our lives. The majority of people are viewing from small screen devices. Today, the point of a website is to make it easy and rewarding for people to engage with your brand, not to wow them with your website’s innovation for innovation’s sake.

In 2020, the fact that you noticed the website itself is more likely to mean IT GOT IN THE WAY. You can still have a little fun, of course. But it’s time to retire the gimmicks and digital party favors and stay focused on winning brand friends, not website awards.