Startups and Style

Startups and Style

Jan 20, 2014 Opinions

Recently, it seems like half the startups on the web have adopted the same aesthetic.

You know the look. Blurred background, beauty shots of an app running on an iOS device, big flat email signup form. Various levels of depth ranging from full-flat to subtle highlights, depending on the month.

Fake Startup

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be said for the digital aesthetic. We’re finally comfortable enough with our medium to accept its biases without over-reliance on visual cues from the physical world. In the past year, skeuomorphism has been usurped by flat design as the dominant design language for forward-thinking web startups. But flat doesn’t have to mean soulless, and as we get rid of texture and drop shadows, everything’s starting to look alike.

Brand Personalities

One of the most attractive things about startup culture is how intimate it can be: everyone knows everyone, business leaders are approachable, and a founder’s personality is imbued into the products they produce. That personality is important in differentiating companies, not just by their products, but by their philosophies.

People buy into particular brands because of their brand personalities. Do people choose T-Mobile because of the level of service, or because they want to feel like part of the John Legere experience? Do people prefer Virgin companies because they’re unilaterally better than the competition, or because they enjoy the informality and irreverence of the brand? The gulf between any two companies in a category is often far narrower than we perceive.

Practice and Philosophy

There are both practical and philosophical reasons to avoid making your startup look like every other.

From a business standpoint, there’s a measurable advantage to being the company that stands out. Looking like your competitors may be comfortable, but great things rarely happen to the risk-averse. You want to be the company whose customers would wear your logo on a t-shirt as a personal statement.

Philosophically, there are plenty of reasons to pick a flat aesthetic for your web presence. It’s more authentic, more honest, and better-suited to the digital medium. It hits more of Dieter Rams’ design principles than the alternatives.

Of course, this is only true if a company has come by its aesthetic honestly. Too many startups seem to have poached their design sensibility from their peers without any rhyme or reason. It’s website paint-by-numbers. Good design is honest; simply copying an aesthetic, or designing based on what something’s “supposed” to look like, is barely design at all.

Examples of Design with Personality

Of course, not every startup is moving towards this aesthetic singularity. Two in particular stand out for their unique personalities: Buffer and MailChimp.

Buffer, the social sharing app, has a fairly generic appearance — little depth, blue-and-white color scheme, occasional drop shadows — but it’s set apart by a liberal sprinkling of personality. The micro-copy feels like it was written by a human. The company is outspoken, on its blog and elsewhere, about its mission and beliefs. Buffer sets itself apart by giving users a system to align themselves with, not merely a service to purchase.

MailChimp Homepage

MailChimp is a startup which lets its personality shine through.

MailChimp’s personality shines through in everything it does, from the bold color scheme to its fun-loving chimp mascot. The company’s philosophy — making email newsletters painless and fun — is designed into its product and marketing materials, making it less of an add-on and more part of the core user experience. Though MailChimp’s aesthetic meets the criteria of flat design, it hardly qualifies as boring, and acts as a perfect example that well-designed can reinforce, rather than replace, personality and style.

Some of this may seem self-evident, but if it were truly obvious, we wouldn’t have a field overcrowded with boring, generic-looking startup design. Good design is honest, and rarely looks like it comes from a template. Your customers want to see your personality. Show us who you really are.

  • Murat Mutlu

    I agree with a lot of this, although it’s worth remembering it took Mailchimp years to get to this point.

    Good design takes time, your language and personality can take a while to grow in confidence.

    Once you get the basics right, you can start to flex in other ways.

    For me personally I feel as though I want to rip through the copy on every page of our website, and I will. The language will be an extension of our own personalities, which (i hope) will be fun and playful.

    To be honest our site looks like many you describe. Photo, check, laptop pic, check. Like the rest of our product, we’ll be iterating and changing things as we go. Many of the things now are placeholders for future improvement.

    People love Mailchimp and the monkey. Damn, I love Mailchimp and the monkey (I have a plastic toy of the mascot on my desk which they sent me).

    I’d love for users to feel that way about us, but I don’t want it to be contrived so i would rather let it sit until we can gradually get the wording and story right.

    However in the mean time I show personality in other ways like support emails etc. That’s working really well and feels natural because I normally write emails in the same way to friends/colleagues.

  • LizzyBiz

    Kettle calling the Pot black are we? This very site is very flat trendy with very little personality of its own. Not that it’s bad, it’s very nice.

  • Will Eifler

    This is an actual issue, and something worth talking about. It does surprise me how many companies are putting great work into their apps, only to have them look just like everyone else’s.

    I am thankful that the design norm has improved so dramatically. It is awesome to see apps caring about design. I guess it just goes to show that one does not come by a unique voice easily.

  • MrGrillet

    Are we overlooking that when running a startup you need to be as lean as possible in terms of both cash and time? Your priority should be to get something into the market as soon as possible to see if people are willing to pay for it.

    Surely the result of this mindset is using one of the existing/ established frameworks/ templates where most of the leg work has been done for you and you have seen it tested/ working multiple times is a good way to do this. (Theoretically isn’t this why the templates become successful?)

    Granted if you have loads of cash and a team of designers you can have custom graphics for each blog post, each feature of your application, each team icon, have a marketing video shot… Which is a nice touch and I agree does add value.

    Personally I think it’s a good thing because it is almost like there is an acceptable standard of work which can be reached with low budgets and minimal effort.

    Once you have proven the market wants to pay for the product/ solution your startup provides you can pay for a custom brand, that will probably reflect your business well because you have gone though some growth pains and understand what is really making you work.

  • Mateus Pinheiro

    Couldn’t agree more.

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