Startups and Style

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.

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions