As a creative team, we attend design kickoffs on a regular basis as part of our creative process. During these meetings and calls, we solicit feedback from our clients regarding a number of popular and attractive websites. In addition to looking at the most trendy and cutting-edge designs, we like to revisit successful designs that have aged particularly well. We often hear that designs we create should feel "timeless" for obvious business and aesthetic reasons. It's always a shame when you come across a site that is only a few years old and has no functional issues, but sports a design that was clearly rooted in a passing trend. More and more frequently we're asked to create "timeless" work that somehow remains "contemporary" and "modern". We strive to always produce clean and cohesive designs, so as seasoned pros, we generally don't fret. However, this raises an important question: what exactly makes a site look and feel timeless?
I polled the creative team and asked how best to achieve a look that is not only contemporary, but timeless.
Focus on content and readability
As we've said incessantly for years; content is king. Design in a manner that doesn't detract from the message and you'll be on the right track. Similarly, legibility is always in fashion. Paying close attention to contrast and using an appropriate typeface goes a long way towards constructing a solid design.
It's no secret that solid alignment of elements will make almost anything look cohesive and professional. While there are a million great books and articles about grid systems and their merits, I find that people tend to rely very heavily on such systems, treating them like a visual panacea. Know when to break out of the mold and create your own rules. Be consistent and have a plan, but don't feel obligated to copy a system older than your parents, or one invented by a bored developer last month. This leads well into our next suggestion.
Avoid relying on gimmicks or plug-ins
As designers, we're constantly inundated with new tools, frameworks, presets and libraries that aim to make our jobs easier. When Photoshop first introduced layer styles, it was difficult to find a website that didn't have some kind of beveled glossy button on it, or a thick drop shadow dangling from some glowing text. We all get anxious to try fun new techniques and technology, but always question how it fits into the grand scheme of your site. Another danger here is that if you're using a popular tool to create your work, chances are that your contemporaries are as well.
Add accents judiciously
Absence of design is not design. However, don't feel like you have to add elements for the sake of it. Design is art with purpose, so if something needs to be present, have fun with it and use design to solve problems for your users. A good design should delight viewers visually, so I always try to fight to keep quirky elements present when they add life to a page. The challenge here is to keep out of trend territory.
Don't be a follower
Every designer worth his or her salt should keep a constant finger on the pulse of new trends and best practices. Contemporary design arises from the culmination of hive mind design thinking and steadily advances the norm. However, it's important not to be swept up in any one trend, no matter how wide spread or solid it may seem. We could be chuckling about flat design next year the same way we currently scoff at bevels and rounded corners. Be sensible and let your content and audience guide your decisions. The same amazing network that connects us and let's us show off our trendy new work can be less than open to unconventional ideas. Truly timeless designs originate from sincere and appropriate work.
An exercise in defining timeless design
To witness all of this firsthand, I've devised this task. Visit one of the following Web design galleries:
Have a look around the few newest pages. You’ll no doubt see trends emerge that feel very “now”, but look also for designs that seem like they could have existed 40 years ago, or will not look absurd 10 years in the future. Next, use the paginator to journey back in time by choosing the last possible page. Work your way from oldest to present day and you’ll no doubt see designs that not only succeed in looking clean and “modern”, but that would still pass as a beautiful site today.
What do you think defines a "timeless" design?