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Daniel Howells on how to pick the best web designs

Posted by

Daniel Benneworth-Gray

Published on

June 15th 2017

Daniel Howells talks us through the past, present and future of the web design and what it takes to get your site featured on Siteinspire.

Web designer/developer Daniel Howells runs Siteinspire, which serves as both a showcase of exceptional website design and a directory of agencies/freelancers. We chatted to him about the state of design on the web – the good, the bad, and the inspirational.

Siteinspire has been around since 2009 – that’s a heck of a long time in internet years! How have things changed since then? Have there been noticeable changes in how sites are designed?

It’s amazing to go back to the first page of the archive and flick through the sites that were posted back then. Sadly only a handful remain online but the screengrabs remain, and mostly tell a story of a discipline trying to work out what to do.

Some are refreshing, pared-back antidotes to the overwhelming Flash experiences that dominated at the time, while others seem to be exercises in how to make rounded corners look good while using <table> tags and spacer.gif images. The same two broad types of design still exist now: the simple, considered site with restrained typography versus the technical ebullience of experimental chaos.

“If the site has a “ribbon” awarded from another CSS gallery sites, I’ll just reject it.”

You must get a lot of submissions – how do you go about picking the best ones?

At the last count, I get around 100 submissions a day so I have to be quite disciplined about the process of picking sites to feature.

There’s a lot of garbage to get through first: sites submitted for SEO reasons, selling cut-price legal services or car loans so those get cut immediately. A thumbnail is generated for each submission so I can quickly spot any sites that look interesting right away. I also rely on a handful of people who submit sites that are consistently great, so I make sure their submissions bubble up to the surface. Finally, I post sites that I see being talked about on Twitter or in various Slack rooms that I’m part of.

It’s hard to put my finger on why I pick some sites over others but if I wish I had made the site myself then I’ll feature it right away. Being envious of extremely talented designers and developers is what drives me to keep editing the site. It’s very subjective of course, but ultimately the site is still just a personal collection of bookmarks, and I think it’ll always be that.


Siteinspire homepage

So are there certain things that are guaranteed to land a site on the rejection pile?

If the site has a “ribbon” often awarded from another CSS gallery sites, I’ll just reject it. I don’t do it because of a competitive conflict, but because they’re ugly and I don’t understand why someone would want to spoil a site with a free advert for another website.

I see a lot of copycat sites and some that are heavily inspired from other designs, sometimes featured recently on Siteinspire itself. It’s hard to criticise people for copying sites since it’s still the best way to learn, but when professional designers and agencies do it there’s no excuse. I sometimes accidentally post blatant copies, but people are very quick to flag them.

By now you must have a pretty good sense of emerging trends, fads and patterns in web design. Can you see these coming from a mile off?

Sometimes yes. One trend, or fad, depending on how you look at it is, is to animate every element on the page in an elaborate, over-the-top manner reminiscent of early Flash sites. It can be done nicely but sometimes gets out of hand. But they’re often technical feats which can be a good enough reason to showcase them.

Use of very large “hero” images and videos, usually with an overlaid centre-aligned strapline was a trend that was huge but which I suspect is on the decline, since anecdotally I hear that they don’t convert very well despite often looking great.

Can you tell what platform a site was built on just by looking at it? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

Sometimes a site uses an off-the-shelf WordPress theme that has only been tweaked subtly. I try to spot them but sometimes they slip through, but Siteinspire followers on Twitter let me know about that very quickly! Similarly, you can often tell a Semplice or Squarespace template that has been modified.

Is there a role for specialist showcase websites like Siteinspire now that everyone has Pinterest? Isn’t everyone curating their own little Siteinspire now?

I’m all for everyone curating their own little Siteinspires! But paradoxically this means it becomes harder to find really great sites, which is why I started it in the first place. I think there’ll always be a place for a personal, editorial viewpoint on anything.

I use Pinterest myself to try and find new sites to post, but I find that 90% of the screenshots are for sites that don’t actually exist: they are Behance portfolio pieces or Dribbble shots. They have a place, but I’ll always be strict in only posting sites that physically exist.

Slightly loaded question … is there any point learning how to code when there are so many template-driven platforms out there now?

Personally, I think it’s great that there so many very good template-driven platforms out there but there’ll always be a role for something bespoke. In fact, I tell a lot of potential clients that if they can use Squarespace to build a site, they should. (And that’s not just because they have kindly sponsored the site for so long: I genuinely like their tools.)

These platforms address an enormous market for people and companies who are looking to get a website up and running as quickly and cheaply as possible, even as a first version perhaps while they work out what they specifically need from a website. They’ll get 80% of the way there but might find a templated site doesn’t quite fulfill a specific need.

“It’s hard to put my finger on why I pick some sites over others but if I wish I had made the site myself then I’ll feature it right away.”

How important is it for a design to be responsive?

I’ve only recently come round to saying that responsive design is now incredibly important. I disliked the dogma that came from those on the conference circuit and certain designers that said you can’t even call yourself a designer if you don’t design with mobile in mind from the outset. But the statistics increasingly speak for themselves: Siteinspire aside (which is mainly accessed from desktop browsers), my clients are seeing 50%+ views on mobile devices, and this number will only increase.

I don’t necessarily believe in “mobile-first” since it can lead to design that looks over-optimised for mobile despite being viewed on a desktop browser which only serves to hinder the desktop experience which – if half your audience is still using – can’t just be ignored.

Probably more than any other medium, the web is intrinsically ephemeral, constantly erasing it’s own design legacy. As well as looking for the new, is Siteinspire also becoming an archive, a museum of the web?

It’s very sad that some of the older sites I posted have long-since disappeared, and all that is left is the relatively small screengrab I took. I’m mindful of that and in the next version of Siteinspire — which is in perpetual development, but will land sometime this year — I want to take care to feature larger, and more, screengrabs of sites, especially as the lifespan of a site seems to ever decrease.

Out here in the real world, there’s a hunger for nostalgic technology – turntables and typewriters and film cameras. Will we ever see that kind of retro thing online? Are tables, frames and hit-counters going to make a comeback?

There’s an interesting trend in what has been incorrectly and unfortunately named “brutalist” websites, which from what I can tell are sites that are specifically designed to look like they’re being viewed on Netscape Navigator in the 90s, or which are glitchy and broken deliberately so we’re already seeing fetishim for retro in web design. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up for debate, but perhaps is an attempt to see a reversion to simplicity which can only be positive, in my opinion. And Times New Roman is a terrific typeface!

What can we expect from web design in the next couple of years?

Only a few years ago the community prematurely announced the death of the website (in favour of apps) yet the quantity and quality of design and development of websites has only increased, I don’t think anyone can possibly predict what will happen. Certainly there’ll be a focus on mobile as desktop browsing falls away.

Inspiration in print and product design spans decades. Do you think there any websites that will remain iconic in five – or fifty – years?

The web is still a newborn baby of a medium compared to print and product design and has a long way to go to find its footing and rigour that other fields have enjoyed for decades, if not centuries. By the time it has, perhaps the concept of a website will seem so strange and alien, having transitioned to, say, celebrating excellent virtual reality design experiences.

I can guarantee that in five years’ time, creative briefs will still reference MrPorter.com, but that’s because the website’s content shines so brightly while the actual design gets out of the way. Brilliant content is more likely to become more iconic than the container in which it is served.

Some sites will be seen as iconic because they point to a particular paradigm, for instance Ian Coyle’s Better World site for Nike which was the first time we saw parallax scrolling. As iconic as the site is, it’s no longer online, confined to our fond, collective memories of an amazing achievement in web design.

What are your favourite sites/who are your favourite designers right now?

My favourite sites are honestly every site that I post, so I don’t have any particular favourites at the moment. Sons & Co. are consistently at the top of the Siteinspire Directory, and practically everything they produce appears in the showcase so certainly they are my favourite agency. Yes Studio and Marc Kremer’s Future Corp in London produce incredible, bold work, and there are some interesting new studios popping up in New York, like HAWRAF and XXIX. There are so many insanely talented people and agencies all over the place right now; it’s an exciting time to be in the industry.