Some designers argue that design can be categorized into good and bad, right and wrong. Are there really things that just don’t “work”? Can anything be unanimously named “bad design”? German industrial designer Dieter Rams, often described as the world’s most influential designer from his field, created a list of the ten most important principles for good design. They’re often referred to as the ‘10 Commandments’, being greatly respected by fellow creatives, who describe his work as ground-breaking, beautifully balancing functionality with simplicity.

In an age in which ugly can be beautiful, rules are there to be broken and brutalism is in full bloom, are these principles still relevant? And more importantly to us, are they relevant to web design? Let’s not forget that web design was in a slightly different (or non-existent) state when these principles were written, back in the ‘70s. But it doesn’t mean that Dieter Rams’ seminal reflections cannot (and should not) be extended to this new realm of creative exploration. This is exactly what we’ll do here. Each article in the series will focus on a different principle. In the spirit of Dieter Rams, let’s go in the right order. First up: innovation.

First commandment: “Good design is innovative”

About innovation, Dieter Rams wrote:
“The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.”

What is innovation and how does it relate to web design?

Innovation is a word that can be interpreted in so many different ways. There doesn’t seem to be one single definition that everyone agrees on. Does an innovative creation necessarily have to be completely otherworldly, involving ideas that no man has thought of before? Or is that even possible? Perhaps it’s just about taking something that exists and tweaking it, giving it extra value. Whatever you believe, we can, at least, start from Dieter Rams’ statement that explains the inherent bond between innovation and technological updates. These advances enable us to create never-before-seen designs and break boundaries. Think about where we would be without Photoshop, Autocad or After Effects. Cut and paste would probably still involve scissors and glue, and architects would be drawing whole plans by hand – which is fine, but it wouldn’t allow websites, buildings and posters to look the way they do today. On a different scale, consider the rising use of 3D printers in production processes, allowing us to instantly receive finished goods. They’ve not only provided us with a whole lot of fun in recent years, but have also enabled us to come up with impressive (and life-saving) inventions, from prosthetic limbs, to super light airplane parts that help reduce the amount of fuel needed.

Although there are constant changes in all areas of design, the web is arguably the most rapidly evolving medium, constantly providing creatives with more and more possibilities. It wasn’t that long ago that the Internet was pretty much only used for surfing and getting information. It was less about communicating and social networking in all fields, from gaining contacts to find a job, to promoting your brand on various channels. But innovations in web technology have changed the way we design in other ways too: since artificial design intelligence became an option, anyone has been able to create a website within seconds, by clicking on a few personal preferences. Certain programs, such as Cinema 4D, have enabled motion graphics to enter web design, transforming websites from simply displaying information to being truly immersive experiences. Super speedy Internet connection has enabled us to add almost as many images and animations as we desire online, and as for smartphones… they’re a total game-changer. And the list goes on.

However, innovation is about more than simply using the newest inventions. Just like innovative design “can never be an end in itself”, neither can innovative technology. Even the most cutting-edge features need to be used in the right way and they certainly don’t replace the need to think independently and creatively.

Intangible Matter‘ website, created by Lucy Hardcastle Studio in partnership with Chanel

Using technology in the right way

A danger of constantly using new technology is that it can quickly become overused and boring, losing any chance of creating something truly innovative. This is a bit like trends – how much longer will we be able to bear seeing gradients and unicorns everywhere? We may be perfectly fine with them for now (in fact, the more the merrier), but at some point, we will have had enough. It seems that to reach real innovation in web design, you have to cleverly balance your own ideas with those brought to you by the developers of the world. It’s not just about the tools you use; having the newest version of Photoshop won’t necessarily yield the best results (of course it wouldn’t do any harm either).

So how can you use the tools you have to come up with innovative web design? In ‘Intangible Matter’, a website created by Lucy Hardcastle Studio in partnership with Chanel, a variety of digital media is used to convey a multi-sensory experience. By implementing an array of techniques, from 3D animation to interactive technologies and sound, they manage to transform a flat screen into a beautifully surreal world. Not only this – the dream-like visuals and sensual music also come together to hint at the subject (perfume), by creating an abstract and intangible experience of smell.

To tackle this abstract concept, Lucy Hardcastle explains that she began by “deconstructing all of the elements that exist around smell until it was distilled to represent physical and poetic components”. What she found particularly exciting about working with the sense of smell, is that it can’t be seen once applied as a perfume or in the air. “I wanted to make work that created the same invisible yet deeply personal impression that fragrance has. Therefore I had to take myself out of the work and provide something that the users could create their own memories from”, explains Lucy Hardcastle. She took inspiration from video games, resulting in the creation of a digital space that constantly provides the user with choices – “they can get through each of the ‘spaces’ in a few minutes, or can just hang out, enjoying it as a never-ending screensaver”.

Clearly, this website isn’t simply a showcase of the newest and hottest technology – it’s a wonderful creation that integrates diverse features to form a delicate and whole storytelling experience around the theme of scent. For Lucy Hardcastle, technology opens up new possibilities that she explores through experimentation and imagination. For her, technology is “a new kind of craft” that enables us to create stories. She uses it in innovative ways by referencing the imagery and symbols that we consume in our visual world and form associations with. As Lucy Hardcastle explains, “a key part of this process is a re-application of materials, techniques, and software that already exist to new applications, as a way to push technological boundaries and create new experiences”.

Being sensitive to your users

As well as using technology to your advantage, another way web design (or any type of design, for that matter) can be innovative is through user experience. When you really get to know your users and step into their shoes for a moment, you have the chance of creating something that is highly accurate to their specific needs. This type of sensitivity can often lead to creations that make you wonder how they never existed before. Think about Nendo’s simple and ingenious umbrella that, thanks to a subtle tweak in the shape of its handle, stays propped up when not in use. Or Dieter Rams’ 1959 record player, that was revolutionary at the time in enabling two functions in one object (radio plus record player), while being portable.

A similar thing can be said for the One Shared House 2030 website, created by designers Anton & Irene and SPACE10. The aim of their project is to collect insights into the future of co-living, through conducting research via their website. But who actively enjoys filling in long extensive surveys? Not me. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that this website is in no way a standard survey. Through understanding the need for a more enjoyable way of conducting questionnaires, the designers behind One Shared House 2030 have completely transformed the experience into a fun and interactive one. Their highly creative and playful approach to collecting information incorporates sound and graphics that make the process more like a game than anything else. The information is split up into inviting bite-sized categories and the monotone background fills up with color as you answer more questions. Through centering the design around their user, understanding the need to offer a different survey experience, the creators behind this gem have managed to come up with something truly original.

One Shared House 2030‘ website, created by Antone and Irene & Space10

Blurring the boundaries of web design

Sometimes, it’s about using technology creatively, sometimes about being in tune with your users, and other times innovation can stem from making unexpected connections between different disciplines or media. Websites are now not just about relaying information to users in a straight-forward, conventional way. Some designers are changing the definition of what a website is, with the boundaries between websites and art becoming increasingly blurred. These types of sites can be more conceptual, conveying various messages and sensations, similar to the ones already explored.

In Gucci’s spring summer collection website, artist and illustrator Ignasi Monreal takes apart the standard elements of a website, transforming the site into an alternative, virtual world and a whole experience. He poetically combines unexpected motifs, with a clever and witty use of animation. As you scroll down the website, you’re constantly met with surprising visuals – bubbles float in, paintings come to life, magical mermaids are presented connecting to WiFi on their smartphones and more. The constant contrasts between a classical style of painting with contemporary motifs and techniques (note: “acrylic on Photoshop” described as the medium) come together to form a surreal masterpiece. The longer you scroll through the site, the more hidden treasures you’ll discover – enjoy.

Even though we live in a world saturated with websites and are faced with an overload of information on a daily basis, it seems that web design can, indeed, be innovative. But despite all these wonderfully unique new creations, sometimes the most innovative thing can be the most nostalgic: it seems that Warner Bros haven’t touched their Space Jam website since the ‘90s. And we love it, too.