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An evolution in web design

2020 was a year spent entirely online. How has the online realm changed in response? An exploration of web design trends

Illustration: Maddie Fischer

To say the world has changed in the past year would be the understatement of the decade. The long-term ways in which the pandemic has affected our lives are only just beginning to manifest—physically, mentally, politically, culturally. One thing is certain though, and it was clear from the beginning—this was the year our lives made the final shift online.

To that end, what has changed in the online realm? Has it responded to the massive attention and dependency it experienced? Are new digital trends reflecting what we saw happening to us in the outside world?

As designers, we usually become aware of trends as they emerge, or when we actively search for them. But as we are slowly (and hopefully) seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a shift in perspective might be what we need. Instead of looking ahead to the future, let’s first examine our past. We sat with Dafi Tamir, Senior Web Designer at the Wix Studio—and sifted back through websites from this turbulent time, exploring trends and themes, and analyzing how they epitomize the evolution of web design over the past year.

Playful 2D

Perhaps as a contrast to the complicated reality outside, we noticed a recurring theme of fun, simple designs, both in color palettes as well as layouts and use of iconography and shapes.

Cafe Robot, a “non-awkward computer club”, uses primary colors and fun, stickerstyle shapes in 2D, uncomplicated forms. A simple and enjoyable design with minimal use of images, it creates an unpretentious look and feel.

Another example can be seen in London’s Somerset House online experience ‘Decentralize’. This interactive digital platform invites visitors to play and interact online, while exploring the history of Black British art. The flat, 2D elements can be seen here too, as well as the use of bright, lively colors.

“There is a type of freedom seen in this style. It allows you to let go of the need to show off sleek, sophisticated work, which can be easily attributed to a similar attitude we all experienced in our personal lives this year”, says Dafi.

Nostalgic computerized aesthetics

Speaking of bright, fun colors, this year saw a surge in websites emulating nostalgic internet styles: pixelated art, neon computerized palettes, and chaotic layouts, which recall the past. As online technology took a huge leap forward this year, it’s interesting to see a push-back in design: a need to go back to a more naive experience of simpler times.

Artist Jeffrey Deitch’s website encapsulates this atmosphere, with a colorful mix of imagery, iconography, and a 90’s internet look and feel.

The nostalgia is expressed in a monochromatic design as well, as seen in the websites of writer Lucy Ives and artist Max Bittker. Both sites use old style computer window designs alongside a grey color palette, in addition to navigation and UI features which resemble old operating systems. Dafi points out, “This idea of making you feel as though you are peeking into their private desktops resonates with the experience we all had this year, of our desktops and personal computers being our only representation in the world”.

Minimalistic typography-based design

This trend can be seen in many designer portfolio websites in the last year. Focusing on text and typography rather than imagery is a bold statement, and we have seen quite a few choosing to take the challenge.

As Dafi explains, “Typography is a designer’s most basic tool—it’s always there for you to use without any additional resources. This year, as photoshoots and images were so hard to produce, with the restrictions of lockdowns, typography was the most available solution for most.”

Talia Cotton’s portfolio website showcases her coding in a playful typographical way while maintaining a minimalistic black and white design.

The personal website of Australian writer and programmer Tali Polichtuk is another great example. The homepage and navigation use a monochromatic scheme alongside flat, simple iconography. The inner pages are type-based as well.

Schemes of uncertainty is a research project with motion text art on its homepage as the main visual.

Type designer Slava Kirilenko showcases her work with a type-based interactive design.

Communication company Nonymous created a scrolling-based design, affecting the typography as it is revealed.

3D and virtual settings

Having an online presence became crucial this year. For some businesses this meant plainly creating a website, while for others—those offering events or a more holistic brand experience—it meant figuring out how to adapt real-life interactions to the virtual realm.

These websites vary from sleek, as-real-as-it-gets websites, to more basic, old school styles that use the technology as a means to an end.

Dafi adds, “When talking about the use of 3D in web design, we should also mention technical abilities that were improved upon over the last year, and therefore more easily incorporated into the fresh outcropping of websites. Additionally, code libraries were made available to use, making it easier to create 3D interactive designs. You can now use your own imagery on top of an existing code to make it into a 3D experience.”

Gucci Gift is the brand’s interactive “Office party”, released in anticipation of the holiday gifting season. It’s interesting to see how they chose to place the scene in an office - a space we all missed (or haven’t..?) this year, while portraying it as if it exists solely in the past—old vintage furniture in an anachronistic environment.

A different take on this theme can be seen in Olympia Gallery’s website. Since museums and galleries could no longer welcome visitors, they chose to transform their website into the virtual experience of strolling through the gallery space and looking at the artwork. This is almost a non-design visit—the 3D effect is there only to provide you with the feel of the space, and the works are given the space to become the focal points.

Experimental grid and layout

“As we all got used to digital experiences, online behaviors became our second nature. The existence of mainstream digital aesthetics meant that there could be fringes as well. Designers now feel more comfortable pushing the boundaries and experimenting with the way a website is structured and how they present the content and navigation. Now that we all know the rules—we can break them,” says Dafi.

This newfound freedom allows for alternative and fresh, experimental designs. We can see this predominantly in the approach to layout. There are no more simple pages with a regular scroll and top menu, rather complex systems, resembling more of an editorial approach, and with a twist.

The Mind Gap is a UK initiative dedicated to normalizing the conversation around mental health. The use of a variety of fonts, backgrounds, images and blocks creates a special scrolling experience.

Sissy Screens is a queer screen culture platform, using a gridded menu and split screen for navigation.

The website of Omotesando a directing duo, uses vertical blocks with a horizontal scroll, and a mix of typography and imagery, creating an editorial aesthetic on the project’s pages.


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