In the early days of the web, design was more diverse—if you could call it design. Remember the flashing fonts on Geocities pages or the bit-of-everything horror that was MySpace? As the web matures, many sites look prettier, but they also look more similar, and one expert suggests that could cause a problem for how our brain processes online material.
At a panel at the Web We Want festival in London last week, Rebecca Ross, a researcher and lecturer at Central Saint Martins, highlighted concerns around the increasing homogeneity in web design, spurred by libraries offering faster coding and improved usability when sites and apps look similar.
"In the web design community, there are ongoing debates around trade-offs between the adoption of responsive standards, usage of libraries, and the increasingly homogenous look and feel of the internet," she said.
As websites shift to responsive architectures to work across a range of devices, they start to look the same. Picture standardised boxes laid out in a trio of columns, which when viewed on a smaller display collapse into a single column, and drop-down menus with the so-called "hamburger" icon—three stacked horizontal lines—to tuck features away neatly on smartphones' smaller screens. Plus, led by operating systems from Apple, Google and Microsoft, designers have followed a trend away from shading and skeuomorphism gradients to flat, clean designs.
But while there are benefits, could it confuse our brains? Ross stressed she's not a biologist or neurologist, but said it's clear that design affects how we think. "Form has meaning on many different levels," she told me after the session. "It's something that I wonder about all the time: if things look and feel the same way, but actually mean substantially different things, what are the consequences of that?"
Think about the web as it is now: a tweet announcing a war would come in the same format as one promoting a magazine cover featuring Kim Kardashian's ass. "I'm interested in [whether we] become alienated from things that are really important, mistaking really important things for less important things, and mistaking less important things for more important things," Ross said.
"We spend a lot of time looking at unimportant crap on the internet, when there's so much important stuff to engage with, and I do wonder how we can make sure that the things that are important get as much attention," she added.
"Buying toothpaste and expressing our deepest heart's desires look and feel the same."
Ross pointed out that there's value in shared design, which is why so many sites and apps look the same. "Two of the main reasons for that convergence are people are using the same code libraries—so people can make things more quickly and people aren't constantly reinventing the wheel," she said. "But then the other reason I think is we've got accessibility standards so things need to be plastic enough to be usable on lots of different hardware, and that's great for blind people for example."
Because of those benefits, there's no easy answer. Ross merely wants designers to consider the effect their work has on how we understand online material—and how that might cause changes in our brains, an idea known as neuroplasticity.
"Buying toothpaste and expressing our deepest heart's desires look and feel the same," she said. "Do we know enough about neuroplasticity at this point to operate less blindly in relation to it? Without being experts in brains ourselves, what do designers need to consider about the ways that our decisions have implications for the reconfiguring of the human brain? What sorts of collaborations should we be seeking to this end?"
"It sounds really dystopic, but if you're not able to prioritise, how do we have values if everything feels at the same level?" she added. "Designers need to think about it."
If designers could figure that out, maybe less time would be spent looking at Kardashians—though perhaps our brains will take more rewiring for that to happen.
Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.