Cookie Cutter Web Design Agencies

There’s a special type of web design which really gets to me. Especially when it wins awards or the companies concerned are making thousands of £s in the process. It is what I would call ‘cookie cutter’ web design.

Instead of fitting a design to a customer, and the customer’s market and products, these agencies use the ‘cookie cutter’ approach – they fit the customer to a design. This type of approach results in the customer experiencing the website as atonal, off-centre, and in some way disconcerting. There is a mismatch between the product/service and the design i.e. the relationship does not work, has not gelled and results in a feeling of incompatibility which in the end effects conversions, sales and brand value. It is a basic rule of design – design follows function, or in this context, design follows products and services. This can be taken one level deeper – design follows brand, and also design follows brand experience. Therefore any web design must be an increment to a product. For example, a doctor’s website is part of the doctor’s surgery and must function as such ( as a holding, containing, secure environment building trust and calm). This kind of design is derived from a much longer discovery and exploration phases  than a lot of the ‘web design’ agencies are willing to do. The conceptualisation of the website design, in relation  to the end user, must be re-engaged with. Less bish, bash, bosh please.

The two (un)lucky agencies I have chosen as examples of the above are Clearleft, because .Net awarded them the Design Agency of the Year award, and Fortune Cookie, because apparently they are one of the fastest growing digital agencies in Europe.


These guys seem to be doing pretty well and have and still do some great work. Awarded the Design Agency of the Year 2009 by .Net magazine they were also chosen by Wired in their top 100 something or other.
All good. But I am not sure about their  web design at all (shock horror! I hear gasps). I have come across them a few years back because of Silverback userbility testing software. The design of the website was very nice at the time – very web 2.0 that fitted their product perfectly.
Little did I know then that this gorilla would spread  and take over the Clearleft world.

Looking through Clearleft’s award winning portfolio it is soon very apparent that the gorilla is now running the agency – because every website they have done looks pretty much like the one above irrespective of the industry, product or market (in my opinion). The web 2.0 cliche tonka toy design that every small software developer in the world has used in the last 2 years is still  going strong at Clearleft.  They are using it for eveyrthing that comes their way, no matter what it is.

For a Social Action website

For a Human Rights Website

For the WWF.

The one time it seems they have tried to do something different, it just hasn’t worked (in my opinion).

None of these sites are terrible, they are just not designed with the client or the target market in mind it seems to me. They are pre-meditated to fit into Clearleft’s vision of what a website is – the tonka website. Yes of course, websites should be open, clear, easy to navigate, but that certainly doesn’t mean they should all look like a Kids TV channel website. I mean, to design a web 2.0 website for a human rights organisation….yikes! Download your free Torture on the Rails software here. Sign up now, no credit card required.

Fortune Cookie

Fortune Cookie are the unfortunately named ‘fastest growing digital agency in eurpoe’ according to the double page spread they got in .Net’s Feb 2010 issue. Erm…..the good thing is that they don’t have a web2.0 template they push everything into like Clearleft. Instead they have 1998 template they stick everything into. It pains me to see such unimaginative web design in 2010. They obviously very good at what they do and have a lot of talented people working for them.  But someone needs to stand up and shout ‘Sticking things in boxes with rounded edges does not qualify as web design’…because it doesn’t seem to be getting through. To be honest I can’t see how any of these websites fit the client or the market. Or how this agency is so successful. Life, as they say, is just a sequence of mysterious mysteries.

Below, see the carefully added ‘hard court’ background below. Says tennis through and through. And the cover flow cards. Oh, how I hate coverflow. Just a hugely disappointing website, much like British Tennis itself, so maybe they did capture the customer and the market after all!

800 x 600? Oh why oh why? Is this website big in Africa because last time I checked 800 x 600 was mainly only used in Africa. Maybe it only works in IE6 also. Such a squashed website if I had diabetes I would feel even more depressed having to spend time on this website.

Apparently this was voted best Local Authority website. Jeeze, how much information can you fit in one small square. In fact, how many squares can you fit in another square. A truly awful website experience in my opinion.

The point I am trying to make here is that, just like every company, every market, and every human being is unique – so is every website. It is a unique mix of emotion and action, branding and conversion. I am not questioning these company’s integrity, or values as a whole. What I am questioning is their designers attitude to web design. Playing safe never produces anything worthwhile or long lasting. Take some risks, live a little. Put the design back into web design.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s