The past year was pivotal in the design world. New cutting-edge tech, like AI tools, were introduced to the market, a recession led to contraction across the economy, and freelancers and agencies alike pivoted to meet its prevailing headwinds. It’ll take more effort than ever before to stand out in the crowded digital ecosystem.
Coming off several years of uncertainty, one thing is clear: big ideas are needed now more than ever to move the creativity industry forward. With a new year stretching ahead of us, we touched base with industry leaders in decision-making roles—from studio founders in California and New York to lead developers in Milwaukee—to share their big ideas, acute areas of focus and visions for how the industry will change in 2023.
1. Unconventional navigation will be on the rise
Designers are finding that they no longer need to rely on old standards like a hamburger menu to effectively guide user behavior. Users are ready for the new and unconventional. In fact, the unexpected can actually be a boon to user experience according to Editor X design lead Vered Bloch, “because a user will spend more time engaging with a site if their experience is worth scrolling for,” she says.
In 2023, expect to see more navigation and website architecture that break the norm, whether that’s bottom navigation bars and oversize footers, new approaches to grids, or floating buttons (all three of which are seen in design studio Build in Amsterdam’s recent site). Mike Wagz, a cofounder of Philadelphia based web design studio Self Aware, says we’ll see this increase in offbeat website structures because of a widening number of unique CSS features that have become newly available over the last few years, like CSS filters and support for custom masking shapes, as well as more websites that share guidance on how to use these features, like Mozilla’s Resources for Developers, by Developers.
But it’s not just about individual feature changes. There will also be a push towards website infrastructure that feels more like a native phone app, according to Jennifer Heintz, the other cofounder of Self-Aware. She gives the new Maison Margiela website, which pairs an intuitive scroll-like navigation and simple iOS-like rounded corners, as an example.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, her main tip for dipping your toe in the waters of weird-architecture is to stop looking at the web at all. “While it’s important to know what’s going on in the field of web design, I’m finding myself taking a bit of a detox from digital references, and am becoming more drawn instead to tactile analog inspiration like signage, fine art, and architecture,” she says.
2. AI will become another tool in the toolbox
Artificially intelligent tools like image generator Dall-E and text engine ChatGPT are going viral online, and it’s only a matter of time before we see tools like these showing up in web design too.
Brent Couchman, founder and creative director at San Francisco-based design studio Moniker, believes that experimentation in the AI and digital tool space will lead to the adoption of more generative and responsive tools and plug-ins on the web— far beyond what’s been done by early adopters. This could be as simple as more platforms relying on applications like Stable Diffusion to generate the imagery that populates their site, or, as complex as a push towards websites whose actual architecture and design (from modular grid arrangement to page color) is responsive and personalized to specific user needs or contexts.
One apt example is the product description pages on the website for sleep supplement brand Proper, designed by creative studio XXIX and developed by Gardener NYC, which reflect time of day via directional changes in product shadows and a background color that darkens throughout the day to reflect the night sky.
"The site responds to the time set on the user's computer and serves up imagery and copy based on the hour," says creative lead James Musgrave of studio xxix's responsive site design. Images courtesy studio XXIX.
In a meta way, Couchman also notes that the increase in organizations that create digital tools, like AI-content development application Runway or AI product lab Adept, are themselves a driving force for the increased use of AI tools in graphic design. “Where tools like this have popped up in our work the most is when there's a level of technology that exists in the product itself,” says Couchman. “Using these tools becomes part of the DNA of an identity and exploring that in digital experiences as well is a very natural kind of progression.”
3. E-comm will become one-click
As the pandemic ebbs, consumers are craving in-person experiences again, and websites will need to adapt quickly to meet this desire. Mark Goldwell, founding partner and creative director at Zero Studios anticipates that in 2023, brands will take a multi-pronged approach to retail in order to create richer, more immersive, and immediately gratifying web experiences that mimic in-store shopping—a pendulum-swing rebuttal of the anti-IRL attitude seen during the last decade of direct-to-consumer dominance.
Some of the potential changes he predicts are technologically-driven, like the mainstreaming of augmented reality to create a virtual try-on experience that feels like being in-store—an idea being tested by big brands like Amazon, Walmart, and Snap, and one that Goldwell’s team at Zero recently deployed in their work for eyewear brand Crap's updated website.
Shifting consumer behavior could change the function of websites completely, especially for lower ticket items, like consumer packaged goods. As more customers shop on-the-go using their phone and route to websites via app platforms like TikTok or Instagram, product listing and detail pages may disappear entirely. In their place, we’ll see an increase in conversion-oriented features peppered throughout sites, like “add to cart” buttons directly on the homepage for quick one-click shopping—an idea Zero recently explored in their web design work for energy drink Juvee.
In a social-first era, customers have already bought into the idea of the product before they even land on a brand’s website; the goal is to create a site with minimal friction that makes it easy for them to complete their purchase quickly and efficiently.
4. There will be renewed focus on accessibility
Industry attention on how to design online experiences for a more diverse audience has been increasing for a few years now, but the bar for what it means to make a truly accessible website is being raised. ADA guidance around contrast and type size used to be a bemoaned ceiling. Now it’s a jumping off point. In 2023, expect an increased focus on thoughtful ways to make sure that websites work for a wider range of people, and are made by a wider range of people.
Liz Seibert Turow and Leigh Mignogna, co-founders of Brooklyn creative studio L+L, predict that in the coming year, our collective concept of inclusion and accessibility will expand beyond outcome to consider process as well. They believe accessibility and inclusion is also about who is on the design team, what customer feedback is considered, and who has access to making a website in the first place. This could include new approaches to project management that better accommodate creatives with different abilities, like a design team deciding to reduce the number of synchronous meetings in order to support a team member with ADHD who has a hard time switching between tasks.
Their suggestion to designers? Ask questions to your audience, your clients, and your stakeholders, and be practical about your solutions: consider how you can build a site that will be accessible to more individuals, as well as accessible for a client to maintain and upkeep over time.
5. The blog will make a comeback
We’ve moved beyond the era when all it took to sell your product was a few banner ads, SEO-driven copy, and a beautiful website. According to an internal 2022 Google study, some 40% of younger internet users now turn to visual-first social media platforms like TikTok or Instagram, rather than search, for discovery. That means brands will be less able to rely on search engines and SEO optimization alone to drive traffic. In 2023, customers are just as likely to discover products organically through social media influencers, peer-to-peer recommendations, or their TikTok “For You” page.
So how do you encourage customers to visit an ecommerce platform if fewer people are leaving their social feeds to go on websites? Brands will adapt to this new normal by diversifying their focus from creating ads to creating unique and engaging editorial content available on-site only—resulting in a web experience that feels genuinely worth visiting again and again, say Spencer Joynt and his partners Garrett DeRossett and Tucker Schoos at Brooklyn-based design and development shop Alright Studio.
According to the Alright team, this could mean brands working with higher caliber photographers, videographers, and designers to generate elevated content and website-specific campaigns. It could also mean making longform blog-like content front and center on ecommerce platforms. Alright Studio did this when they brought sexual wellness brand Dame’s editorial platform, Swell onto Dame’s primary ecommerce site. Luxury homegoods company Flamingo Estate, which intermingles recipe and product modules on its homepage, is another solid example.
6. Back-end architecture will move front and center
While much of the focus on the future of the web in 2023 is on the look and feel of digital experiences, there’s just as much change happening on the backend too. Milwaukee-based web development studio Bggy, founded by developer duo Jill Neitzel and Quintin Radford, believe that the era of bloated, overly-custom approaches to the web will soon give way to leaner sites that are more efficient for developers to execute.
From Neitzel’s point of view, this more pared-back backend approach encourages designers to play within constraints rather than fighting them—a mindset that arguably harkens back to a more classically simple, Vignelli-esque approach to design. There are always going to be a few sections or moments on a web page that require a specific, more fussy, feature or user experience, and that’s ok, she says. “It's about standardizing your approach within the ecosystem of the individual website, finding the more ‘vanilla’ or utilitarian instances where things can be streamlined, like a card style that can be repurposed across multiple pages, and being intentional about where more custom one-off treatments are necessary.”
With more individuals getting involved with web design than ever, the duo suggests a simple adage: always think about the designer or developer who might work after you. Just as programmers are encouraged to write “clean code,” designers should consider how to build websites that will be easy to grow and adapt over time as brands’ needs change.
7. Designers will nod to the past, but look to the future
In 2022, heritage brands like Canada Dry, and new ones, like pasta brand Brami, reached into the archives to design brands and digital experiences that nod to the past while also looking to the future. This approach isn’t going anywhere in 2023. According to Danny Miller, founder of design studio High Tide, retro-inspired design is here to stay, and even more brands are likely to look to vintage aesthetics in new and novel ways to inform their websites and packaging. (Consider Vacation Sunscreen’s use of business-cards and coupon motifs, or Ali LaBelle Creative’s site, which feels like a literal translation of an analog print experience.)
Miller believes that one of the primary forces driving this continued push towards retro-inspired design is the ever-increasing speed at which new brands are emerging and dying in our current landscape. Last year, the market cap of well-known DTC brands contracted in the hundreds of billions—so much so, we could call 2022 “the year DTC crashed.” (See the fall of furniture darling Dims, DTC beauty brand BH cosmetics, or DTC holding company Digital Brands, to name a few).
Branding and digital assets for Brami and Canada Dry. Images courtesy Wedge.
With competition at an all-time high, new brands need to find ways to prove their value, and historically driven-motifs can help to bootstrap credibility. Customers have become attuned to the nuances of what makes up a brand, and look for meaning and context behind aesthetics. So when building a brand from scratch, “it’s easier and faster to borrow a story than to create your own,” Miller says.
Retro inspirations are also due to a general craving for nostalgia in the current moment, according to Rinat Sherzer, Editor X head of design and innovation and adjunct professor at Parsons. “Humanity needs a comfort zone, and design can do that,” she says. “If we look at optimism and hope, then nostalgia can be one of the avenues that provides that.”
8. Mainstream e-comm brands will adopt high fashion looks
As Meryl Streeps’ character Miranda Priestly so sagely explained in The Devil Wears Prada, the high-end fashion world has always set the trends that trickle down to other brands and industries. It turns out the same is true online. In the coming year, independent brand and web designer Jiyoon Cha says we should expect to see more mass-market e-commerce websites looking to the sleek digital world of fashion for inspiration.
Cha notes the trickle-down effect that several formerly niche styles in fashion have had on mainstream brands. One specific trend she remarks on is that of “brutalist” style websites—originally pioneered by Acne and Balenciaga—which have been showing up more for non-luxury and CPG brands like Usual Wines, Mineral, or The Neue Co. She foresees more brands cashing in on the minimalist luxury that this gridded, minimalist approach to the web affords in the coming year.
These portfolio sites, built on Editor X, exemplify the fine, organizational lines and clear structure of brutalist design styles originally pioneered by Acne and Balenciaga.
Cha also mentions that while fashion brands have always leaned more heavily on art direction than graphic design to build a brand world and convert sales, other mainstream brands have also started to focus more on art direction as well, both on social and on owned-sites. The result: more non-luxury brands like Outdoor Voices, Soft Services, Walden, and even Burger King leaning on large-scale imagery rather than complex graphic design elements to define their digital experiences.
9. Typography will get even more experimental
As more browsers begin to support open-type features and other font formats, the way that typefaces are used on the web is likely to become increasingly experimental and creative.
Jolene Delisle, founder & creative director of the branding and creative agency The Working Assembly, says that as time goes on, we’ll begin to think of fonts less as a predetermined set of static glyphs to be used for writing copy, and more as a specific file format that can contain a myriad of symbols, animations, icons, and letters that can be used to create a range of immersive and interactive digital experiences. She points to Stink Studio’s rebrand, which relies heavily on a custom set of webdings, and the general Nouveau Rebus trend of in-line text and symbols, as digital use-cases for more mixed symbol-text fonts like this.
The shift away from rigidity to flexibility when it comes to type on the web is most exemplified by the wider support for variable fonts, which Delisle emphasizes as one of the most impactful new technologies changing how we think about designing digital type systems (something The Working Assembly is probing into in more depth themselves via their new typeface, TWA Brik Variable). She predicts we’ll see a lot more of these especially in the coming year, and encourages designers to explore the ways in which these new typographic technologies impact their approach.
10. Browsing will be built for everyone
Gen Z is the most ethnically and racially diverse generation, according to a recent Pew research study, and research into Gen Z purchasing behavior shows that they align with brands that align with their values. They also want to take action with brands they trust. As purchasing power shifts from millennials to Gen Z, brands will need to consider how their digital experiences can communicate an authentic commitment to inclusion and equity in order to connect with this younger generation.
Annie Jean-Baptiste, author of Building for Everyone and head of product inclusion and equity at Google, believes that more brands will start to see the ethical and financial value in building products that work for a larger group of people—whether that means product photography showcasing a diverse cast, built in charitable donations on ecommerce platforms, or technology that works equally well in both newly developing and industrialized parts of the world.
In her eyes, accommodation is no longer noticed only by those who it accommodates; it’s table stakes for building trust with your audience. “When we build for the margins, everyone benefits and is positively affected,” says Jean-Baptiste “Younger generations gravitate towards brands that allow them to feel seen and understood. As designers, it's our responsibility to lean into that and build for everyone.”
Taking it one step further, Jean-Baptiste shares that she’s most excited about historically marginalized groups using technology “to innovate and be their authentic selves.” In that sense, in the coming year, we shouldn’t just expect brands to create online spaces that are more inclusive, but to see individuals create these spaces for themselves more too, as in the case of Somewhere Good, a POC audio platform designed for intimate community conversations, or “Where are the Black Designers,” a volunteer-run, nonprofit design advocacy organization championing Black creatives.