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Sometime around 2015 there was a mysterious vibe shift in web design. Before the vibe shift, all the cool websites looked like this:
179 replies and sub-replies as of Apr 23 2022

After the vibe shift, websites suddenly started looking very different:
What happened? Was there some deep angst in the collective unconscious that could only be soothed by abstract illustrations? Did people just get bored of all the background photos? I think there’s more to the story—a very specific economic cause.
I think when Unsplash (the free photography website) was founded in 2013 it killed the old vibe by democratizing access to great photography, and thereby ruining its function as a costly status signal.
Companies then started using custom illustrations in their brand aesthetic because illustrations suddenly became much more rare and expensive relative to photos.
I’m interested in this little piece of design history because today I think history is on the brink of repeating itself: What Unsplash did to photography, DALL·E 2 will do to illustrations, 3D renderings, and eventually all visual styles.
In other words: a vibe shift is indeed coming.
I wanted to understand how aesthetic vibe shifts happen, and what it'll be like when AI tools make it easy for anyone to create any kind of vibe. So I dug into the most well-developed pool of knowledge on the use of costly signals and their evolution over time: biology.
This week on Divinations: an exploration of DALL·E 2, costly signaling theory, and what AI creativity means for human creativity Enjoy!
DALL·E 2 and The Origin of Vibe Shifts
By Means of Natural Selection
PS — @sama @gdb @OpenAI any chance I can get access to DALL•E 2? 😅😫
Damn, this blew up I write this sort of thing every week, you can subscribe via email here:…
Now all the "cool sites" look like @stripe 🤷‍♂️
Good point. I think another driver of this change is that flat and abstract is more mobile friendly than textured and natural.
havent read the piece yet but do you think Eastern websites (china, jp, kr) really do not follow this pattern because their cultures are less about signaling?
I'm curious what the landing pages look like for top consumer and b2b products info-heavy pages like these tend to be more utilitarian even in the US
yah you are right — some illustrations. but not as big and abstract as Western.
Great angle on the aesthetic implications. As a designer, I was in awe of what dalle was able to spit out, but also a little pissed that this thing I spent studying for 4 years in college can now be done with a simple description. ‘Twas a strange feeling.
I was wondering which new piece the thread was about!
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Really interesting, thanks for sharing. There's a similar parallel in architecture. In the past, labour costs meant brickwork was cheaper, but with higher costs & emergence of cement, brickwork is now more of a high end material for a building.
“vibe singularity” !!! so good. maybe the “featured in” press or customer/user testimonials section will start to pull a lot more weight above the fold. depending on the domain, you can beat design by signaling with traction. pitch decks would be a fun parallel exploration.
Yes!! Costly signal alpha is always somewhere, but it shifts over time Definitely can see bigger role for social proof as vibes get democratized
it's a trip to go to @waybackmachine and just look at airbnb homepage design since 2010
Love this. You reminded me of how the vibe of magazines shifted when photography came into the scene. Or how the vibe of opening scenes of TV shows changed when animation became more accessible.
really really good read man 🙌
Don’t forget the web3 vibe shift toward lots of purple and glowing and neon and avatars
Honestly I thought 3d claymation was gonna be the next vibe, but I think it was actually too hard to get right
Yeah those are hard! Very cool though when done well. Interestingly, DALL•E 2 is good at generating them
Interesting, can we cut out all the dancing and just ask it to draw me a landing page for our product and then render it in html/css/js?
I think that is less far off than it may seem! And perhaps not as the final product, but at least as a solid starting point GitHub Copilot + @copy_ai + DALL•E 3 = website in a box?
Salesforce is already applying AI to their design system so companies are already be doing this to some extent internally. Would be amazing to see a product that gave individual designers and devs that power.
How Salesforce is using AI to create a more hyper-informed, more adoptable design system | Inside Design Blog
<p>What if you were floating on an ocean of design data—millions of small decisions made across industries, cultures, and countries? [&hellip;]</p>
No we have exhausted vibal groundings, we will float forever in nothing
IMO multiple icons can sometimes communicate more ideas faster than a single image. However beautiful, and real images will move people more. Long digital worlds and avatars, so the vibe shift will simply transcend the format
Visual production is rapidly changing - from virtual worlds, to 3D avatars, and AI-generated art. We aim to explore the edges of what’s to come by establishing a playground to experiment and develop our ability to participate in an expanded view of what visuals for brands means.
Words → website ✨ A GPT-3 × Figma plugin that takes a URL and a description to mock up a website for you.
I love that Microsoft FrontPage 98 seems to have invented Corporate Memphis.
Ha! That’s amazing
I can agree with that angle, but there is another practical reason why marketing departments have went the illustrative route. When you use real life photos/examples of your product/service, you've now created a dependency to update those photos whenever your product changes.
I know from experience that marketing doesn't always move as fast as sometimes the product changes... so using illustrations removes this burdern. The app can be updated or redesigned without your marketing website necessarily being out of date.
Especially when you target different platforms (iOS/android), desktop/mobile/etc, when you use exact photos you tie yourself to OS patterns from that era - which also change. If you use more abstract illustrations, you don't have to change them as often as the tech changes.
And then @unDraw_co came along that democratized illustrations :)
Great thread. Note how Pitch, Polywork, etc have invested in custom 3D characters and props with a distinct style; a shift away from vector illustration. We’ve done the same for some of our clients; it isn’t cheap but it gets results. Perhaps dall-e 10 will output 3D models?
I think it will!
This is the dirty secret of what created modern architecture it wasn’t originally for the masses. Decoration became cheap by being able to be mass produced so didn’t signal wealth. The Barcelona pavilion had none but had travertine floors, onyx walls and stainless steel columns.
That and also de-cluttering feels like a relieve from unnecessary detail where the information gets lost. New websites try to distract us less so it’s easy to move around.
Hah! As I was scrolling down but before I got to this tweet I was thinking "I bet it's because Wordpress introduced out of the box themes that looked a lot like what all these companies were paying designers a lot of money for"
Same year that Apple adopted flat design for iOS. That was the change, not a single, then small app like Unsplash.
iOS 7 and flat design is at play here too
interesting take on signaling in design though! aesthetics will move to production methods that are costly to signal
The Assassination of Skeuomorphism by the Coward Flat Design
could it be the shift from photoshop to sketch (for making mockups)
How is it not largely due to the design shift from iOS 6 to 7 in late-2013. All the top apps/websites from that era were inspired by apple’s design language on apples website/Mac/iOS… Simply look at websites pre-iphone, and look again the following year, always 1 year transition
Definitely iOS 7 and the flat design trend was a part of this, but I think there’s more to the story when it comes to the shift from photos to illustrations!
Maybe, but the switch from photos to illustration also makes sense in context of iOS 7. Photos (3D) to 2D flat illustrations. Photos amongst a flat UI design is way too distracting, whereas it fit right in around a Skeuomorphic design.
I just don’t think the top UI designers that all follow apple’s foot steps to a tee in unison for close to a decade, suddenly switched up because they saw too many websites with photos because of some stock photo service freebies…
web3/metaverse verse has its own design themes, but are people so quick to forget how everyone use to follow apples lead in design? Nowadays not as much, but back then, they were ‘the’ company
Google started bitching about load size and illustrations can be optimized more than huge photos? Higher % of visits from mobile devices where huge pics waste too much real estate?
Definitely think this was a factor too!
Look into Google's rebranding to consolidate their stable and intro Alphabet. 2014/2015. That's most likely what drove this change.
Check news websites: white background everywhere
Aww, old marketing assets so cute
not that that’s what this thread is about lol, but also super interested in dall-e
Came here to say this 😃
Also: iOS 7 happened in 2014
I wanna say Intercom started the vibe shift. Notion solidified it. I mean, if you are not B&W, illustrative, with yellow highlights, are you even SaaS?
Odd that the photo-based websites look higher-end to me than the illustrated ones, which seem cartoonish. Why didn't they go for custom photo shoots, as used in luxury-brand ads?
i feel like part of this was more around SEO optimization (reduce page load times + generate lots pages that were designed for key word searches) while simultaneously making sign up on the front page as low friction as possible
I wonder if there was a technology shift/policy e.g. with Google. It feels like SEO optimization, low friction, etc. are evergreen concerns
This for sure. Also competition arbitraging away those same SEO / conversion gains by aping designs or agencies doing so.
Definitely agree!
Agree. Also increasing awareness of Accessibility as a core part of good design and the problems that can happen with text over images.
Great insight @nbashaw. @nikillinit you make a great point too. I built a website in 2013-14 with unsplash photos and slowly watched more and more Squarespace sites and display ads popup with the images I chose. Sites that standout go above and beyond what was easy then.
Maybe also the uptick in mobile browsing?
Yea, this vibes more with my experience as a vanilla consumer without industry context. The recent bullshit with everyone trying to prevent right-clicking is getting on my nerves tho
100% all I thought about as I scrolled through the examples was the page speed hit these images would create. Also back then, you could get by with a highly compressed image. Now you need that photo tack sharp on a retina display.
From what I remember, there was a big shift in web design after React and Bootstrap 3 were released in 2013
I feel like the aesthetic choice made sense for a couple simplicity/text-focused saas’s, and other companies (who the aesthetic doesn’t make sense for) just copied it. And now we’re stuck in b2b saas illustration white background land, spiraling
I miss giant blurry backgrounds. I want to enter a page and feel swept away into a blurred hotel in Barcelona with a 28-year-old istock model sipping green tea, as I am sold a second-tier asana competitor
not tech, but I'm starting to see younger brands' sites start to look like this now - web1 vibes coming back?
*EVERY* web3 site looks like this to the point I am already fully saturated on this aesthetic. To an extreme. It’s crazy how quickly this took over 😳
haha thick outlines and neon colors everywhere
Thats just Shopify running stuff
I know! It's out of control
Now it’s all about the gradients
This list is missing the best vibe shift yet! When Adobe added multipoint gradients!
(Possibly sensitive)
A major re-design for iOS happened in 13/14 which brought these trends: -flat design -gradients -use of transparencies
There was a pre-2012 vibe out the other side of the Wild West Web of Geocities, MySpace etc that strangely had more layout possibilities with less layout capabilities.
Good old web thread
I miss Komodo Media the most, that was such a sick design. Had a spinning record in the footer with their Lastfm tracks.
not the gradient button :-(
RIP appropriate usage of “vibe shift” Just call these design trends?
What usage is appropriate?
Definitely a vibe shift
Roasted em 😆
Thanks for creating and sharing a thought-provoking piece @nbashaw — I really enjoyed it. It made me contemplate the future of long-form writing, film making, and much more.
Really interesting thread and examples Nathan, thank you for creating and sharing.
The illustrated people are already out. It fits the trend of losing the signaling advantage. It just didn’t need Dall•E 2.
Humaaans: Mix-&-Match illustration library
Mix-&-match illustrations of people with a design library for InVIsion Studio and Sketch.
True! I forgot about Humaaans! This is a great point
And Canva has pretty extensive free graphics too
We own a professional training & speaking biz. Similar shift. Slide images quickly became a big sore spot in fortune 2k clients. Perceived lack of diversity, no humor, body shaming, etc. No matter how diverse, never enough. Now a “zero humans” policy in training decks.
Seeing this "art" style makes me want to scream. Was original, now it's very overused. Notion put their own spin on it at least
This illustration style is called “Corporate Memphis”.
Corporate Memphis - Wikipedia
(no description)
It always has been..:
I feel like this was the era of adobe aftereffects coming into vogue. All of our clients wanted/were sold animated explainer videos using these types of simple illustrations, so it bled into the entire creative identity.
Also, much easier to show a range of diversity when illustrating.
Annnnd if I remember right, we had a lot of Adobe Flash guys in our agency who were looking to transition those skills. So after effects is where they went. Might be a reach but think there’s some relation.
I think 2015 was the year everyone and their brother started saying "above the fold" as well and we had to add a headline, subhead, and button for "usability" As if scrolling isn't the natural behavior? But I wonder if that had an impact, you know?
Love this thread, thank you!!! I love reading about the history of web design. It's crazy how 2015 designs seem so so far away. I personally am very fond of the dark background + large font + no nonsense copy on newish tech startups (think linear railway, warp...)
Strongly believe that the next vibe shift is animations. It’ll be more a UX shift, rather than UI. Apple is leading with this.
I just see these as changes in design trends, nothing more. You can look back before 2015 and find a different vibe, and a different vibe before that, and so on.
Great thread. I feel like I noticed a shift after Dropbox did a re-launch of their website around that time. I dont know of it was inspired by UnSplash in anyway but it was a radical departure from existing design trends.
fuelling the current vibe with @iconfinder
I think tides are also turning against illustration because it’s really easy to feign diversity in vector form without Actually have a diverse team/customers. Looks great but I think authenticity and lower production quality have become more desirable.
2 tabbars wtf how can anyone explain the necessity of this thing
Oh yeah. I remember when the Lobaster font just became crazily popular. Tbh I still really like it.
I feel like this perception is a bit skewed, given *most* of the examples here are for tech-related websites. I do notice the change in design trends, but websites for other industries still rely quite a lot on the “pre-2015 heavy photography”. Good observations, nonetheless!
Agreed this analysis is fairly tech specific, although I think the general principles apply!
I really like your analysis. Using Unsplash a lot will make you identify their images EVERYWHERE. Working at a tech company (which ironically do content automation), we oftentimes find ourselves struggling to find a photo that will convey the technical aspect of things.
So we tend to go for the more abstract illustrations and iconography.
Phenomenal dude.
In fashion, there are trends and fads. Something gets popular and people copy it. It gets overdone, people get bored and restless, they're ready to move on. We're always craving freshness. Not sure there needs to be any significant cause or deep explanation.
Definitely agree this is a big factor! I’m curious though — do you not buy the costly signaling theory at all?
Conspicuous signaling! If it becomes easy to replicate reputability, reputability must move on.
It's a plausible theory! But it might be a just-so story
The testable aspect of the hypothesis is in the essay: I predict a new aesthetic shift is coming away from the types of illustrations made easy by AI image generators
This is all really interesting, but I would argue that’s not really a testable hypothesis. It’s a design trend, so *of course* it will fade from popularity. If an AI can replicate it, that may hasten the end of the trend, but not necessary *cause* the end.
yeah it's definitely tricky and semi-overdetermined
this is fascinating
woooooa fascinating indeed
this is one of the best thread -> article link intros/transitions ive ever seen on this site
Ahhhh thank you!!
Did we not just do this so our websites loaded faster on mobile? I feel like that’s why we did that.
I think mobile for sure was a big reason. The other is just design trends changing
I think these are all contributing factors yeah
UX as a profession went into mass commoditization. Everyone wanted to do “ux”. Now it’s a lifestyle choice. Corps just needed bodies to do the work, and boot camps flattened the wage curve and quality. Everyone imitated the same source, and thus everything became the same.
I feel like this may be related to how UI components became less "realistic" and more flat. Windows 8 = 2012, Apple w/ iOS.
In the tiny SaaS design bubble it’s mostly been led by MailChimp. Especially this particular vibe shift you describe. There was a microshift to diagonal angular illustrations for a while, led by Stripe. hilar how quickly people copy original design and make it unoriginal.
At the time, if I recall, there was a convergence between compression alogos, bandwidth and HTML features that made media-rich sites less dysfunctional than they had been. The word “immersive” had a resurgence in design meetings.
this seems up your alley!
Interesting thread. And accurate. Never realized the aesthetic vibe shift until now.
It’s similar to all the wild distracting animated shit on every page in the 90s. They made these giant pics just because they could
Path used to be one of my favorite products!
Very interesting
Illustrations has always been there. I think as web design evolved, it resembled more editorial & other types of design and develop stronger visual identities. Also stock photos are generic and illustrations feel more personal (to your point). We’ll see if Dall•e changes that.😉