When we decided recently to rename our software company (to Basecamp, from 37signals), we also decided to redesign our website. As a longtime designer myself, I couldn't wait to get started. A redesign gives you a chance to revisit what you have or really go for it and start over. We were not only renaming ourselves but redefining the business around our single most successful product, so we chose starting over.
When you start over, you'll often fish for inspiration, and where you cast your line has a big effect on what you'll pull up. A common place to cast is in the "what's hot these days" waters: You check out some of the most interesting companies of the day and see what they're doing. But when I look at what's hot in Web design these days, I'm turned off. It's all a bit too slick, a little overdesigned. I'm sick of slick.
Most of these designs can be described like this: First, you see a huge photo with some text over it. Then, as you scroll down, the background slides away and another big photo with more text on it pops up. And so on.... Maybe you've seen this style--it's starting to crop up everywhere. To a designer's eye, it looks good, and it's technically impressive, but I'm not sure it says anything meaningful about the companies using it. Worse (for those companies), it's created a new kind of clutter: Too many companies look the same--all style and not enough substance.
With our new site, we wanted to stand out amid all the sameness. Of course there are beautifully designed ways to do this, but I've always tended to pick the more straightforward methods. I've forever been a fan of the basics, which is why I landed on what might be the simplest, least-flashy approach possible: a letter.
If you want to say something, it's hard to find a more appropriate design than a simple letter. White pages, black text. A letter puts the onus on the message. It forces you to really know what you want to say. We did take some creative liberty in a few spots. We peppered the writing with some hand-drawn sketches, and we included a few relevant pictures where it made sense. But the majority of the pages are written and designed to be read like a personal letter written directly to our customers. Take a look at an example here: basecamp.com/ten.
If it all sounds like a throwback to 1999, it actually kind of is. Back in 1999, we launched our first website (you can still see it at 37signals.com/manifesto). We were a Web design firm at the time (we now make project-management software), and instead of a portfolio with images of our work, we just wrote up our ideas and opinions about design and business. You'd think that wouldn't work, right? But we were never short on clients, and our approach helped self-select only clients who were perfect fits.
None of which is to say that a text-heavy design is the right solution for everyone. But I've always found it interesting that some of the most popular sites on the Web--Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, Wikipedia, to name a few--are often very heavy on the text and very light on the imagery. These sites won't win any design awards, but they seem to communicate very clearly to their intended audience. They don't try too hard; they just are what they are. There's no shame in that.
So we're making a similar bet with the new Basecamp.com. We're betting on straightforward, we're betting on solid writing, and we're betting on simple, personal, approachable substance over a creative overload of color, motion, and style.