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Have witnessed a de-shinification of the Web, with fewer glass buttons, beveled edges, reflections, special-offer badges, vulgar gradients with vibrant colors and diagonal background patterns. The transformation has been welcomed with relief by all but the most hardened gloss-enthusiasts. However, design and aesthetics work in mysterious ways, and no sooner does one Web design trend leave us before another appears.

The Symptoms

So, exactly what is this new epidemic? Well, let’s start by looking at some of the most common symptoms, many of which you have probably noticed. They are easy to spot, and as with many other conditions, they often appear in conjunction with each other. (This is why the contagion spreads so effectively — seemingly independent symptoms grow more infectious when combined with others.)

Please note: The following list appears in no particular order and does not indicate the level of infectiousness or severity, which seem to be stable across the board. Note also that the instances given often exhibit more than one symptom, making classification more difficult.

Stitching

Stitching appears gradually, often as a result of the designer playing too long with borders and lines, particularly of the dotted variety. A full-blown stitch is evidenced by the subtle shift from dots to dashes, augmented by drop shadows and other effects to give the impression of 3-D. The purpose of the stitch is somewhat elusive, but it seems to thrive in environments where certain textures are applied, most notably fabric and leather, but also generic graininess.

While determining the exact cause of stitching is difficult, scientists are certain that it belongs to a larger strain of the infection known as “Skeuomorphism.”

Collage of interfaces with stiches
Clockwise from top: The Journal of Min Tran; Dribbble shot by Mason Yarnell; Dribbble shot by Liam McCabe.

Zigzag Borders

Borders are common elements of Web design, and as such, they are difficult to avoid; luckily, they are usually harmless and often have a positive effect on the layout. However, for some reason, a particular type of border — the zigzag — has grown exponentially in the last few years and is now threatening the natural habitat of more benign border specimens. Exactly why this is happening is unknown, although some researchers claim that the pattern created by the repeating opposing diagonals has such an alluring effect on designers and clients alike that straight borders have somewhat lost their appeal.

Collage of interfaces with zigzag borders
Clockwise from top: You Know Who; Dribbble shot by Christopher Paul; Dribbble shot by Meagan Fisher.

Forked Ribbons

Like borders, ribbons have long existed in various forms. What we’re seeing now, though, is the near dominance of a particular style of ribbon, easily identified by a fork at one or both ends. Some ribbons are also folded over twice, creating a faux effect of depth and reinforcing the diagonal lines in the fork. Whether the fork is related to the zigzag effect is unknown, but it seems that diagonal lines are the key to the ribbon’s survival, along with its ability to evoke memories of times past.

The danger of the ribbon lies mainly in its ability to exist independent of other symptoms (although it thrives in the company of vintage typography), meaning that it could date your design long after the epidemic ends, even if the symptom itself appears dormant. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the “special offers” badge of the Web 2.0 look.

Forked ribbons
Clockwise from top: Ryan O’Rourke; Cabedge; Jake Przespo

Textures

In the age of all things digital, it’s a conundrum that textures should dominate our illustrations and backgrounds, and yet they are indeed one of the most common symptoms on our list. Manifested by subtle grain, dirt and scratches, paper-esque surfaces and fold marks, they seem to embrace the spirit of the handmade. But ironically, they’re often the complete opposite: computer-generated effects or Photoshop brushes.

Possible explanations for the widespread use of textures include a yearning for tactile media (especially considering the emergence of touchscreens) or envy towards print designers, who have a much richer palette of materials and surfaces to play with.

Textures
Clockwise from top: Gerren Lamson; Zero; Amazee Labs.

Letterpress

The simple effect has gone from strength to strength and is now a household technique for sprucing up typography online. A relatively harmless symptom, letterpress might also have infected designers through other digital interfaces, such as operating systems and games, as early as the turn of the millennium, indicating a very long incubation period.

Scientists disagree over whether the incubation period is due to the infection needing a critical mass before emerging from dormancy or whether the infection simply needed the right conditions — CSS3 text shadows, to be specific — for symptoms to appear.

Letterpress
Clockwise from top: Billy Tamplin; Dribbble shot by Phillip Marriot; Remix.

19th-Century Illustration

After being released from copyright quarantine, this symptom, favoured by fashionable ladies and gentlemen, was nearly eliminated during the last epidemic due to its inability to cope well with gloss and shine. But in this new vintage-friendly environment, it has found its way back into our visual repertoire. For better or worse, the 19th-century illustration will most likely hang around for a while, emerging stronger from time to time like a flu virus.

19th Century Illustration
Clockwise from top: Killian Muster; Dribbble shot by Trent Walton; Simon Collison.

Muted Tones

After a long period of vibrancy, the average online color scheme seems to have been somewhat desaturated across the board. We’re seeing widespread use of browns, earthy greens and mustards and a general leaning towards “impure” colors, although this is generally thought to be a minor symptom of the epidemic. Some scientists will even argue that muted tones are, in fact, not a symptom themselves but rather a side effect of other symptoms, in the way that sweating is a natural response to a fever.

Muted colours
Clockwise from top: Dribble shot by Dave Ruiz; Cognition; Web Standards Sherpa.

Justified or Centered Typography (JCT)

This symptom is nothing new; in fact, it was pretty much the standard for the first 500 years of typography, until Tschichold and the New Typography showed up and quarantined it on the grounds that it was old fashioned, difficult to read and inefficient. Although we’re not sure at this point, this link with history might be what has made JCT reappear so vigorously under the umbrella of vintage symptoms. We do know that overall reading habits among humans have not changed in recent years (most Westerners still read left to right), and there is no plausible argument that JCT improves legibility; so, whatever the cause of the outbreak, we know it’s rooted in subjective emotion rather than rational thought.

Justified or centered typography
Clockwise from top: Grip Limited; Tommy; Visual Republic.

Circular Script Logotypes (SCL)

A circle is a basic shape and, in isolation, is no more a symptom of an epidemic than a triangle. However, if you repeat enough triangles in a line, you get a zigzag. Similarly, if you include a circle in your logotype, you end up with a circular logotype. And if that logotype happens to be set in a script font, you’ll get — that’s right! — a Circular Script Logotype (SCL). Not that SCL is lethal or anything, but it is relatively contagious and can be highly detrimental when enough hosts have been infected.

Circular script logos
Clockwise from top: Trent Walton; Mercy; Dribbble shot by James Seymor-Lock.

Skeuomorphic Features

Skeuomorphic features — i.e. ornamentation or design features on an object that are copied from the object’s form in another medium — are rife, particularly in mobile applications, and this symptom is one of the defining indicators of the epidemic. Possibly a mutant cancerous strain of mildly skeuomorphic features such as stitches and letterpress, it can sometimes grow to overtake an entire interface, bloating it with redundant visual references to physical objects and materials. However, due to the labor involved in preparing the graphics and the heavy reliance on image resources, some researchers argue that we’re unlikely to see full-blown skeuomorphism dominate our desktop browsers any time soon.

In fact, most scientists regard the phenomenon as a curiosity and predict that some virtual metaphors for physical attributes will prove useful (as tabs have) and some won’t. Interestingly, while Apple has embraced and continues to pioneer the technique, Google seems to some degree to resist the urge to mimic physical reality in its interfaces. Perhaps it has developed a vaccine?

Skeuopmorphic
Clockwise from top: iBooks; Dribbble shot by skorky; Dribbble shot by Igor Shkarin.

How Did It Start?

Pinpointing the epicentre of a design epidemic (read: trend) is always hard, especially given the myriad of symptoms and the contagious nature of the Internet. Identifying Patient Zero is virtually impossible, and, to be pragmatic, doing so would serve no purpose. What we can say is that we’re most likely experiencing a reaction to the Web 2.0 aesthetic — a craving for textured surfaces and retro imagery, something tactile and natural-looking, as an antidote to the shiny impersonality of the past — and that this is both healthy and necessary for pushing the design industry forward. Whatever the sources of trends, they often start with applying smart design to solve a particular problem or, indeed, to counter another trend.

Let’s say that everyone used sans-serif fonts, strong contrasting colors and crisp white backgrounds as a rule. Imagine, in this environment, if a designer went against the grain by using Clarendon or some other warm serif to infuse some personality into their website (which happens to be selling “Grandma’s homemade jam”), and then complemented the personality of their font selection with earthy colors and some brown paper textures. The result would inevitably stand out from the crowd: beautiful, emotional, different.

Incidentally, this aesthetic inspires another designer who happens to be working on a website with a global audience, exposing the new approach to a whole generation of designers who, in turn, apply it at will (often without considering the context). A trend is born. And yet, paradoxically, the potency of the epidemic is under constant threat. The more people get infected, the less differentiated the symptoms appear; and once the infection reaches a critical mass, the symptoms begin to work against themselves. Infusing personality into your visuals is meaningless if everything looks the same.

Is It Dangerous?

In today’s open collaborative world, avoiding an epidemic of this scale is difficult; so, in a sense, everyone is affected to some degree. The symptoms listed above are not restricted to small-scale up-and-coming designers, but affect even the elite of the design community. This means that even though some symptoms are harmless — like a light fever or a runny nose from a flu infection — the viral onslaught of trendy features puts constant pressure on our immune system to protect our creativity, and staying vigilant is important to maintaining a healthy dose of original thought.

If you’re displaying a handful of symptoms, it’s really nothing to worry about — catching a cold that’s going around is not hard, but recovering from it is also easy. If, on the other hand, you display most or all of these symptoms, then there’s reason to be extra cautious in your next project. Using all of a trend’s identifiers as cornerstones of your work might make your portfolio look oh so contemporary, but in a way this practice is no different than passing off the work of your favorite designer, artist or musician as your own. Granted, symptoms with no identifiable origin are not protected by copyright, but that’s beside the point — you should be worried not about legal implications, but rather about the creative integrity of your output. The danger is not only that your work will be seen as a passing fad, a popular aesthetic that will look dated in a couple of years’ time, but that you will lose the respect of your peers when they catch on to you.

While nothing is original, we all need to respect the difference between inspiration and imitation. As Jean Luc Goddard said, “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” And if you don’t take them anywhere, what’s the point?

Worse perhaps than the loss of respect and integrity is the effect that epidemics have on clients and, in turn, the design community as a whole. The more designers are infected and the more symptoms they show of the same disease, the less your clients will believe that you’re capable of solving real business problems. Eventually they’ll exclude you from the early stages (where all the real design thinking takes place) and employ your services merely to skin their wireframes, in the process reducing the whole profession to an army of decorators.

What Can You Do About It?

Now that we’ve seen how detrimental trends can be, how does one avoid them? Is this even possible? Trends, by definition, are popular, and arguably nothing is wrong with tapping into that popularity to increase the exposure of your product. Convincing a client to accept a design that is off-trend can be difficult, and you run the risk of alienating the audience by going completely against the trend just for the sake of it. On the other hand, blindly following others is never a good idea, and you could severely stifle your creativity, integrity and client base by accepting what’s “in” as a given and copying it without purpose.

So, what’s the right thing to do? Trends are intrinsic to our society, whether in politics, culture, design or even religion, and as the consensus sways in one direction or another, so will your opinion (or “taste”) — to some degree, at least. Alas, avoiding trends altogether seems an impossible and pointless undertaking, but that doesn’t leave you powerless. In fact, you can do a host of things to combat the lemming syndrome.

Ask Why

Always question your design decisions (and make sure they are your own), and keep asking the magic question, Why am I doing this? Am I doing this simply because it looks cool or because it suits the message I’m trying to communicate? Why am I using this ribbon? Does the zigzag border add to or detract from the personality of the website? What does this leather texture have to do with the finance app I’m designing? The moment you stop asking questions, you fall prey to the epidemic.

Put Some Effort In

In his article “The Dying Art of Design” Francisco Inchauste asserts, among other things, that inspiration requires perspiration, and I couldn’t agree more. I was lucky enough to attend a college where no computers were allowed in the first year, which meant we had to use physical tools to express ourselves — tracing letters by hand, drawing our photography, stocking up on Pantone pens (remember those?), abusing the copier. Not only did our creativity grow, but we learned an important lesson: good design is not effortless, and the best results come from your own experimentation.

Try Something Different

Remember that being distinctive is, for the most part, a good thing. Most great artists in history, regardless of their field, stood out enough for the world to take notice. Who painted melting clocks before Dali? Who would have thought to build a huge wall on stage before Pink Floyd? While mimicking what’s popular might be comfortable and might secure short-term victories, long-term success requires a unique, memorable approach.

Diversify Your Inspiration

In order to remain creative, staying curious and looking for inspiration all around you is crucial, not just in the latest showcase of fashionable WordPress themes. Read a book, perform a scientific experiment, listen to music you haven’t heard before, walk through a new neighborhood, or experience a foreign culture. Widening your horizons beyond your favorite websites and finding more than one source of inspiration is critical to making original, lasting designs.

Focus on the Basics

Finally and most importantly, study the underlying principles of design in order to understand what is and isn’t defined by style. Grid systems, contrast, legibility, juxtaposing imagery, well-written copy — these are the key components of successful design, yet they are entirely independent of fads and styles.

At the end of the day, design is not so much about style as it is about communication, and all style, imagery and typography should be inspired by the content, functionality and personality of the product, not by what simply looks cool at the moment.

No matter how cool something looks, it too shall pass.

7 reasons no one shares your blog

Ever write a blog post, hit publish, and feel like all you hear are crickets? If your content isn’t remarkable, it’s not shareable. Search is social. So whether or not your content gets shared makes a huge difference in your blog’s traffic and lead generation.

People share content for a variety of reasons. A recent study from the NY Times’ Consumer Insight Group (CIG) looked into why people share content online. Among the variety of motivations was a desire to define ourselves to others with the content we share as well as a desire to grow and nurture relationships by sharing entertaining or interesting content. Is your content interesting and entertaining enough for people to want to associate their personal brands with it? If not, you better re-think your approach and consider these 7 tips.

7 Reasons No One Shares Your Blog Posts

1. Your Headline Sucks

Your headline is the most important part of your post because it’s your first impression. It’s what people see in big, bold text when your blog post shows up in search engine results.
It’s also what they see when your content is tweeted and shared on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+. So without a great headline, few people will get that initial intrigue that makes them want to click through and check out your post. Write great headlines that are descriptive but also spark a sense of urgency. And don’t be afraid to try a funny or snarky one, too. Grab their attention with the headline, and hook them with the great content behind it.

2. Your Timing Is Off

Blog posts published in the morning generate the greatest number of page views, especially when targeting women. Do you know your audience, and do you know when to deliver your content in order to get the best results? Get the insight you need to create more shareable content. Survey your audience and ask when they prefer to read your content, or dig into your audience analytics to get the information you need. And remember: planning ahead is key. Creating and maintaining a blog editorial calendar will prepare you to have content to publish each morning, versus constantly playing catch up and publishing posts in the late afternoon after you wrote them that day.

3. You Don’t Have “Regulars”

You want your blog to be like Cheers — where everyone knows your name. You want your posts to spark a conversation and to ignite an interest that keeps people coming back for more.

A great way to develop a relationship with your audience is by being attentive to blog comments. Spark a conversation on your blog by discussing recent industry events or asking for your readers’ perspectives on new research. It’s all about the writing style and balancing your point of view as the expert opinion and being a participant in the conversation. To get the comments rolling, make the content useful and thought provoking, and “reward” your commenters by responding. If you generate a group of regulars who always come back to read your blog content, chances are good they’re also regularly sharing and evangelizing your content, too.

4. You Write About Yourself

Your company is interesting to you. It’s also interesting to your mom. So she might subscribe to a blog full of company party photos, product feature updates, and long essays written from your point of view. But is your mom your target audience?

When readers are visiting your blog for the first time, they don’t care about you yet. Make them care by addressing the topics they want to learn and talk about. How-to articles and lists of tips and resources are good formats to begin with.

5. Your Posts Are All the Same

Ever listen to a band and every one of their songs sounds the same? Boring! Change up the format of the content with charts, infographics, videos, photos, and other visuals to keep people coming back for more. If you look at Social Media Examiner‘s posts, you’ll see how they break up the text with different visuals, headings, and bold text. Break up your content to make it easier to consume so you get more people to read it and more people to share it.

6. You Ramble

If there isn’t a clear takeaway from your content, people don’t have a key point or reason to share it with their friends and followers. Long paragraphs full of allegory, symbolism, adjectives, and adverbs are best saved for English class. Cut to the chase, and make the lessons from your content loud and clear.

7. You Make it Difficult to Share

It’s surprising to me how many blogs don’t have social sharing buttons. It’s easy to get caught up in selecting the perfect design or theme and then forget about the obvious, functional elements likes social media buttons or “subscribe by email” widgets. Have at least a simple design that looks clean, but first get the basic features on your blog and get a content plan in line. Then go crazy with design.

Feedback is key to keeping clients happy

Hardly anyone likes asking for comments on their work, but the process is critical to career development and good results.

Designers are incredibly egotistical. They’re pretty sure we have all the answers, the best skills and the keenest eye. That’s good for pushing things forward, but it shouldn’t get in the way of creating the best solutions, and good solutions require feedback. As creatives, they don’t know everything, even if it’s sometimes their job to work as though they do. Criticism is key to improving craft and keeping clients happy and invested.

This external evaluation is a crucial element of design and implementation, yet one that’s sometimes overlooked and often misunderstood. It’s a complete nightmare if you have nitpicky or ill-informed customers – it can blow projects out so that they run way beyond scope, and can even lead to hostile client relationships. The key is knowing when to get opinions, how to ask for them and what to do with them.

Timing and method

If you’re concerned about people’s comments, you might be tempted to leave it as long as you can to ask for them: “I’ll wait till I’m almost finished, so that if there’s feedback, it’s too late, and I don’t have to worry about it.” If you follow this rule, you’re doing a disservice not only to your client and your company, but also to yourself.

Ask for assessments early, and often. If you’re working on a new site or application, start getting comments as soon as there’s material to be looked at; this will mitigate trouble down the road, and improve your design sense and skills to boot.

One of the main reasons for feedback being neglected is that it so often leads to problems. Part of the issue is understanding how to request opinions. Ask for exactly what you’re looking for. Open-ended questions such as, “What do you think of this?” broaden the discussion too far. If you’re getting feedback in person, have an outline ready. If it’s over email, make sure to give context and frame the conversation.

Choose who you want to approach. There are times when colleagues are ideal, and situations when clients are better. Plan for the responses you want, and don’t be afraid to shut people out – unsolicited input can too easily be unproductive.

Don’t look for or accept feedback just to tick it off the list; the goal is to improve and move forward. It’s easy to get too much or too little criticism, or comments that don’t move things forward. Getting constructive results is an art form, and it takes practice, both from those asking for them as well as those giving them. Try approaching people at multiple stages of your projects. You’ll find there are valuable opinions to be had on everything from sketches to code.

Dealing with responses

Now that you’ve asked for and received feedback, what do you do with it? Acting on comments can be the most challenging aspect of design, but also the most rewarding.

Don’t blindly implement all changes, especially in client relationships. It’s your job to determine what will lead to a better final product. And don’t ignore feedback. In many cases, it can be easy to, especially when it goes against your design, beliefs or ego. Balance your own artistic sense and skills against those of the person who gave you criticism, and stay humble. There’s almost always something to learn and work on. Look for it, and show that you’ve listened.

Practice asking for and acting on people’s opinions frequently, so that you can learn when and how to ask for them, and what to do with them. We’ll always think we’re right – the right designs, the right copy, the right interactions, the right code. Feedback helps us be correct, and stay so, while learning more about our craft and the people we work with. Don’t be afraid to face up to it; your ego will be just fine.

Tidalwave in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

A tidal wave of ideas or bills (A) will motivate another creative nearby to foolishly open an umbrella (E) in a lame attempt to hold back the flood, causing what looks like a giant earring (H) to fall and pull the hammer (J) so it strikes a piece of metal (K), waking up the baby (L) who must be rocked to sleep (N) by a trained and poorly-paid dog (M), causing the attached backscratcher (O) to tear at your flesh until you decide it’s better to get off your rear and do something. Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

Your idea. Your dream. No one will do it for you. Even if you have to work at something non-creative — use the money to live, but make your dream the priority. Crappy job gets in the way of your dream? Find another crappy job! They’re everywhere and except for the slaughterhouse idea, they won’t drain your creativity. Have the idea? Now set your plan. Just like your previous boss who had always made projects go around and around, it’s finally time to make your own plan, knowing it will work better, and make it happen!

First, research who your customer is. Using Web sources or going to stores are the best way to find out some helpful examples of consumer habits (yes, marketing people never leave the office, they rely too much on figures supplied to them). See what people are buying and talk to them. I used to go to stores that carried products made by the company for which I worked for, and watched what people bought or didn’t and asked them why.

I would smile as I approached them, excuse myself and explain what I was working on and gathered their opinions. This is probably why my products sometimes sold very well. Know your consumer base!

Also, figure out costs and how you will cover them. You may need a loan or investors. What website and functionality will you need? Packaging, having stock, shipping, advertising, taxes? Is your dream project for you to start a business or do you want someone else to produce it? If you are producing it yourself, you can get a business loan, but you are about to take many, many risks. Get legal and financial advice next. It’s well worth the money and will give you the final tally of whether or not this will be your dream or nightmare.

If you are creating something to pitch to a company for their purchase or licensing a property (certain photos for calendars and cards, for instance), there are a similar but different set of rules.

Start with the idea and marketing, create a style guide and/or presentation. A friend of mine wanted to publish a graphic novel for a pitch for a property she was trying to sell but couldn’t afford upfront fees for an artist and writer and printer, so I told her to use a WordPress blog to post her promotional material that she already had and that would give her a great presentation — the easy way.

Research which company you think would want to take on the project. Again, go online or to a store and look around. Want to really impress potential clients? Ask the store’s permission to set everything up; take videos of shoppers and their answers. What better way to produce proof of a need and then give clients the means to fulfill it!? Let your imagination run wild! As with the man who was so excited by the contest he entered, stretch yourself creatively.

Found the perfect prospect? Do your research and find the people you need to reach. There are many business networking sites. Search the company and find people and their titles. Get addresses and phone numbers. Call the receptionist and ask her/him who is the head of marketing or if they have an R & D contact person. If they don’t know, ask to speak to the secretary of the VP of marketing. Maybe she/he can get you closer. Also, use your network. Do any of your contacts know someone you are trying to reach?

Sounds difficult? It isn’t really; just keep in mind that it takes a lot of persistence, patience, as well as a good sense of humor. Once you lost one of those, you won’t make it.

Tailor in Take The Initiative and Create Your Own Projects

Tailor (A) gives creative (B) a snappy new “power suit”, SO irresistible that the client (C) hugs the suit (D) causing it to hit paddle (E), smashing expensive vase (G) and wasting a perfectly goof head of cabbage (I). Further destruction reigns havoc (K – P), dousing all competitors with a toxic chemical (Q). Illustration by Rube Goldberg.

Writing a blog is an initiative. Authors have to come up with the idea, research it for presentation, get the approval and then write it and submit it. It’s initiative. As with what you may perceive as easy to pitch an article, most initiatives are simple!

All of my career I’ve had people come to me to relay that they have written a book and need a cover or images for the inside so they can send it to a publisher. I tell them they don’t need all that. Just send in the manuscript with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (many publishers have digital submissions on their sites) and the publisher will choose cover designers and illustrators themselves.

Some people smile at the realization that their dreams were an easy step closer. Some didn’t believe me and insisted I design something for them (and draw, because I’m an “artsy-type!”). I look over the pages and tell them it’s an idea that shouldn’t be “set aside lightly”. They smile and then I tell them it should be “thrown with great force”. Some people want it to be done for them. Maybe it’s the prompting of a contest or a “might-as-well-take-it” project.

Would you rather be working on a low-paying project that is screwing you up at every turn or invest in yourself with the time put towards your dream project? It’s not hard coming up with an idea and creating the images, code or what-have-you. The difficult part is making yourself do it and then selling it and that’s where most people fail.

One of my recent favorite self-initiative stories was about an injured creative with time on his hands and a need for income. Dave is a designer at the Iconfactory and responsible for the ultimate Twitter icon Ollie the Twitterrific bird; he had broke his foot while playing soccer over the Fourth of July. That meant that the poor guy was relegated to staying off his feet at home. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he decided to use the opportunity to keep himself from going completely Rear Window and offer up his design skills to the large Web community — and successfully so!

Self-initiative is not easy for most people. Working for someone else provides a regular paycheck, security, after a fashion, and someone telling you what to do. No self-motivational projects needed. As one person commented on a past article on crowdsourcing,

“I recently participated in the LG “Design the Future” contest (yeah, I didn’t win)… but rarely do I get the chance to design a cell phone like product… it was a great exercise in creativity and it really let me flex my muscle… and they had some substantial cash prices (first prize was $20,000)… I feel like competitions like that are great for the industry. The rules were pretty relaxed and it really let people go hog wild and show off what they can do. Too often you’re forced to roll with the clients vision. It’s great to have a contest that let’s you be you.”

As I was arguing the pros and cons of crowdsourcing in that article, I just had to reply for his edification:

“I understand your point, but let me play devil’s advocate and explore another option. So you submitted something you really enjoyed designing and it stretched your creativity. You loved your final submission. You didn’t win and the client, I assume, owns it anyway. What if you had designed it but not submitted it and then sought out companies that might purchase the rights to the design? You would have taken a cue to create your own initiative and owned the product rights.”

Was the prize worth giving away all rights to the winner? What would the client have paid a design firm or freelancer to do the work? I’m guessing that the prize cost was considerably less than the one that would have run the company. So, who was the real winner? Which avenue held a better chance for him? The odds of him winning the contest and giving up the idea anyway without winning, or the odds of him being able to sell the design on the open market, or  maybe not, but owning it to try again? I can’t say.

Persistence in selling the idea and protecting it can be daunting. Even though, sometimes even an e-mail comes back right away that says, “I love it!”… and a check eventually arrives.

For many of us, logging into websites is a part of our daily routine. In fact, we probably do it so often that we’ve stopped having to think about how it’s done… that is, until something goes wrong: we forget our password, our user name, the email address we signed up with, how we signed up, or even if we ever signed up at all.

These experiences are not just frustrating for us, but are bad for businesses as well. How bad? User Interface Engineering’s analysis of a major online retailer found that 45% of all customers had multiple registrations in the system, 160,000 people requested their password every day, and 75% of these people never completed the purchase they started once they requested their password.

To top it off, visitors who are not logged in do not see a personalized view of a website’s content and recommendations, which reduces conversion rates and engagement. So, log-in is a big deal — big enough that some websites have started exploring new designs solutions for the old problem.

Is This You?

Gowalla’s sign-in form (below) looks pretty standard: enter your user name or email address and your password, and then sign in. There’s also help for those of us who have forgotten our password or are new to the website. In other words, all of the most common log-in user-interface components are accounted for.

Fig1-gowalla in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
The sign-in form on Gowalla.

But Gowalla has taken the time to include a few more components to help people log in with more confidence if their first attempt hasn’t worked. If you attempt to sign in with a user name (or email address) and password that do not match, the website not only returns an error but returns the profile image and user name of the account you are trying to sign into as well:

Fig2-gowalla in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
A log-in error on Gowalla.

Including a profile picture provides instant visual confirmation: “Yes, this is my account, and I may have forgotten my password,“ or “No, this isn’t my account, so I must have entered the wrong user name or email address.” In either case, Gowalla provides a way to resolve the problem: “This isn’t me” or “I don’t know my password.”

The Q&A website Quora takes a similar approach, but it doesn’t wait until you are done trying to sign in before providing feedback. Quora’s log-in form immediately tells you if no account is associated with the email address you have entered, and it gives you the option to create a new account right then and there:

Fig3-quora in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Quora instantly lets you know if there are no matching accounts for the email address you have entered.

If the address you have entered does match an account on Quora, then the account’s profile image and user name will appear to the right of the log-in form. This confirmation is similar to Gowalla’s but comes right away instead of after you’ve submitted the form.

Fig4-quora in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
If the email address you enter on Quora matches an account, you get visual confirmation instantly.

Instant Sign-In

Quora’s log-in form also includes an option to “Let me log in without a password on this browser.” Checked by default, this setting does just what it says: it eliminates the need for you to enter a password when re-logging into Quora. All you need to do to enter the website is click on your profile picture or name on the log-in screen.

Fig5-quora in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Quora’s one-click log-in page.

To go back to the standard log-in screen, just click the “x” or “Log in as another user,” and then you can sign in the hard way: by entering your email address and password.

While one-click sign-in on Quora is convenient, it doesn’t really help you across the rest of the Web. For that, many websites are turning to third-party sign-in solutions.

“Single-sign-on” solutions such as Facebook, Twitter, OpenID and more have tried to tackle log-in issues by cutting down on the number of sign-in details that people need to remember across all of the websites that they use. With these services, one account will get you into many different websites.

Fig6-signinoptions in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
A sampling of single-sign-on solutions.

Logging in this way is faster, too. When someone connects their Facebook or Twitter account to a website, they simply need to click the “Sign in with Facebook (or Twitter)” button to log in. Of course, they need to be signed into their Facebook or Twitter account in order for it to work with one click. But with 50% of Facebook’s 750 million active users logging into Facebook on any given day, the odds are good that one click is all it takes.

You can see this log-in solution in action on Gowalla (screenshot below). A Gowalla user who has connected their Facebook account needs only to click on the “Log in with Facebook” option in order to sign in — provided they are already signed into Facebook, of course. If they’re not signed into Facebook, they’ll need to do that first (usually in a new dialog box or browser tab). After doing so, they will be instantly redirected to Gowalla and logged in.

Fig7-gowalla in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Gowalla provides an option to log in using your Facebook account.

New Log-In Problems

But with these new benefits come new problems — usually in the form of too many choices. When faced with multiple sign-in options on a website, people do one of the following:

  1. They remember the service they used to sign up (or that they connected to their account), and they log in instantly. This is the best case scenario.
  2. They assume they can sign in with any third-party service (for which they have an account), regardless of whether they have an account on the website they are trying to log into. The thought process for these folks goes something like this: “It says I can sign in with Facebook. I have a Facebook account. I should be able to sign in.”
  3. They forget which service they used to sign up or if they used one at all, and thus hesitate or fail to log in.

To make matters worse, if someone picks the wrong provider, instead of signing in to the service they’re trying to use, they might end up signing up again, thereby creating a second account. While a website can do its best to match accounts from different services, there’s no completely accurate way (that I know of) to determine whether a Twitter and a Facebook account definitively belong to the same person.

So, while third-party sign-in addresses some problems, it also creates a few new ones. In an attempt to solve some of these new sign-in issues, we’ve been experimenting with new log-in screen designs on Bagcheck.

Our most recent sign-in screen (below) is an attempt to reduce confusion and prevent the types of errors I have just described — admittedly, though, at the expense of one-click sign-in. In this design, people are required to enter their user name or email address to sign in. We use instant search results to match their input to an existing user on the website, so someone needs to type only the first few letters of their name to find their account quickly. This tends to be much faster than typing an entire email address. But because more than one person is likely to have the same name, we provide the ability to sign in with an email address as well.

Once someone selects their name or enters their email address, then their options for signing in are revealed. No sign-in actions are shown beforehand.

Fig8-bagchecksignin in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
The current Bagcheck sign-in screen does not reveal any log-in options until you select your name or enter your email address.

True, in this design people can no longer sign in with one click, because the sign-in buttons are not visible by default. But this may be a trade-off worth making, for the following reasons:

  • We keep people signed in until they explicitly sign out. So, hopefully people will rarely need to go through the sign-in process. Remember: the less people need to log in, the fewer sign-in problems you’ll have!
  • The added amount of effort required to sign in is small: just start typing your name and select a search result, or enter your complete email address, and then click the sign-in button. It’s not one-click, but it’s not a lot of work either.
  • Trying to sign in with an account provider that you have not set up on Bagcheck is no longer possible, because the log-in buttons don’t show up until after you have selected your name. This cuts down on duplicate accounts and confusion over which account you have signed up with or connected (especially on different browsers and computers where a cookie has not been set).

On mobile, however, these trade-offs may not be worth it. Logging into a website on a mobile device by typing is a lot more work than just tapping a button. So, in the Bagcheck mobile Web experience, we’ve kept the third-party sign-in buttons front and center, allowing people to log in with just one tap. It’s just another example of how the constraints and capabilities of different devices can influence design decisions.

Fig9-bagcheck in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
The Bagcheck mobile Web experience keeps one-tap sign-in options visible.

Since launching this log-in experience on Bagcheck, we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback and ideas for improving the interactions. Many people have suggested using browser cookies to set a default sign-in option for returning visitors. While this might help people who return to the website using the same browser, we’ve seen many more sign-in issues when people use a different browser or computer. In these cases, a browser cookie won’t help.

Another common question is whether allowing anyone to search the list of Bagcheck users by name or email address reduces security. While this design does somewhat reduce the security of a Bagcheck account (compared to our previous log-in screen design), it’s no worse than many websites that let you sign in with your public user name, like Twitter.

And because all Bagcheck profile pages are public, users can be searched for on Google and on Bagcheck itself. Despite this, we’ve seen a bit of increased concern over this same search capability being on the sign-in screen. So, if you’re thinking about trying this design, make sure your profile pages are public, and be aware that people may still be a bit sensitive about it.

We’ve All Got Email

Although signing into a service with one’s name may be too new for some people, logging in with an email address is common practice for most. Using a solution that brings together a lot of the ideas outlined in this article, Google’s Identity Toolkit and Account Chooser allow people to sign in across the Web using just their email address:

Fig10-google in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Google’s Identity Toolkit allows people to sign in with a number of email verification options.

When multiple accounts have been accessed in the same Web browser, each account is listed as a sign-in option, making account selection easier. If you want to try out this sign-in solution, you can opt in on Google’s website or implement it on your website with Google’s Toolkit.

Fig11-google in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Selecting from multiple accounts on Google’s experimental sign-in page.

The Little Things Matter, Too

The Bagcheck and Google examples we just looked at try to rethink log-in pages in big ways. But not all sign-in innovations need to be so comprehensive. Even small changes can have a big impact. For example, I mentioned earlier that inputting text precisely on mobile devices can be harder than on full keyboard computers. Coupled with obscured password fields, this can make logging into a website on a mobile device a challenge.

Facebook’s mobile Web experience tackles this in a small but useful way. If you enter an incorrect password when trying to sign in, the website will change the password field to plain text so that you can actually see your input. Facebook also offers an alternate way to log in, using your email address or phone number (screenshot below). It’s a small enhancement but one that can go a long way on mobile.

Fig12-facebook in New Approaches To Designing Log-In Forms
Facebook does a lot to help you log in on mobile.

It’s Not Over

As these examples illustrate, even the most common interactions on the Web (like logging in) could benefit from new ideas and design improvements. Not every idea I’ve walked through here will become part of all the log-in forms we encounter on the Web — chances are none of them will. But without trying, we’ll never know.

So, if you have some new ideas for signing in or any other Web interaction we’ve come to take for granted, try them out and let the rest of us know what you’ve learned!

Google+, Hipster, Connect.me and Instagram! They all hit a gazillion users in no time at all — and you can even read all about it in everyday media today. This is every product creator’s dream. Ok, granted, Google already had their users well before the launch of its social extension. But how did the other ones succeed in building such a strong fellowship in a few months (or even days)?

Turns out that many of these services’ creators were very busy bees and made small details about their product’s launch addictive. It even turns out that many start-ups were indeed able to launch to a strong following (not much unlike Google+) through collecting interested users, email addresses, Twitter followers in any way they could well ahead of their public appearance using a combination of very common and old marketing strategies with clever launch pages.

In this article, we’ll outline some best practices and examples of successful viral launch pages. Let’s define a viral launch page not only as a “Coming soon” landing page, but also as a usable beta page or even in some cases a finished product page.

Fundamentals Of The Viral Launch Or Landing Page

The first rule of viral is of course that you must build something that other people would actually be interested in for one reason or another. Let’s emphasize this, using the words of Robert Scoble: “The best launch is if you have a product that other people like using so much that they tell other people about it.” The users you target need to know at least one bit of information in advance that will make them care. Then, only then, can you move on to the next step, which is to facilitate and encourage sharing.

Normally, you’ll want to (1) let visitors know what you’re doing, and then (2) spark some interest. Then you should (3) make use of that interest by giving them a chance to subscribe to your news updates, doing so with a bright call-to-action button. Lately, so-called stealth start-ups have become quite popular because of the interest they are able to generate. They typically won’t tell you what they’re doing, which means they’re ignoring step (1), but somehow they still manage to grab your attention.

Here are the basic elements a launch page should have:

  1. A clear value proposition that interests people. (What problem will you be solving?)
  2. If your strategy is stealth, then why should people care? (For example, are you Jack Dorsey?)
  3. A notification form, with a bright call-to-action button.

Examples of Basic Launch Pages That Spark Interest

Even very basic launch pages can do a great job of advertising the product if they are memorable, viral in some way or desirable to visitors (or all of the above). You can read more about these characteristics in the recent Smashing Magazine article “Building An Effective ‘Coming Soon’ Page for Your Product.”

Stripe
Stripe has a simple landing page ready for visitors, with one concise sentence: “We’re making it easier to accept payments online.” This is followed by a simple call to action: “Get notified when you can use @stripe”. The app’s name is also the company’s Twitter handle, so you can opt to subscribe to updates through Twitter. This implementation is very minimalist and suggests that the service does one thing very well. Who wouldn’t want an easier way to accept payments online?

Stripe-screenshot in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: slogan; notification form; call to action; Twitter handle in copy.

Milk
Milk doesn’t tell you what exactly it’s building, but it makes sure the team can reach you once it has something to say. What makes this landing page so successful? It’s the new venture of Kevin Rose (Digg’s founder). Also note the subtle “pleasantly infrequent updates” for email, Facebook and Twitter, which puts us much more at ease with subscribing.

Milk-screenshot in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: slogan; notification form; call to action; Facebook and Twitter handles.

VaultPress
You may need to give more information up front in order to get the message across. Here is how Automattic launched VaultPress, a back-up service to give WordPress bloggers peace of mind. The text does three things:

  1. It sets your expectations of what VaultPress will do (which is to keep your blog and server safe).
  2. It collects data from those who fill out the sign-up form (data that will validate their idea).
  3. It creates a sense of exclusivity, because not everyone can join immediately.

Vaultpress-screenshot in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: copy that explains what VaultPress does; an integrated sign-up form.

Sumazi
Instead of focusing on the product itself, Sumazi tries to get you to follow it on its social profiles and to share the news with your contacts. Registration is done through Facebook. It’s a first attempt to add a small viral loop to the launch page.

Sumazi Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: simple copy; integration with social networks (for sharing).

Let’s see how other start-ups have used the viral loop, and how this effect has sparked real enthusiasm for start-up launch pages.

Additional Elements That Can Make A Launch Page Go Viral

In addition to the basic elements covered above, start-ups have recently been using some of the following elements to make their landing pages more enticing:

  • Viral loop,
  • Exclusivity and scarcity,
  • Glimpses of the beta,
  • Social proof,
  • Viral content.

You will find all of these in the examples below. Many of the elements are often combined in meaningful ways.

Adding a Viral Loop

The viral loop is a kind of “sharing cycle” or “multiplier effect” that is built into the launch page. It’s an incentive for people to share news of the start-up and to share the sign-up form with their friends and followers. Forkly’s landing page was one of the first to successfully tap into this effect .

Forkly
Forkly is an innovator in this popular viral invitation system. If you want to be notified of Forkly’s launch, you can leave an email address in the form on the landing page. Once you hit the “Go” button, the page reloads and gives you a personalized link that you can share with friends and followers. If at least three of your friends join, then you will get early access to the service. And the more friends who join, the earlier your access will be (Update: they’ve just launched their app to the public) .

Forkly Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Top: a simple informative landing page. Bottom: a simple viral loop.

Add an Incentive to the Sign-Up Process

Forkly’s incentive to share is a strong one: you’ve signed up to use the service anyway, so why not share it with a few friends so that you can gain access even earlier. This was a smart move and has been copied repeatedly since. But there are countless other ways to incentivize sharing.

ResourceGuru
ResourceGuru is giving away an iPad 2 to one of the people who share its link. Who doesn’t want an iPad 2 these days? Think about it: would you subscribe to ResourceGuru if it had only used Forkly’s strategy? Would you subscribe if an iPad was (potentially) waiting for you? These incentives are most effective when the item has an aspect of exclusivity. That’s why you see so many give-aways close to the launch dates of Apple gear, when no one yet possesses the gadget.

Resourceguruapp Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
ResourceGuru throws in the prospect of winning an iPad for sharing a personalized link.

Alternative Ways to Subscribe

In some cases, you might want to offer other ways to subscribe to your news, particularly if your users are mainly on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr and like to consume news in ways other than through email.

RumpelDealSkin
RumpelDealSkin offers various ways to get the inside scoop: email, phone, text message, postcard. Additionally, there are links to its social profiles.

Rumpeldealskin Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page

Stealth Start-Ups

Lately, the “stealth start-up” method has been quite popular, due to some spectacular successes (including Hipster, Connect.me and Kohort). It’s a way of making something publicly known without actually letting people in on what you’re doing. This could elicit another level of interest in your start-up, but let’s face it: it’s a tough ride. Are you able to leak as little info as possible but still make people genuinely excited?

Hipster
Hipster is a good example of a stealth start-up. Hipster managed to gather 10,000 addresses in just two days after its public marketing launch. And it happened before anyone knew what it does. The cool name and slogan (“Something cool is coming to San Francisco”) turned out to be the perfect marketing mix. The story was picked up widely and quickly by bloggers and media alike. People wanted to know what it is, and they left their email addresses in bulk and shared the links happily with their friends (Hipster used the Forkly approach) to be among the first to see the service.

Hipster Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: intriguing name; fitting slogan; fitting background image; call to action.

Notice the value proposition that complements the name. Then there’s the simple call to action button, and the background that would appeal to San Francisco residents and others. (Wouldn’t you want to know what you’re missing out on?) This happened in January 2011; as of this writing, Hipster is still building its service which will be some kind of local Q&A. But take a moment to check out the hiring page to see how it’s still using its name to tell a story.

Supyo
Supyo has received a lot of attention as a result of its founders, long-time collaborators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. They have set up nothing but a splash page for now, which means they cannot collect addresses. (Update: they’ve just added an email notification form.) Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker will create buzz even if only for their Web celebrity status.

Supyo-screenshot in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: logo; social proof.

Amen
The same is true for Amen. Their landing page doesn’t sport anything but a cryptic (and interesting) message of what it is going to be: “The best place for having an opinion in the World”. Rumors of what the service will be and the fact that Ashton Kutcher and Madonna’s manager invested here keep the interest alive (also the first Twitter engineer Florian Weber is a co-founder).

Amen Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: explanation of what it does; Similarly to Hipster: an unconventional branding.

Allow People to Reserve User Names and Integrate With Social Networks

Connect.me
Connect.me is another stealth start-up with an incredibly viral sign-up page. Apart from its memorable domain and brand name, it communicated almost no information on what it’s about; an “About connect.me” link appeared in the bottom-right corner, but it didn’t really explain what the app would do.

Connect Me Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Top: reserve your user name; get early access; register only through social networds. Bottom: revamped landing page with the same structure but with an explanation of the service.

Unlike the services mentioned above, Connect.me did not ask you to leave an email address. You could only register through Twitter or Facebook. Also, did you notice that instead of something like, “Invite friends to get early access,” the copy says, “Reserve your username to get early access”? This makes it clear that early adopters will have dibs on vanity URLs. This can be very effective with people like me, who have common names and want to register a good URL.

If you went through with the registration, the app would automatically tweet or post a simple message on Facebook: “Reserve your Connect.me username [link].”

This simple approach generated roughly 20,000 sign-ups in a short span of time and even provoked fears of a scam in the blogosphere shortly after. When you visit the website now, you’ll find a landing page (in green) telling you exactly what the service does. The “Reserve your username” is still there, but it has been turned into a central call-to-action button.

The success of strategies like those used by Forkly, Hipster and Connect.me have even led to the creation of a start-up that takes care of the sign-up process for you. LaunchRock does all the heavy lifting, leaving you to concentrate on building the actual software.

LaunchRock
Once you’ve submitted your email address, you’re immediately given the option to do a few things with your link: tweet it, share it on Facebook or email it to friends. The tweet is pre-written and contains a lot of important elements:

  1. Your brand name, and an announcement that you will be launching soon;
  2. Social proof: “Follow me! I’m first in line.”
  3. Your personal link;
  4. Your brand’s Twitter handle.

Launchrock Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
LaunchRock will take care of your viral launch page.

Even if you don’t use LaunchRock as a service to launch your product, it still has a lot to be inspired by. I would even argue that now with so many newly unveiled LaunchRock sites you would do your launch a disfavor for looking like another me-too.  LaunchRock’s blog provides a good analysis of the viral “Coming soon” page.

Especially Twitter Integration

Many services that succeed in generating some idea or product that people want to share on Twitter (and Facebook) experience a hell of a growth rate. This was the case with Threewords.me and Turntable.fm, which recently became the most shared music start-up on Twitter, because people love to announce what they’re doing at a given moment (check out the real-time search results of Turntable.fm’s hash tag). Let’s look at two examples:

Shuush
Shuush is a Twitter reader that scales back users who tweet too often and amplifies people who don’t tweet as much. As a byproduct, users are assigned Shuush levels that they can tweet out. Users like to share facts about themselves, which we’re seeing over and over again.

Shuush Twitter Integration in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: explanation of the service; sign in with Twitter only.

Instagram
Instagram has no conventional landing page (and didn’t have a conventional viral launch page when it launched). Rather, its viral circulation comes from people sharing their images on social channels, mainly Twitter. You can instantly recognize these images by the branded URLs, like of this image by Justin Bieber, http://instagr.am/p/IMhuj/, which made the service literally explode on July 21st.

Instagram Twitter Integration in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: landing page has a call-to-action “Download” button; the viral loop comes from people who share the service’s output (images) on Twitter and other services.

Sell a Half-Baked Product for Half the Price

Minecraft
Minecraft is an online gaming phenomenon, and its adoption has been mind-blowing, with 2,932,884 licenses sold in the beta phase. People are willing to sign up early, especially if a discount is offered because the product is not yet ready. When Minecraft is finished, it will sell for €20.00. Right now, at 25% off, you can get it for €14.95. Discounts for early adopters are a no-brainer.

Minecraft Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Minecraft offers a discount during the beta stages. As the product advances, the discount shrinks.

Lifepath
Lifepath turns this approach on its head. The service is invite-only, and because people might very well want to use it, the company invites visitors to buy an “entrance ticket”. The closer the service gets to completion, the lower the entrance fee gets. Note that registrations fared better when the fee was $10 than when it dropped to $3 . This is an interesting insight that the creator Dustin Curtis shared on Twitter.

Lifepath Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: exclusivity; call to action.

Exclusivity

Exclusivity can be a powerful way to convince people to join. Facebook, which started out as private to one university, now has the biggest following of them all.

Sugarhigh
When you receive an invitation to this invite-only newsletter, you’re redirected to the landing page, where a counter displays the time you have left to register.

Signup-screenshot-88 in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: invitation only; sign up within 24 hours of being invited.

Turntable
Turntable is the red-hot music start-up that allows you to join rooms and DJ along with other people, mainly friends. The landing page says, “If you have a Facebook friend already on Turntable, you’re in!” This enables the company to grow the service organically, making sure that only like-minded people join and slowly adjusting and scaling up its servers. If you know no one on the service, you can leave your email address.

Turntable Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: exclusivity; social proof.

Tell a Story, Add Personality

Telling a story is a powerful way to interact and tell people about your product (and has a clear psychological aspect). Stories can captivate an audience, which is exactly what you want for your launch page.

Evertale
Evertale is an Android app that automatically scrapbooks your life. The creators explain this very visually as you scroll down the page. Your path is marked on a map, and when you reach the bottom you’ll see a call to action, where you can leave your details.

Evertale Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Evertale gives its elevator pitch as you scroll down the page.

It turns out that scrolling is a useful technique for making information engaging and telling a story. Check out these other services with slightly alternative approaches:

  • Ben the Bodyguard
    A Frenchman protecting your secrets is the theme of the viral launch page for this iPhone app.
  • Nizo
    Another launch page for an iPhone app. Notice how the page elements move around.
  • Kaleidoscope
    The landing page for a Mac OS app. Each major feature is given its own section.
  • Ala
    The landing page for a Swiss illustration and interface design studio.

The Last Rocket
Telling a story has a lot to do with authenticity and staying true to one’s purpose. The Last Rocket is 8-bit at heart and conveys it well on its launch page.

Last Rocket Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Story told exclusively in 8-bit.

Social Proof

Social proof (one of six “weapons of influence,” according to Robert Cialdini) can be a powerful and compelling way to get people to sign up for your service (or at least for the launch news). In a nutshell, the concept states that people will do what they see other people doing. We have seen this demonstrated with the viral invitation system used by Forkly and the social network-only system used by Connect.me. A complementary feature would be to showcase your sign-ups or Likes front and center on the home page.

Gidsy
Gidsy is an online marketplace, and as such it needs the trust of the community. Therefore, the company shows the love it’s gotten from real users on its home page, along with two key elements: a few explanatory words, and a sign-up form with a call-to-action button. You’ll find a button labelled “Host an activity” in the header, although the service is not yet fully operational. By checking it out, however, a lot of people will be convinced to come back once it’s ready to go.

Gidsy Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: copy with slogan; subscription form; call to action in the header; social proof.

Fellody
Fellody has taken quite an interesting approach with social proof and exposure. If you’ve signed up and uploaded an image to your profile, the picture could be included in the background of the home page.

Fellody is a music social network with dating elements, so showing off its members to prospective users makes sense.

Fellody Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: social proof.

Honestly.com
Right after you sign up (through Facebook), Honestly.com sends you an email showing your friends who have already signed up. It establishes trust in those few moments after sign-up, while helping you find people you know on the service.

Honestly Notification in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Elements: confirmation email (social proof, instead of the usual gibberish).

Fab
We saw earlier with Justin Bieber on Instagram how social proof from celebrities can create an instant surge in traffic and sign-ups. Ashton Kutcher, who actively invests in start-ups, knows this well. Whichever start-ups he invests in get not only funding but an instant push in visibility. Fab is a start-up that recently pivoted from Fabulis and has gotten funding from Kutcher among others. TechCrunch even did a celebrity endorsement face-off between him and Kevin Rose.

Fab Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Element: social proof from celebrities.

Sharable (i.e. Viral) Content

Another strategy for gaining traction ahead of launch is to create sharable or viral content. This could be anything that people want to consume and that solves a problem they have. (KISSmetrics covers the topic in depth on its blog.)

BestVendor
BestVendor shared a statistical document on its blog (“The Startup’s Toolkit”) that was picked up widely in the blogosphere and start-up world, which is exactly the market it is targeting. Its launch page, however, is a simple sign-up form for collecting email addresses.

Bestvendor Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
BestVendor shared its document “The Startup’s Toolkit.”

Visual.ly
Visual.ly spread around its video explaining what its service is about, along with its “Coming soon” page. The video was well done and for that reason was shared by others.

A good video is enough to get attention.

Fake Readiness and Skip “Coming Soon” Altogether

Recently, doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of these viral launch strategies. Some of the criticism questions how much a sign-up is worth if people don’t really know what they’re signing up for. Turning someone who has signed up into a user after launch could prove very hard. So, you could skip the “Coming soon” approach entirely and make it look like you’re ready for users to sign up. Make the launch page look like an actual landing page for your product.

By skipping the “Coming soon” page, you can test your idea on visitors directly. The goal is still to get as many sign-ups as possible, but in the process you are gaining validated insights into your start-up. Is your page ready, but no one is giving you their address? That’s a good sign that you need to clarify your vision.

Joel Gascoigne, who launched his start-up Buffer that way, has this to say:

“Treat your idea as a hypothesis that needs rigorous testing, and treat the emails as people who are happy for you to get in touch to discuss your product idea further in order to validate that it would solve a real problem for them and that they might actually pay. I don’t think the idea of having a conversation with the people who give you their email comes into the minds of new start-up founders enough.”

EyeEm
EyeEm currently has an Android app out in the wild. And if you browse the company’s landing page, you might assume that the iPhone app is ready to download, too. But if you hover over the iTunes button, it lets you know that it’s “Coming soon,” and then you can leave your email address on the dedicated iPhone launch page. You sign up for an email notification by setting up an account, so once the app is out, you’re already registered and ready to use the product (you will no longer see this, since the launch has now been done).

Eyeem Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
EyeEm’s App Store button tricks you into thinking that the iPhone app is available.

The OpenFeint Bluff
The developers behind OpenFeint, the social gaming network for iPhone, started with a bluff. They sent a press release to TechCrunch and got the blog to cover the story, which claimed that they were almost done and would be releasing the product soon. Only after many people signed up did they decide that building out the concept was worthwhile; till then, they had not written a single line of code. So, they worked away at it for 45 days straight. The company later sold for $104 million.

Websites That Respond to Visitors

Thermo
Thermo, the landing page for an iPhone “pocket thermometer,” does a great job of telling you what the app does and being responsive to you. It tracks your location, fetches the temperature there and then displays it in a graphic on the left. Moreover, the developers allow you to tweet the results (not unlike what Shuush does), thus gaining even more exposure.

Thermo Me Landing in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
Thermo responds to your location and temperature.

Sign-Ups as a Qualifier

Joel Gascoine proposes taking the conversation with prospective users to the logical next step. Whenever someone signs up or tries to sign up, you could give them a few questions to answer. There’s a thin line, though, between annoying visitors (and thus driving them away) and making them feel valued.

Monotask
Monotask asks subscribers key questions that will immediately inform its product decisions before launch.

Monotask Landing 1 in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
This looks like a normal, simple launch page.

Monotask Landing 2 in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
After you sign up, Monotask asks why you subscribed and how it can build a great product for you.

Joshua Porter analyzes Monotask’s implementation more in depth in this article “Using Your Sign-Up Form as a Qualifier.”

Make It Easy for People to Love You

The last and simplest advice is this: make it easy for people to love you. This love could be for any number of things: your design, your ideas, your approach. Or perhaps they just love that you make their lives easier in some way. Visitors will always reward you for that.

Akismet
One detail on Akismet’s home page is a good example of making people’s lives easier. When you right-click its logo, a window opens that asks you, “Looking for the Akismet logo?,” followed by links to download it. How many bloggers and journalists try to copy logos into their articles? I don’t know how many, but everyone will love you for such attention to detail and for making their life a little easier.

Akismet Logo in Elements Of A Viral Launch Page
When you right-click the logo, a pop-up lets you download files in different formats.

Conclusion

The strategies listed above provide a glimpse of how launch pages could be made more intriguing and shareable. Many of the start-ups we’ve analyzed have made use of various strategies to grow their numbers. Most importantly they built a service that people were interested in and they managed to share their vision among the right people making use of the viral loop.

But the list is by no means exhaustive and certainly the launch page was not the only reason the services took off. A well thought out placement in blogs, social media and among friends is often a necessary accompanying move. However: the launch page is always the first thing a potential user sees of a new idea and it would be wise to cater for the best possible conversion right there.

There is a lot of buzz around QR codes at the moment, so we thought we would take a look at some of the most creative and stunning QR code business cards on the web.

We love QR codes as they connect offline and online while challenging traditional design at the same time.

First of all, in case you have been living under a rock, let’s answer the obvious question. What the hell is a QR code?!

A quick response (QR) code is a two dimensional code that can be scanned and read by smartphone cameras to transfer information. The information can then be encoded to text, add a vCard contact, open a URL or much more.

So, by placing them on a business card, you can digitally pass on your contact details, direct people to a website, send them to a Flickr photo set or Facebook fan page or offer a special discount etc.

Hopefully the examples below will help to inspire you on how QR codes can be incorporated creatively in your designs. Or at least, provided a few interesting ways that they can be used to connect offline and online media.

Shelby Montross QR Code Letterpress

This card is a QR code that has been letterpress printed. It fits perfectly with more classic styling and design. Sweet.

 

Nightshade Labs

We liked this original card as it incorporates the companys’ beaker logo into the QR code (and yes it still works as well!).

 

Wanda Digital

The white QR code against the grey background on the back of the card matches the color scheme of the logo and looks great to boot.

 

Reblis

The QR code here is art in itself. Simple, but extremely artistic.

 

Big Fat Media

This card is on ultra-thick 4 ply cotton providing a premium appearance and touch. Absolutely stunning.

 

Perforated Business Card

We liked these cards from the Aquarius Club as each card has a QR code with meCard information of the person ready to be scanned and uploaded directly into a phones address book.

 

Peipei Yu’s Cards

We love what Peipei Yu did with not just the QR code itself, but the paperboard stand built in and box! Original, creative and fun.

 

Fridgehead

Cut out the QR code and it still scans…!

 

Tom Neal Film

We really liked the simple messaging on this card alongside the code. The rounded edges of the card also match the rounded edges of the QR code in the centre.

 

Digibrand

Beauftiful cards. The QR code sits nicely next to the cut out logo. The attention to detail on this card is really inspiring.

 

Soren Ragsdale

These cards are really clean and simple with no color. Yet they stand out!

 

23rd and 5th

Would you throw away business cards that looked this stunning? Thought not. The red QR code matches 23rd and 5ths logo perfectly.

 

Drew Hornebin

Drew included a couple of QR codes on this design with the logo in the background which shows off a real creative edge.

 

Kayma

Doko Dare used the QR code to direct users to their place page.

 

Casey Templeton

We really like the faded, old skool design on these cards. The QR code doesn’t look out of place at all.

 

Barefoot Media

Barefoot Media proudly use the QR code as part of their bold design.

 

Monkey Simon

Monkey Simon makes you want to scan it to know what it is…!

 

Stephanie Obodda

These minimalist cards are a real thing of beauty. Once again the QR code is the centre piece of the design and with amazing effect.

 

Tatadbb

These cards are really simple, but the combination of the extremely bright colors alongside the QR codes really draw the eye.

 

b-type design

The QR code IS the design in these cards. And they look great.

 

Metaform

The design by Mark Stokoe works perfectly with a code on the back. If you look carefully you may also be able to see the ‘M’ of the logo in the very centre of the QR code.

 

Social Bendodson

These cards are cool just because Zelda is on them… :-) .

 

Soul Visual

These cards put the code right next to the printed contact details. Online and offline pefectly catered for!

 

NightOwl Craftworks

These business cards are really cute and made us smile. The text alongside the QR code encourages you to take a picture and visit their website.

 

Geng Gao

The bright vibrant colors and QR codes just make you want to pick one up…

 

Lanec Technologies

These rounded edge business cards from Lanec Technologies include a code with contact information for each employee.

 

Marc Heatley

Marc used a lot of space for the QR code on these business cards, but it macthes the design and font perfectly to great effect.