Do Grid Systems and UX Limit Creativity?
Designers and developers have all heard about these great CSS grid systems that help us design better and build faster. With pre-built styles and clear guides, it's much easier for teams to collaborate and generate end products that are better, more stable, and responsive. We can even accomplish all of that in less time than we did before.
While grid systems have a multitude of benefits the question that always comes up in our creative department is "Are we limiting our creative thinking due to the need for UX explorations and usage of grids?" - currently, my answer to that questions is "it depends".
While I understand the need for guides and some kind of framework to base our work on, it's also clear that design and UX have become a lot more complex with the modern web. When designing for interactivity we can stretch page elements to full browser width, make entire sections behave differently depending on what device they’re being looked at, add moving parts that depend on browser scrolling and page positioning (we all know how popular parallax is right now), and so on. Most of these are complex use cases that can’t be replicated only with a grid. So yes, these frameworks can limit the way we approach elements on a page and how people interact with them. Therefore, flexibility is key. We need to use these grids wisely, but also know when to go beyond and understand how far you can stretch current technology to keep the experience accessible.
Web design as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore. It has evolved tremendously in the past 5 - 10 years and now gets called interactive, UX and multimedia design, and is not limited to the “web” anymore. It has to be planned for multiple operating systems and devices, and the user has finally become the center piece when thinking of design and usability. Responsive design, HTML5 and CSS3 play a big role in this new approach to interaction because these technologies are opening a whole new motion and interaction intensive technology that wasn’t around before - well, other than via Flash, but that’s another subject.
That being said, we can definitely say that UX and grids shouldn’t limit creativity. They have to be part of the creative process and should guide and evolve our thinking around how users interact with a given interface. Innovation should happen through interaction, and with the primary goal of helping users achieve their desired goal in the easiest way possible; guides and wireframes are there for guidance and structure, not to be the absolute rule.
This plays right into the “going back to basics” trend that’s been making waves recently across UI and UX design. Big players like Apple are striving for simpler user interfaces (no more skeumorphism on iOS 7) and flat design. This is being coupled with bigger fonts and heavy usage of imagery, which goes along with the idea that people don’t read anymore... they scan. So the easier we make the experience for users, the better results we will get from them. “Simplicity is golden”, but it can only be achieved with planning and great UI, which now are a definite part of the creative thinking process and design. And that is true whether you’re utilizing grid systems or not.