I came to realize that the most inspiring, authentic design on the internet today comes from niche places.

As a designer, I’ve been following the herd for quite some time, as I used to observe the big-corps as role models. Whether I had to design a simple UI element, a marketing website, or search for inspiration—I've always returned to the same old and familiar places. Big Tech, best practices, pattern galleries. You know—the us(ual).

Popular products of tech giants we all know not only dominate the web, but they also stand as a dogma in the field of product design, serving as trendsetters.

Indeed tech has shaped our lives for a long time now. In the context of design, it played a significant role in forming the product design community as we know it today. The once-small community has grown into a genuine discipline: the importance of design has increased, designers are given a mandate in organizations, and we even got our title battles.

We should have reached our destination by now.

But once a culture matures, it starts to develop its bad habits. Throughout the years, some voices have criticized1 the state of the design community, claiming that it has lost its creativity: designers aim for eyeballs, and websites have become too predictable.

I share the feeling that our design tools, aesthetics, and communities have hit a plateau. The golden age of product design has faded, ushering in an era of boredom:

"The world of apps – once an exciting canvas for creative exploration – has become repetitive, predictable and… boring."

Andy Allen, No more boring apps

Standardization isn’t exclusive to the design industry. It’s an inevitable outcome in any emerging field combined with a technology seeking for a purpose.

When was the last time we got excited about a new smartphone?

When a new field emerges, experiments and ideas flourish. Innovation is at its best. But then it becomes dense, saturated with many of the same. Guidelines are being written, and conventions are being established. Excitement turns into boredom.

Innovation declines when a new field arise

However, it’s been a couple of years since I've started to witness more and more products leaning in a different design direction. Often weird, distinct, and perhaps most noticeable, niche. I call it niche product design, and it usually reflects in products that are:

  • Opinionated by design
  • A small team/individual effort
  • Niche focused

Like in Yancey Strickler's The Dark Forest Theory Of The Internet, I feel I must escape from mainstream culture in my quest to find authenticity in design. The best gems are hidden in the remote corners of the internet galaxy.

Growth pains

Why then do we need to travel so far away?

I find growth to be a significant force, limiting design at any startup pursuing scale. And while G-R-O-W-T-H is the holy grail in the industry, it has paradoxically become its Achilles heel.

The reality of common product design today is similar to the media industry. To reach a loftier number of audience (AKA rating), content is deliberately made simple and superficial, aiming to the lowest common denominator. As a result, the same trends, ideas, and practices are all over the place.

There’s this idea of smallness described by Ben Pieratt where he shared a retrospect on building his startup Svpply.

It has been stuck in my head ever since I stumbled upon it:

"We lost our soul and growth was slow and I failed to raise a Series A investment round and Ebay."

As companies grow, they gradually move from a state of fan-only to a state of a product for everyone. During this transition, dramatic changes occur, as the drive to satisfy more audiences and increase revenue. But eventually, this shift harms the core of the product. It becomes scattered, and the brand turns into a gigantic octopus, leaving people questioning its purpose and values.

The magic slowly fades away.

In a world that glorifies soaring revenues and celebrates the highest possible achievement of mankind—unicorns, it’s no wonder why generations of founders follow this path.

What if companies remained in the fan-only mode? I claim we would see not only great design evolve but also thriving small giants—businesses that aim for mojo instead of growth.

Where to look

Maybe it's just my perspective on the startup world that has substantially shifted, but looking at startups with more humble, realistic eyes has gotten me to discover the calmer world of tech. Bootstrappers, indie-makers, and even traditionally semi-funded companies challenge the status quo in product design.

It seems like businesses that pursue authenticity instead of growth at all costs are naturally in a position that allows a rare type of freedom. It’s the kind of freedom that lets, or even forces builders to break from corny design trends and patterns—where innovation happens.

It would be a shame to claim that established startups or large corporates don't invest in or aspire for exceptional design, but when decisions are influenced by financial considerations and stakeholder’s opinions, risk-taking, and innovation become constrained.

Builders who embrace the so-called indie/bootstrapped mentality remove themselves from the equation. Suddenly they’re out of the maniac race of competition, hypergrowth, and other famous startup evils.

Luckily, the World Wide Web is still Wide enough to discover new exciting stuff. And as designers, we don’t need to search far away. Our relative developer’s community is a great example of a thriving community where new technologies constantly arise, and open-source projects blossom.

Here are some of my favorite niche product design:

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: