How to Redesign

I’d like to talk about redesigns. Specifically, the unsolicited kind.

Unsolicited redesigns are when a designer takes it upon themselves to redesign a site for free without having been asked by the company. I recently did a quick Quora redesign myself, and it prompted me to explore this topic.

Case Study #1: Zappos redesign by Metalab

Zappos redesign by Metalab

One of the main problems with unsolicited redesigns is that if you’re not careful, you’ll risk coming across as an arrogant know-it-all who thinks they can do a better job in a couple hours than a whole design team did in 6 months. This is what irked people about Metalab’s Zappos redesign. Calling the current website a “confusing mess” was probably not the most humble stance they could take.

But isn’t that arrogance justified? After all, their redesign did look much nicer than the original! Just look at all these pretty gradients!

However, the comparison is unfair. Unsolicited redesigns don’t have to deal with the same realities as the real deal.

Case Study #2: Facebook redesign by Jonathan Moreira

Facebook redesign by Jonathan Moreira

First of all, in most cases the redesign is only a static mockup. Can you really tell if the end result would be enjoyable to use? For example, Jonathan Moreira’s Facebook redesign looks awesome, but maybe that big black bar would get overwhelming in regular usage, or maybe the gradients and shadows would attract too much attention and make it harder to focus on the content.

Case Study #3: New York Times redesign by Andy Rutledge

New York Times redesign by Andy Rutledge

Second, in most cases redesigns can side-step business realities. For example, Andy Rutledge took the New York Times site as an example in his “News Redux” exercise (cached article). He achieves a clean and fresh look, but does so by doing away with a lot of ads that are probably necessary to the site’s survival, which would require changes to the company’s business model. Although in this case I agree with those changes, in the real world the design team probably doesn’t have the power to make them.

[Note] I initially wrote that Andy had ignored business realities, which isn’t true and is not what I meant. Sorry Andy!

And even if your version simply is better, maybe designers in the company are dealing with some other factors (politics, bureaucracy, etc.) that make it impossible for them to improve the design. Of course that shouldn’t stop you from volunteering a solution, but you should at least acknowledge that the problem is probably not lack of skills on the designer’s part, but simply different priorities inside the company.

Case Study #4: American Airlines redesign by Dustin Curtis

American Airlines redesign by Dustin Curtis

This is apparently what happened with Dustin Curtis’ redesign of American Airlines. Dustin acknowledged that the existing site’s main designer was pretty good, and the poor state of the site was due to other factors.

Case Study #5: Quora redesign by Sacha Greif

Quora redesign by Sacha Greif

So where does my own Quora redesign fit in?

Well first of all I tried to stay humble. I explained every design choice, and I let people vote on each of them. I never assumed that my version was objectively better, I just wanted to see what people thought of it.

And I also tried to keep close to the current’s site aesthetic and goals. There’s nothing wrong with being fancy and creative, but I feel it’s just too easy to achieve a meaningless “wow” factor when you’re taking liberties with a brand and going all over the place with colors and fonts.

I find it a much more interesting challenge to produce something that might conceivably be used for real. This is why I kept the same colors and fonts, and even kept the exact same width for the main content feed to make the hypothetical transition smoother.

So altogether, I think unsolicited redesigns can be a net positive, provided you keep a humble attitude. After all, there’s nothing wrong with throwing ideas around and debating different solutions to the same problem. As a community, we should encourage that kind of exchange and not worry so much about hurting the sensibilities of established designers (I’m sure they can take it!).

So let me know what you think about this. And I’d love to get your feedback on the Quora redesign, whether it’s good or not!

About Me

I'm Sacha Greif, a web designer freelancing out of Paris, France. You can check out my portfolio, and of course you should follow me on Twitter.

12 Responses to “How to Redesign”

  • Michael

    Really great post. I sometimes get a little annoyed at re-designs, they often seem to completely ignore so many contributing factors that influence designs.

    Also, as web designers, I feel we often place too much weight on aesthetics. Sometimes ugly websites work fine, sometimes a website does NOT need to be beautiful to WORK.

    A classic example is Ryanair. Their website would shock us, we would all agree it’s bad. But Ryanair are a massive airline and their incredible success is largely down to their website.

    It may be ugly, but it’s made the company hundreds of millions in revenue. So if it works and achieves it’s core objective, then perhaps we have to just take a step back, get off our soapboxes, accept it and leave it be.

    1 Nov 10:15 am
  • Lee

    I know from experience that sometimes a much more attractive and theoretically more usable site doesn’t actually perform that way in reality.

    Michael is right, beauty has little to do with function in most cases. Many times I’ve found it’s sites which are cobbled together over time and a bit of a mess actually convert better than more consistent sites where a great deal of thought has gone into usability.

    1 Nov 11:13 am
    • Sacha

      I think we need to be very careful with that line of thinking. There’s a big difference between:

      “Better design is not a silver bullet, in some cases you can improve design while decreasing conversion rates”


      “Sites which are a bit of a mess convert better than sites with great design”

      The first sentence is a good insight, but the second one is obviously false (or else, I’d like to see some data). I’m assuming you meant something closer to the first sentence than the second, but the way you put it is a little ambiguous…

      1 Nov 11:20 am
  • David

    I’d agree with Michael and with you, Sacha, only by saying that beauty (good design) and function need to work together. If either starts to take too much place (compromising beauty with function and vice versa), the website’s goal won’t be fully reached.

    Because beauty doesn’t need function to be beautiful and function doesn’t need beauty to work. If they are together though, it can make a difference.

    1 Nov 1:56 pm
  • Galen

    I’ve considered doing unsolicited redesigns in the past (Instapaper tops my list), but have never gotten around to them due to lack of time. I agree with a lot of your points, especially about MetaLab’s arrogant approach (although it should be illegal to have those guys’ talent).

    You’ve definitely given me something to think about if I ever try a redesign myself. Terrific article!

    1 Nov 2:39 pm
  • Jim

    Personally, I believe that unsolicited redesigns are great creative exercises, nothing more.

    In pretty much any field, if you’re providing criticism of ones work when they aren’t asking for any, it’s generally not well-received. If you’re going so far as to do someone’s job for them and thrusting it in their face, it’s nearly impossible not to step on a few toes.

    1 Nov 2:49 pm

    These all look pretty terrible to be honest, at best they’re just the same content with more over the top gradients and bevels and at worse they’re just terrible.

    Personally I think if you even do these redesigns publicly then you’re an amateurish and narrow minded designer, not to mention very unprofessional.

    2 Nov 11:29 am
  • Michael

    Variation about Facebook designed looks stunning!
    There is some few things I don’t like about the upper part, but everything that comes under the blue line is absolutely brilliant and would love to use this kind of facebook instead current version

    12 Nov 3:06 pm
  • Effective Website Design - 160 Articles of Autumn 2011 - PSD to HTML Blog

    […] How to Redesign by Sacha Greif (@SachaGreif): “Unsolicited redesigns are when a designer takes it upon […]

    1 Dec 7:56 pm
  • Monica

    I view site redesigns as a way for designers to exercise their creativity. If a redesign is presented as just another creative interpretation that is obviously inspired by the original site design, it may not come across as arrogant or trying to backstab the original designer or team.

    27 Dec 6:15 pm
  • Harriet Baumgarner

    I truly appreciate this post. I have been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thank you again

    8 Jul 10:08 am
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