Design Darwinism:
Why some design patterns prevail

Nigel Moyes + Maisy Stratford-Hutchings
  7 minute read

Have you ever looked at a number of competing digital products and thought they all looked sort of the same? Why do so many eCommerce websites have a filter sidebar on their product listing pages? And why do so many iOS apps utilise a tab bar? A simple (and fun) way to think about it is with the idea of Design Darwinism: where a series of design approaches survive the test of time and become ubiquitous.

But what is Design Darwinism, and how does it help us create usable interfaces?

Who is Darwin and what does he have to do with design?

If you cast your mind back to high school biology, you may recall the concept of Darwinism: a theory of evolution put forward by the scientist, Charles Darwin. In (very) simple terms, Darwinism refers to the idea that evolution follows a process of natural selection, where the traits most likely to encourage an organism’s survival are passed on from one generation to the next, at the expense of whatever traits put the organism at a disadvantage. This theory is sometimes referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’.

The idea that the most successful or worthy characteristics win out over the weaker ones is a paradigm that has also been applied to economic markets, and it’s applicable to design, too. We call these enduring design approaches ‘design patterns’.

The reason certain design patterns seem ubiquitous is because they work. Time and time again, we’ve seen classic design patterns prevail, while newer trends have fallen by the wayside.

So what is it that makes these patterns so successful? And what does it mean for UX Designers?

The human brain loves patterns

We look for patterns everywhere. Our affinity with them, once again, links back to evolution: if you can distinguish a predator from a friend, you’ve got a better chance of survival.

Being able to identify patterns helps us learn, and reduces the load on our working memory (the amount of information we need to remember at any one time). If you look at a bus schedule and notice that the bus comes at the same interval every hour, you don’t need to remember the exact timetable. The same is true on the internet: if one design looks similar to another, you automatically expect them to work in the same way.

UX design patterns are a common language between users and designers. They are repeatable, reusable, and easily identifiable solutions to common UX requirements. Since the advent of UX as a field in the 1990s, designers have experimented with different styles and functionalities, and over time, some proved more effective than others. The more these styles were used, the more familiar they became to users, and eventually, a pattern was established. Users came to expect certain functionalities to appear in certain ways.

This is the reason UX designers so often revisit the same toolbox of styles and patterns: because they are familiar and expected, and when users are presented with them, they know what to do. It’s the reason the back button is always in the top left-hand corner of the screen, hyperlinks are always underlined, and that swiping right has the same connotation no matter what dating app you’re on. Users have been conditioned to expect these behaviours, and their brains automatically seek out the associated patterns whenever they use the internet.

What happens if we break the pattern?

Sticking to the same set of patterns time and time again can feel boring, though—especially for a designer. It can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and do something completely new, but straying from established patterns comes with risks.

Before you break a design pattern, consider the following questions:

Why do you want to break it?

For many businesses, their website is a core customer touchpoint. Maybe it’s where most of their sales happen, or the primary way people discover their brand. In these instances, UX is often weaponised as a way to get ahead of the competition. Everyone’s website looks the same, the executives say. Ours should stand out from the crowd.

The danger in being different, though, is that you end up breaking out of the paradigm users are already accustomed to. Instead of presenting users with a design they implicitly understand how to interact with, you’re giving them something entirely unfamiliar. And with unfamiliarity comes uncertainty. Where patterns create expediency, unfamiliar design elements slow people down. There’s even a fundamental UX principle built on this idea, known as Jakob’s Law:

“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” – Jakob Nielsen

There’s no point being bold and daring if what you’re doing ends up making your website harder to use. But, that’s not to say you can’t differentiate your site in other ways. This is where branding and UI design come in. By applying your unique brand colours, introducing branded illustration styles, or even using animation, you can surprise and delight your users without detracting from the functionality of your website.

How do you want to break it?

If you’re going to stray from a pattern, think carefully about what exactly you’re going to replace it with. There are a few scenarios that can occur when you eschew existing patterns:

  1. You replace one pattern with an analogous pattern

    Where two similar patterns or functionalities exist, you may be able to swap one for the other without too much impact to the user experience. For example, in a list of possible options, instead of asking a user to check the boxes that apply to them, you may use toggles instead. Because the cognitive model the user is engaging with is essentially the same (switching an item from an inactive state to an active state), this change can be made without disrupting the usability of the feature.

  2. You replace one pattern with a completely unrelated pattern

    Swapping out one pattern for one that is typically associated with an entirely different behaviour creates cognitive dissonance for the user. Imagine an account dashboard that asks users to adjust volume using a drop down menu of values from 1 to 100. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Because that’s not the behaviour we’ve come to expect from a toggle. Breaking the user’s mental model takes them out of their flow, and creates roadblocks in the user experience, putting conversion and customer success at risk.

  3. You do something entirely new

    Maybe you’re a visionary. You want to set a bold new direction for UX that changes the internet forever. More power to you. But amidst your revolutionary ambitions, be sure to keep usability principles in mind, too. A good starting point is to make sure your design aligns with Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics for Usability Design and consider how intuitive the experience is. Whenever you design something new, ask yourself how easily a user will be able to adapt to the experience, and if in doubt, consider creating an onboarding tool or tooltip to help the user orient themselves to the feature.


Design patterns exist for a reason: they’re tried and tested methods of human-computer interaction, with established connotations. When you employ design patterns in your interface, you’re sending the user a clear message about how you’d like them to interact with your product or service, making it easy for users to navigate through the experience. Understanding why certain design patterns have survived so long helps put to rest any concerns designers or stakeholders might have about a design being predictable or unoriginal, and helps you understand where deviating from the norm can be beneficial, and where it’s best to stick to the status quo.

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