Let's talk about the now famous "sheet of paper" design that 37signals claims as their own.
First, some examples
This blog is a great example of "sheet of paper" design in action.
What I'm referring to is a white content area (the sheet of paper) set in a sea of grey (or any color - soft grey is popular because it's a nice neutral tone). Naturally, the "paper" can be fluid or fixed width and as tall as necessary to fit the content; that's a given.
These are silhouettes of some of the same apps we've been talking about so far in this series. You'll notice the headers are all pretty uneventful... I probably should have cropped them from the snaps.
You'll see some of the designs are more "frilly" than others... The apps I've designed from scratch or been involved with (Beast and AutoRaptor) tend to keep it simple where as apps like Lighthouse and Boxcloud mix things up a little more by adding multiple bars of color, additional boxes of content, etc. At the core all these examples are still "sheet of paper" designs.
Here it is again, this time the bare minimum:
Did 37signals invent "sheet of paper" design?
I'm sure 37signals would like to claim that honor... but I don't know. Obviously fluid two tone/two column designs have been around before Basecamp was introduced... but did someone else float the content area before 37signals thought to? If you have the answer, please share it in the comments.
Why do people seem to like it so much?
It's clean, it's uncluttered, it provides natural design constraints, and I think it helps encourage minimalism and creativity within the space available. I've worked with apps that try and "box in" the entire layout and I just feel trapped... I've worked with apps that use 99% of the width beneath a tab bar for one giant column... and I just feel lost... I can't think with that much space.
I think most designers (websites and web apps alike) recognize that one large column can be a bit daunting. That is why we see so many two column app designs.
Does 37signals have a copyright on sheet of paper design?
Update: I've updated this section to remove any direct quotes of Jason from e-mail correspondence as some have suggested that might have been bad form. I've tweaked the content a bit as well to support my new quotes. I do still mention the discussion, just not quote Jason.
In their design piracy post Jason states:
We’re often victims of design piracy. Roughly once a week someone emails us with an anonymous tip that someone has ripped off our “UI look and feel” and is using it for their own site or their own app. It’s amazing what people and businesses think they can get away with.
From the Highrise Terms of Service:
In an e-mail discussion I had with Jason regarding Pastie and Beast he expressed frustration with the similarities to 37signals products and again mentioned that their designs are copyrighted. Of all the apps we've been discussing though I actually think Beast and Pastie happen to be the least similar to 37signals overall "look and feel".
It helps that they both have a much simpler header and that neither are very complex apps. Less on screen means less similarities. The most obvious thing that Pastie, Beast, and 37signals apps have in common is we're all using sheet of paper design. Judging from my e-mail exchange with Jason I think that 37signals does seem to interpret their copyright as also referring to sheet of paper designs in general.
Does 37signals have a copyright on sheet of paper design? They certainly seem to think they do.
Seriously, I'm not just evading the question. I'll be discussing the legal and moral angles of this in the next post or two. Stay tuned.