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AEC Website Design Trends – The New Normal

Many AEC industry leaders are working with websites that are 4–5 years old. What was once cutting edge and trendy (for the architects among us at least) may now be out of date.

Hinge’s research has shown that over 80% of professional service buyers check out a firm’s website during the business development process. And more than 20% of buyers referred to a firm rule out that firm based on an unimpressive website.

The lesson is clear: A website that’s behind the times is hurting your business

So how do you build the perfect AEC website for 2016…and beyond? My colleague, Sylvia Montgomery, and I will be hosting a webinar to talk about that in a couple of weeks. Today, let’s focus on the biggest website design trends we see for 2016. I think it is going to be a big year for AEC firms and their websites.

Website Design Trends for 2016

We’ve examined a wide range of websites, from smaller boutique firms with highly focused areas of expertise, to large firms with international audiences and service offerings a mile wide. We see some common design trends among the most effective websites that may be worth adopting.

Trend #1: Imagery
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AEC firms already understand the importance of photography when it comes to showcasing projects. As we head into 2016, we see something more. We are seeing the consistent move away from stock imagery or uninhabited project photography to more contextual storytelling imagery. There is greater appreciation for the importance of showing these projects in relation to the audience they hope to attract.

Whether its end users enjoying a beautifully designed space or a project team working together on site, imagery needs to be more clearly connected to overall content and messages. Although this requires an additional level of effort, it is a very powerful way to connect a firm’s story to the visual experience.

We also see an improvement in profile and “about us” photography. More polished environmental photography is showing a firm’s team in the context of their workspace and often with other members of their team. This tells a story that goes beyond a resume or bio.

The best examples of compelling imagery reinforce credibility (with a polished and professional workspace), collaboration (with other team members and open workspaces) and, perhaps most importantly, a connection to their audiences. In addition, prospective clients and potential recruits are more likely to engage if they can see that the team looks like their kind of people.

Trend #2: Infographics

While AEC has not embraced illustrations the way B2C or B2B sites have, we do see an increase in the use of infographics or simple diagrams to help convey key messages. This is especially true in the engineering space. The move is toward more basic representations.

The next step will be to infuse more creative illustration and culture into these infographics, telling the story beyond the data. This follows the trend in imagery moving beyond the single project or person. This trend will reinforce reputation and image—as long as AEC firms don’t start having fun with infographics. That would be completely inappropriate (though we have seen a few rare exceptions out there)!

Trend #3: Color and Visual Structure

We also continue to see a consistent trend in overall color and visual structure.

  • Open white space
  • Monochromatic with one or two light accent colors
  • Light typography

This trend often goes hand in hand with trends in overall brand design, but many AEC websites are becoming visually similar in this respect, with large dominant imagery, very light structural elements and a largely monochromatic color palette.

While this approach has benefits (including clarity and putting the focus on content), there may be opportunity to explore bolder color choices and messaging to differentiate.

We have also seen a positive move toward clearer calls to action and contact form placement, but there is still a lot of opportunity to integrate a more connected engagement model throughout most AEC websites.

SEE ALSO: 7 Deadly Sins the Best Professional Services Websites Never Make 

Trend #4: The Influence of Google’s Material Design

Its only a matter of time before Google finds a way for us to sign up for a new direct-to-brain connection. Today, we will have to be content with the massive influence of Google’s material design that sprang from Android’s UI in 2014.

Google is looking to get ahead of the curve when it comes to the increasingly wide array of devices we use to consume information. Moving beyond the “flat” trend that preceded it, material design aims to provide layering and flexible elements to aid navigation.

While we see the influence of material design in the latest crop of AEC websites, the majority do not use many elements beyond an adaptation of the “cards” approach to flexible content areas. These simple rectangular elements with images and text provide an easy way to “nest” content on a page or improve mobile responsiveness. Unfortunately, it’s easy to take it too far (too many cards or uneven arrangements) and end up with a layout that lacks clarity and makes it difficult to find specific content.

Material design concepts, such as responsive integration, re-prioritizing of mobile elements, and an emphasis on simple motion are less common design trends among AEC websites. But they are certainly worth considering in 2016.

Trend #5: Navigation and Mobile Friendliness

Navigation on AEC websites continues to move to a more straightforward approach. Engineering firms often must address a wide array of services and markets. This challenge is met with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, firms sometimes fall victim to what we like to call the “Pac Man” dilemma: the need to chase overly complex nested sub-navigation across a screen (never mind a mobile device). Others suffer from overly long primary and secondary navigation or confusing multi-layered approaches. The most successful approach is to use simple trays and a clear discipline when describing practice areas and markets served.

Architecture websites are more likely to offer non-traditional navigation that has moved toward over-simplification (especially for smaller firms). One architectural website design trend that we’ve seen is the move toward a mobile style navigation, hiding menus behind the “hamburger” icon (three stacked lines). This may make sense on a space-constrained mobile device, because it supports a minimalist aesthetic, but it makes a user work harder and can be disorienting as a user moves through a website since it does not clearly indicate what section a user is currently in.

One 2016 website design trend appearing on many professional services websites, is the “pinned” primary navigation. As the user scrolls, the main navigation remains at the top of the browser. Sometimes a simple animation will collapse or condense the navigation so it does not take up valuable visual real estate, while still offering a way to move throughout the site without scrolling back to the top of long pages.

Mobile friendliness is a requirement for 2016. As one of the most mobile-connected industries, AEC should be leading the way on in this area. Basic responsive websites or, at minimum, a mobile friendly version of your website ticks the checkbox, but doesn’t make the most of the opportunity. We predict the leaders in AEC will recognize this fact in 2016 and begin offering more mobile-specific website functionality in the form of streamlined communication, client and partner portals, and optimized educational content targeted for use in the field.

Trend #6: Portfolio, Our Work, Project Pages

I’ve saved the staple of our industry for last. Beyond the variations on standard galleries, narratives and project highlights, we’ve started to see some new elements and functionality take hold.

Project focused video

Whether it’s a simple photo montage with annotations or sophisticated 4D animations, videos are a growing and important media to include in an AEC firm’s “recent work” section. In prior years, the trend had been to create service or team-related video elements. This year, we expect to see the broader adoption of video as a standard way to tell a more compelling project story and increase visibility by connection to external channels like YouTube (officially the second most popular search engine).

Connecting teams and expertise

One positive trend we have seen is the increased connection between projects, the teams and experts involved in them, and related educational content. For AEC firms in particular, these are crucial connections to make. While saying “our people make the difference” is certainly not a differentiator, proving it and creating increased visibility for a firm’s experts and their educational content supports overall credibility and reputation.

Advanced filtering

Users can have a difficult time finding project experience that matters to them, or to their project at hand. The last trend I’ll mention addresses that issue through the use of advanced filtering options.

More and more we find “our work” or “our projects” sections that rely on tag-driven filters to allow users to sort results by industry, project highlights or region. The best examples give just enough sorting functionality to be useful, while the overall selection is not so overwhelming that the tool becomes a necessity.

What’s the right mix for your firm?

We’ve explored many of the emerging AEC website design trends we expect for 2016, but what does that mean for your firm’s website plans? Every firm has a unique approach and a new website project creates the opportunity to forge more meaningful connections with a firm’s audience and provide practical insights on what is most important to them.

I hope you found this list helpful and I’d love to hear from a few AEC firms during our live webinar on Professional Services Websites in a couple of weeks!  Drop me a line in the comments below and let me know what you think. Are there any more specific trends you’re seeing in your market?

Additional Resources

  • Our Lead Generating Website Guide details how your firm can generate qualified leads with its website.
  • Ensure that your website and content gets found online with Hinge’s SEO Guide for Professional Services.

How Hinge Can Help

Your B2B website should be one of your firm’s greatest assets. Our High Performance Website Program helps firms drive online engagement and leads through valuable content. Hinge can create the right website strategy and design to take your firm to the next level.

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Karl Feldman As the head of Hinge’s A/E/C practice, Karl brings over 15 years of insights to the Hinge team, with experience blending marketing strategy, execution, and creative leadership. His career spans retail, professional services, and A/E/C industries. Karl has held leadership positions at national brands including Director of Marketing at HITT contracting and The Healthy Back Store. His open and inquisitive nature is balanced by a hands-on approach working with teams from concept to completion.

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