When you’re redesigning a website, you look at tens or hundreds of other websites for inspiration. You see a lot of neat effects and edgy, new approaches. Many of those will turn out to be fads but a select few might be the start of a trend.

You don’t want to spend big money on your site for a fad but you shouldn’t ignore the latest trends. How do you know what to emulate and what to dismiss?

Fads From Way Back

In 1939, a Harvard freshman swallowed a goldfish on a bet. Local and national media blew up the story. Naturally, college kids across the country engaged in goldfish swallowing to try to top his one fish by 10 or 20. Then- like flag pole sitting and dance marathons before it- this novel new hobby was abandoned as swiftly as it started.

Fast forward thirty years and across countless other fads to 1975 when Pet Rocks debuted. Pet Rocks are basically just a large, useless pebbles sold in a box with decorative holes. Yet they were adorable and irresistible for six months. The same phenomenon happened with Hula Hoops, Tamagotchi and countless other collectibles and toys.

Fads happen when a lot of people adopt a behavior in a short period, their purchases and activities fueled by media hype and the fear of missing out on a novel experience. Fads start fast and don’t last.

A trend is a behavior that develops into a permanent change. Think about the wide adoption of environmentally friendly “green” technology. Despite faddish marketing, concern for Planet Earth and our limited resources is firmly established for many brands. With web design, you want to avoid fads and choose designs that embrace established trends.

The early Internet was full of web design fads. Remember hit counters, dancing baby animation and everything about MySpace? These days, embracing any of those cheese-balls will make your website look like spam. Even more nefarious than the dancing baby are some of today’s “not-quite fads.”

I say not-quite because these fads aren’t hastily purchased website toys. They’re often legitimate design innovations imitated by a web designer to juice a site with instant edginess and cool.

The Pinterest Effect

Pinterest-style sites are a prominent fad. The original idea uses a never-ending page to enable users to easily browse recipes, hair braids and other visual posts like they were window shopping. It has a very distinctive, masonry-inspired look. Online marketplace Etsy quickly redesigned its site to build on this idea. Microsoft’s Metro interface for Windows 8 uses a paneled menu, too. It’s pretty cool and both Etsy and Microsoft’s applications of the idea work well for their brands. Etsy and Microsoft are in on a trend.

When a cool web design idea is used without providing real value to the user, it becomes faddish. One university converted its homepage to a Pinterest-like stream of school news. It completely ruins the chances of a new student finding the “Schedule A Visit” button amid the clutter. It still looks cool but it’s the wrong idea for a business homepage.

Faddish Trends

Other fads include Flash animation, glossy Web 2.0 buttons and those pesky homepage sliders. In the original days of the web, websites built with Flash allowed for advanced animations and interactive features. Flash ultimately turned out to be a “me-too” distraction. The same thing is happening with the shiny, crystalline Web 2.0 look. These frills add no value to most websites. Homepage sliders are a slightly different story.

A slider can be super useful for telling one story, like a slideshow of your best vacation Instagrams. They’ve unfortunately been widely adopted by businesses as a shortcut to blasting visitors with multiple stories. Sliders are fine when used for the purpose they were built for, but faddish when overused.

You could say both skeuomorphism and “flat” design are each both fads and trends. Certainly, flat is the next movement in digital design, intended to streamline and ease the user experience. You can also find hastily “flattened” websites that are difficult to use. Skeuomorphism has a place when there’s just no digital substitute for a dial or switch. It looks painfully 2008 when applied thoughtlessly, so be careful when designing your site.

Three Keys To Avoiding Web Design Fads

  • Brainstorm and browse all the sites you can for inspiration. Find examples of things you like and dislike whether they’re fads or not.
  • Create goals and update your strategy. Cull your list of likes and ideas down to the things that achieve your goals. Keep the list of dislikes for reference.
  • Focus your web design on achieving your goals. Don’t do anything that doesn’t add value. That means you must say NO to dancing babies. I know- it’s hard.

Between web design fad and trend is a spectrum of ideas that all seem really cool at first sight, but it’s how you use each one that matters. Will your site be a Pet Rock or will it grow your business?